The Northwest Clean Air Agency has fined Shell Puget Sound Refinery near Anacortes $133,000 for emissions and related odors released from the refinery last year.
The air agency, which regulates air quality in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties, announced the fine Wednesday.
According to a news release, the regional air agency received dozens of complaints in February 2015 about odors coming from the refinery, and found after investigating that the refinery had emitted various chemicals and “failed to meet general duties to follow good air pollution control practices.”
The air agency concluded after a yearlong investigation that the refinery did not follow proper procedures when cleaning a flare at the facility, according to the release. When flares operate correctly they burn gases that pass through them, changing them into less harmful chemicals.
During the February 2015 incident, chemicals, including hydrogen sulfide and benzene, were released. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, those chemicals can cause a variety of health concerns from nausea and watery eyes to cancer.
The state Department of Labor & Industries previously fined Shell $77,000 for the incident, which exposed workers to the toxic substances.
Wind carried the emissions south through the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the town of La Conner, where hundreds of residents reported odors and symptoms including eye and throat irritation, headaches and nausea, according to the Northwest Clean Air Agency.
Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby, who is also president of the National Congress of American Indians, remembers the day of the emissions as one of panic.
While he was on a flight to Washington, D.C., Cladoosby said tribal members began reporting on overwhelming odor over social media, and he received calls and emails about the situation.
“Some of my tribal members had become ill and had to go to the emergency room that night,” he said.
According to the air agency, the tribe reported that 550 people who live and work on the reservation were affected, including 12 who sought medical attention and five who went to hospitals.
“I didn’t want this swept under the carpet ... I wanted to make sure that all the agencies that have oversight over the refinery did not just let this go unchecked,” Cladoosby said.
La Conner officials also wanted to see the incident addressed, and Mayor Ramon Hayes filed a complaint in March 2015.
Shell spokesman Cory Ertel said the refinery regrets the incident and has cooperated with the air agency throughout the investigation. In October 2015, the refinery used new procedures for maintenance of the flare, which went smoothly.
“Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our employees and community, and Shell prides itself in putting the safety of our workers and the surrounding community first, learning from all incidents, and continuously improving,” Ertel said.
The refinery has 30 days to appeal the fine through the Washington Pollution Controls Hearing Board, according to the release.