Skagit County review: Proposed Tesoro project at Anacortes won't pose major harm

SEATTLE (AP) — Proposed upgrades at the Tesoro oil refinery at Anacortes won't pose major direct environmental harm, according to a county environmental review released this week.

The review by Skagit County comes after concerns raised by Native American tribes, conservation groups and others about Tesoro Corp.'s $400 million project at Anacortes.

Tesoro's plans include upgrades to help it meet upcoming federal fuel emissions guidelines. The Texas company also wants to produce a new product xylene, a chemical compound extracted during the refining process and used to make plastics and other synthetic products.

Dale Pernula, director of planning and development services for Skagit County, said the review found that "if there's a major spill there would be an impact, but the likelihood of that is low."

The review also found that increases in vessel traffic could contribute to cumulative impacts on endangered killer whales that spend time in Washington state waters.

Pernula said the review sets several conditions, including requiring Tesoro to put in place a monitoring plan for archaeological resources when it constructs three new massive storage tanks.

The refinery would produce up to 15,000 barrels a day of mixed xylenes for export to global markets. The project would add five vessels a month moving from the refinery on the Puget Sound shoreline to the Pacific Ocean.

The proposed project comes amid a larger debate in the Pacific Northwest around fossil fuels. Native American tribes and environmentalists have mobilized in recent years against a series of projects that would transform the region into a gateway for crude oil, coal and natural gas exports to Asia.

Tesoro says its Clean Products Upgrade Project will allow it to diversify its products mix and ensure the refinery's long-term viability, which in turn will benefit local communities with jobs and tax revenues.

Critics say they don't want to see the region locked for more years into burning more fossil fuels that contributes to global warming.

"We need to be phasing out oil gradually. You can't phase it out if you're making hundreds of millions in investments," said Eric de Place, policy director with the progressive Seattle-based Sightline Institute.

Tesoro is also partnering with Savage Companies to build a massive oil-export terminal along the Columbia River in southwest Washington. That proposal, currently before a state energy panel, has drawn opposition from tribes, environmental groups, some cities and a state agency over climate change and risks from oil trains.

Tesoro says there will be no increase in rail traffic because of the project upgrades.

Some have raised concerns to local regulators about increased vessel traffic, potential for more oil spills and impacts on wildlife and other natural resources.

Some worry about Tesoro's safety record, citing a 2010 explosion at the refinery that killed seven workers. Washington state regulators fined Tesoro $2.4 million in penalties. The company appealed to a state board, and last month a judge overturned that fine. The state plans to ask the state appeals board for a review.

"We are committed to safely, efficiently and reliably operating our Anacortes refinery," Tesoro spokeswoman Tina Barbee said in an email. She added that the company maintains spill prevention and contingency plans, holding 30 response drills a year.

She said the environmental impact statement released Monday by Skagit County was an important milestone.

The environment review is typically used as a guide by local, state and federal agencies as they make permitting decisions.

Several tribes including the Tulalip Tribes raised concerns that increased vessel traffic would interfere with their fishing areas, among other issues. The review found that project "is not expected to result in activities that would significantly reduce access to traditional fisheries."