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Physicians to Governor: No Permits For More Oil Storage

June 2015

Cover Story

Physicians to Governor: No Permits For More Oil Storage

by Bob Schober

Oil transport by rail through Washington state and Whatcom County has jumped considerably in the last three years, and brings with it a corresponding rise in the public health and safety risks associated with increased rail and ship traffic and oil tank storage.

That’s the conclusion of position statement of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, based in Seattle, and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. The group released it online in January and forwarded it to Gov. Jay Inslee on May 1 and Oregon Governor Kate Brown in late April. The physicians group urges the two governors and state agencies to “deny permits that facilitate the transport, storage and handling of crude oil by rail and/or barge.” Some Whatcom County physicians, including Dr. Frank James of Bellingham, are members.

As of May 22, WPSR members had met with both governors and their aides and had provided them with all supporting materials, but neither office had given a formal response, WPSR Executive Director Laura Skelton said in a telephone interview.

“We hope that by bringing this information to them, the governors will do everything in their power to prevent new storage and shipping facilities in this state,” Skelton said. The governors don’t have the authority to regulate railroads – that’s in federal hands – but they do have the power to deny these permits, she added.

Proposals on the Line

The baseline fact is this: three years ago, no crude oil moved through the state by train, whereas in 2015, an average 19 trains per week traverse the state bearing Bakken crude. If all the proposals for increased transit and storage are permitted, and if the federal crude oil export ban is lifted, that number could rise to as many as 137 trains per week.

Currently there are several permit requests for new or expanded storage facilities in the state. Tesoro-Savage proposes to build a facility in Vancouver, WA, that would be the largest such facility in the US, handling more than five billion gallons of oil per year.

In Anacortes, Shell Puget Sound Refinery wants to expand to accommodate oil trains to compensate for the falling volume of Alaskan North Slope crude coming by tanker.

In Hoquiam, WA, three companies plan to build facilities to store and ship crude oil. US Development Group has presented plans for a 42 million gallon tank farm of eight tanks located about 1,900 feet from Hoquiam High School and a bit farther away from an elementary school, according to the statement. The company has received initial approval from the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Imperium has proposed to build a 30.2 million gallon tank farm, and Westway Group proposes to build a 42 million gallon tank farm.

Trains Haul Oil, Coal and Health Risks

Most of those 137 trains feeding these proposed storage sites won’t carry mixed cargo. They will likely be longer (1.5 miles) and heavier, requiring more locomotives and, thus create more air pollution and diesel exhaust, considered a major public health threat. Diesel exhaust from trains and ships, according to the Washington State Department of Health, is made up of particulate matter which “can cause lung damage, worsen allergies and asthma and increase the risk of lung cardiovascular diseases.”

The physicians group extensively reviewed peer-reviewed medical journals and articles in preparing their argument. (You can read the full position statement on our website,

Dr. James practices medicine in Bellingham, is clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington and health officer for San Juan County and the Nooksack Indian Tribe. He, along with the 300 or so physicians from around the state who are WPSR members, signed the statement out of concern for the health risks that will grow with the rise in train traffic.

“The primary impacts I and many other doctors are concerned about include locomotive diesel exhaust, noise from rail transportation, risks of train derailment and either small or catastrophic oil spills and harm from increased railroad traffic,” James said in testimony before the Skagit County Hearing Examiner on Jan. 28, 2015. The hearing examiner conducted a hearing regarding a Shell Oil Company proposal for crude delivery by rail in that county.

In a telephone interview, Dr. James said that the health risks associated with rising train traffic will definitely affect locals.

“What we’ve seen through the studies is people living near the tracks will suffer increased risks,” he said.

Those could range, he added, from increased train and horn noise, which can increase blood pressure arrhythmia, stroke, sleep disturbance and resultant fatigue; increased response time for emergency vehicles blocked at crossings by longer trains; and diesel exhaust, which can cause lung and respiratory problems.

Diesel exhaust contains both gas and small particle soot. The gas includes carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other hydrocarbons. The soot, or “exhaust particulate,” as the statement puts it, includes organic compounds and trace metals. Diesel exhaust is classified as “carcinogenic to humans” by The World Health Organization’s Agency for Research on Cancer.

In 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency placed the Puget Sound area in the top 5 percent nationally for potential cancer risk from toxic air pollution.

And the WPSR position statement includes studies that show exposure to diesel exhaust increases the risk of lung and breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and the frequency and severity of asthma attacks in children. Exposure also causes higher rates of heart attack and stroke, higher rates of neurodevelopmental disorders in children and reduced sperm quality in men.

Vessels Bring Spills

Trains bring the oil, and vessels carry much of it away, and therein lies the increasing risk of a major oil spill in Puget Sound. Should the proposal listed above be finally permitted, an estimated eight or more Panamax-sized ships, each carrying up to 16 million gallons of oil, would make 16 or more crossings per month out of Bellingham, Anacortes, Grays Harbor and offshore from the mouth of the Columbia River, according to the statement.

And there have been tanker spills in this state. Port Angeles, 1985, 239,000 gallons. Grays Harbor, 1988, 231,000 gallons from a barge. Anacortes, 1991, 130,000 gallons from a refinery. And Tacoma, 1991, 600,000 gallons from a refinery.

The position statement includes a review of studies of the long-term adverse effects from exposure by cleanup workers and residents to eight major oil spills prior to 2010. The effects included shortness of breath, throat irritation, itchy and reddened eyes, headache, skin rashes and lesions, nausea and fatigue, among other symptoms.

The physician’s statement concluded with these words:

“The proposed increases in oil-by-rail transport and storage projects in Washington and Oregon externalize long-term threats to human, environmental and economic health in our states in favor of short-term financial incentives. The reality of these projects in their totality pose significant risks to the health and livelihood of future generations and the viability of our planet.”

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