Oil Terminals and Toxic Air Pollution

If you want to get a good understanding of the controversy over coal terminals in the Northwest, check out this excellent article by Aaron Corvin and Erin Middlewood, published this morning in The Columbian.

The original article includes more photos and links to many more details.

Uneasy neighbors: Proposed oil terminal fuels concern about toxic air in Fruit Valley

They live within walking distance of project site at Port of Vancouver

The last thing Fruit Valley resident Jacob Garcia needs to worry about is more air pollution.
Jacob, 18, was born with a rare condition — pulmonary hypoplasia — that left him with small lungs and few lung sacs.
While others breathe naturally, without even thinking about it, he draws air using supplemental oxygen.
So it’s an understatement to say he and his parents, Linda and Jake, are concerned about new toxic air emissions that would come with the oil-by-rail transfer terminal proposed at the Port of Vancouver.
“Arsenic, benzene, hexavalent chromium,” Jacob said, as he ticked off the chemicals that concern him. “It’s frightening to think about it.”
Like other Fruit Valley residents, the Garcias are grappling with the possibility of yet another set of chemical tanks, boilers and burners moving in close to a modest neighborhood that’s accustomed to sharing space with industrial employers. And while the potential for oil spills and other environmental calamities have been front-and-center in the public debate over the oil terminal, some in Fruit Valley worry about a different issue that’s drawn little attention — new sources of noxious air contaminants.
The $110 million project proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies would be within walking distance of their homes. As the Northwest’s largest oil transfer station, it would be a major source of revenue for the port and a creator of new jobs. Fruit Valley residents understand that. Yet, unlike the rest of Clark County, they’d face potential risks that would make people in any neighborhood uncomfortable.
At issue are the byproducts of the oil-handling process planned for the 42-acre site. For example, some oil will evaporate on site as it’s moved, including when train cars are unloaded and storage tanks are filled. Additionally, when oil is loaded onto ships, the crude will displace air and vapors inside the vessels’ holds.
To minimize emissions, the companies say, the oil terminal — designed to handle up to 380,000 barrels of crude per day to be shipped to refineries — will use “best available” control technologies, as required by state regulators. For example, floating roofs would be used at the storage tanks to curb emissions. And combustion equipment would control and burn the gaseous waste leftover when oil is loaded onto ships.
Air quality experts for the companies say a computer modeling analysis — conducted under stringent health regulations — show the oil facility will not pose a significant health risk to Fruit Valley or other Vancouver neighborhoods. The project’s air-quality impacts are “significantly below” acceptable levels, said Chris Drechsel, an air quality expert for Tesoro.
The companies express confidence their analysis will pass muster with the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, or EFSEC. The council will eventually make a recommendation to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say over whether the oil-handling facility gets built.
The proposed oil terminal faces a diversity of critics, from environmental organizations and a local labor union to a real estate developer charged with conducting a $1.3 billion redevelopment of Vancouver’s waterfront.
In Fruit Valley, air pollution concerns strike closest to home. For the Garcia family, assurances based on computer models aren’t all that reassuring. They and other Fruit Valley residents don’t have the political clout or the wealth to challenge the experts. But they’ve pulled together in the past, participated in public hearings, and given other industrial production plans hard looks. Now they’re pulling together again.
Eric LaBrant, president of the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association, is among those who see the value of the oil terminal’s good-paying jobs. The father of two children doesn’t necessarily oppose the project. But he and other residents are skeptical of the companies, perhaps especially of Tesoro, which has a trail of documented environmental and workplace safety violations. They want facts to come out. They want a comprehensive vetting of the project’s health and safety impacts.
“We’re talking about being able to live in our homes without getting sick,” said LaBrant.

Emission levels screened

Determining the quality of air, including the mingling of new sources of pollution with existing conditions, is no easy task.
But it’s a grave matter.
As the state Department of Ecology put it in a document spelling out how toxic air emissions are regulated: “Hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals are released into the air each year in Washington. Excess exposures to these chemicals can cause serious illnesses and premature deaths. Widespread exposure probably accounts for some of the occurrences of various types of cancers within our population.”
State and local air quality agencies run permit applications through a series of tests that assess the risk to human health. The first test measures whether emissions exceed initial thresholds, known as “small quantity emission rates.” These emission rates are based on worst-case assumptions.
Tesoro and Savage say their oil-handling process would give off 40 toxic air emissions. After the implementation of controls on emissions, 32 of the pollutants — 80 percent — fell below their small quantity emission rates, according to the companies’ analysis. That means those pollutants would not pose a significant health risk and, as a result, would require no further regulatory study. That leaves eight toxic air pollutants that may exceed emission rate maximums. Nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide irritate the lungs, making it difficult to breathe and increasing chances of lung infections. The other six may cause cancer: arsenic, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, benzene, diesel engine particulate and dimethylbenz(a)anthracene. Arsenic can also harm growth and development. Cadmium can also damage bones, kidneys and other organs.
Given the projected levels of emissions of these chemicals, Tesoro and Savage were required to conduct another examination. Their computer modeling crunched five years’ worth of data about wind speed and direction, took into account the proximity of neighborhoods like Fruit Valley to the oil facility and predicted the concentration of air pollutants.
In that modeling, the eight toxic air pollutants fell way below levels considered harmful to human health. They were so low in the Fruit Valley neighborhood that they’re “not even registering as an issue,” according to Drechsel, the air quality expert for Tesoro.
Eric Hansen, principal at the environmental consulting firm Environ, handled the air-quality evaluation for Tesoro and Savage.
Unless state regulators “find an error in our work,” Hansen told The Columbian, the decision to clear the oil terminal of its air-quality hurdles is “black and white.”
If the companies’ analysis is off — if it turns out that any of the toxic air emissions eclipse the acceptable impact levels — the oil facility would get kicked into a deeper level of review that considers impacts on human health. Such an analysis would take into account existing sources of pollution. Hansen said he doesn’t expect such further study to be required.
If state regulators agree, they’ll sign off on an air discharge permit, an important step toward EFSEC approval of the oil terminal.

Challenges to companies’ analysis

Some Fruit Valley residents are wary of the companies’ assurances. After all, their neighborhood already has more than its share of pollution concerns.
A plume of groundwater below houses there is contaminated by trichloroethylene, known as TCE, an industrial degreaser linked with cancer. The TCE is traced back to the former Swan Manufacturing, which began operations in 1956, and later to Cadet Manufacturing. In 2006, the Port of Vancouver acquired Cadet’s property on West Fourth Plain Boulevard and took over treatment of the TCE tainted groundwater.
In 2007, the state’s departments of Ecology and Health found TCE vapors were wafting into several homes. Since then, the authorities have cleared the indoor air. The port’s pumping and treating of the groundwater continues.
The neighborhood is near a number of other industrial plants, including Albina Asphalt. Southwest Clean Air Agency’s inspection reports for that plant on West Eighth Street list 49 odor complaints since 2010. Albina’s emissions include volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, according to its air discharge permits, which set limits on those pollutants.
It’s unclear how much pollution from these industries hangs in Fruit Valley’s air. Neither the Port of Vancouver, nor Southwest Clean Air Agency, nor the state Department of Ecology tests the air directly in the neighborhood.
The Tesoro-Savage air quality analysis is based on readings at monitors in central Vancouver, 10 miles away; on Sauvie Island, Ore., eight miles away; and locations in Portland seven and 10 miles away.
Emissions from the proposed oil terminal would add to the unquantified mix of pollutants the residents closest to the port’s industries are already breathing. And while LaBrant, the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association president, points out other industrial employers that have agreed to invest heavily in strict controls on pollutants, he doesn’t think Tesoro and Savage are going far enough to scrub the air of new toxins.
LaBrant runs his own credit and accounts receivable business from his home, less than two miles away from where those emissions will emanate. The school his two children attend, Fruit Valley Elementary, is less than 1.5 miles away from the proposed oil-terminal site. LaBrant combed through Tesoro and Savage’s EFSEC application and plugged the companies’ toxic emission rates into a spreadsheet.
He’s disturbed that eight different toxins exceed the initial thresholds after the best available control technologies are applied. The most excessive one — hexavalent chromium — is predicted to exceed the limit by 94.5 times.
He estimates that toxic emissions from the oil facility will average 195,222 pounds per year. That includes 106 pounds of benzene annually. LaBrant also challenges the companies’ analysis of wind speed and direction, noting it includes data collected from Pearson Field, roughly four miles away from the proposed terminal site.
The companies’ analysis “shows the wind blowing in a different direction” than it actually does in Fruit Valley, LaBrant said. He argues any wind study should take place in the neighborhood. “They’re not building (the project) at Pearson Field,” LaBrant said, “they’re building it in Fruit Valley.”
Tesoro and Savage’s consultants at Environ, including Hansen, said emissions will be much lower than LaBrant’s estimates indicate — an average of roughly 118,000 pounds per year. That’s because every piece of equipment at the oil terminal won’t necessarily operate at its highest permitted level during every hour of the year.
The consultants also said that emitted pollutants will break up and scatter, with wind patterns affecting where they end up. It’s the concentration of pollutants in the air — not the emissions themselves — that’s most important in assessing the risk to human health, Hansen said.
He said his analysis, which included an extensive and accurate wind study, found no significant risk to people’s health.
The oil terminal could well be safe, said Dr. Joel Kaufman, a University of Washington epidemiology professor. He said if all goes well — the materials are handled carefully, the emissions are curbed and monitored — “it can probably be done in a way that doesn’t contribute to excess cancer or heart disease in the neighborhood.”
“But the devil is in the details,” Kaufman said. “The question of determining health impacts in a community near something like this is quite a challenge.”

‘A beautiful community’

But it’s not just what would be put into the air that worries LaBrant. It’s what may come down on the neighborhood when it rains, potentially damaging soil and groundwater, he said.
LaBrant said his concerns have to do with the real-world impact of the oil-terminal’s emissions — not whether the emissions comply with what’s legally acceptable. “If the law says put a certain amount of poison into the air, that still doesn’t address the livability problem,” he said.
He’s urging EFSEC to take several actions. They include: measuring the cumulative impacts of toxic air emissions on human health over the oil facility’s initial 10-year lease; imposing stricter emissions controls than the companies propose; and requiring ongoing air-quality monitoring with results released to the public on a monthly basis.
LaBrant, 33, recalled living on the Gulf Coast, near petrochemical refinery operations, from 2001 to 2007. During that time, he said, his family suffered bronchitis problems. When they moved to Vancouver, those health problems went away. “I don’t want to go back to that,” he said.
The Garcia family shares LaBrant’s concerns. They live about a mile away from where the oil facility would operate. Linda Garcia, a Fruit Valley resident for 17 years who is the neighborhood association’s secretary, said the new jobs tied to the oil terminal could benefit Fruit Valley.
But she fears the additional pollutants will only make life harder for her son, Jacob. As a senior enrolled in Vancouver Public Schools’ Virtual Learning Academy, he aspires to study environmental policy in college. He may try for Western Washington University, following in the footsteps of his older sister, Marissa.
Linda said she wants Tesoro and Savage to listen closely to the Fruit Valley community, to see things from the neighborhood’s perspective. “They don’t live here, we do,” she said. “This is a beautiful community. The last thing we want is for it to be spoiled.”