Action Alert: Require Whatcom County to Address Philips 66 Project’s Impacts to the Southern Resident Orcas

On Friday July 19, 2019 Whatcom County issued a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Mitigated Determination of Nonsignificance (MDNS) for the Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery’s proposal to construct a new 300,000 barrel crude oil storage tank and a new 80,000 barrel fuel oil storage tank. The new storage tanks would provide additional operating flexibility for manufacturing a new product, low sulfur marine fuels, in addition to the Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO – high viscosity, tar-like fuel) that will continue to be used by ships with sulfur scrubbers.

We support the refinery’s intent to manufacture the low sulfur marine fuels that meet the International Maritime Organization (IMO) 2020 fuel specifications. However, because the Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery (Phillips 66) did not provide direct answers regarding the additional vessel traffic associated with this project, Whatcom County did not address the additional vessel traffic’s impacts to Southern Resident Killer Whales and increased oil spill risk.

The critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales are not even identified in the SEPA checklist, in spite of the explicit requirement to “list any threatened and endangered species known to be on or near the site” (see WAC 197-11-960(5)(b)). Phillips 66, including its marine terminal, is located on the shores of the Area 1 – Summer Core Area of the Designated Critical Habitat for Southern Resident Killer Whales. Whatcom County’s MDNS does not address whether the project will adversely affect Southern Resident Killer Whales or their habitat (see WAC 197-11-330 (3)(e)(ii)).

Large commercial ships impact the Southern Residents’ ability to communicate and successfully hunt (using echolocation) for scarce prey.[i] Other impacts include direct vessel strikes,[ii] hearing loss and behavioral changes.[iii] Southern Resident Killer Whales were listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act, in part, because of concerns about potential oil spill impacts.[iv] A report from the National Marine Fisheries Service states, “Their small population size and social structure also puts them at risk for a catastrophic event, such as an oil spill, that could impact the entire population.”[v]

Ask Whatcom County to reconsider the MDNS threshold determination and:

  1. Require Phillips 66 to provide details on the marine vessel traffic associated with the manufacture of low sulfur fuel oil products.
  2. Specifically address the project’s vessel traffic’s adverse impacts to the critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.
  3. Specifically address the project’s vessel traffic’s increased oil spill risk and associated adverse impacts to Southern Residents and also the Salish Sea ecosystem and neighboring communities.
  4. Ensure that this MDNS does not result in inappropriate piecemeal development at the Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery.

Please submit your comments by 4:00 pm on Friday, August 2nd via email to Thomas Brissenden at [email protected], using the subject line “File: SEP2019-00033.”

Please also call the Governor’s office at (360) 902-4111 or send an e-message. Ask the Governor to ensure that the permitting process for the Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery’s new storage tanks thoroughly addresses the project’s adverse impacts to Southern Resident orcas.

Tell Whatcom County and Governor Inslee why the protection and recovery of the Southern Residents are important to you. Thank you for taking action in support of the Southern Resident orcas!

For more information and click here to see the Friends of the San Juans comment letter.


[1] Veirs S, Veirs V, Wood JD. 2016. Ship noise extends to frequencies used for echolocation by endangered killer whales. PeerJ 4:e1657

[1] Ferrara, G.A., T.M. Mongillo, L.M. Barre. 2017. Reducing disturbance from vessels to Southern Resident killer whales: Assessing the effectiveness of the 2011 federal regulations in advancing recovery goals. NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS-OPR-58, 76 p.

[1] Holt, M.M. 2008. Sound exposure and Southern Resident killer whales (Orcinus orca): A review of current knowledge and data gaps. U.S. Dept. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS-NWFSC-89, 59 p.

[1] Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Endangered Status for Southern Resident Killer Whales, Federal Register Vol. 70, No. 222 (November 18, 2005) 69903 – 69912

[1] National Marine Fisheries Service. Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation. (National Marine Fisheries Service West Coast Region, Seattle, 2016)

Photo above by Chris Teren.

Joan and I love this tiny corner of paradise and know that Mother Nature needs all the help she can get. We are solidly friends of the Friends of the San Juans.

Jon and Joan Christoffersen

members, Shaw Island