Friends of the San Juans and Southern Resident Killer Whales Achieve Victory in Court

This week, Whatcom County Superior Court Judge David Freeman delivered a court victory both to Friends of the San Juans and to the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. “We’re very excited about this ruling,” said Brent Lyles, Friends’ Executive Director, “and it’s been a long time coming!” The issue started in early 2019, when the Phillips 66 Refinery applied to Whatcom County for permits to install a new 300,000-barrel storage tank for crude oil and an 80,000-barrel storage tank for fuel oil.

In reviewing the project application, Lovel Pratt, Friends’ Marine Protection and Policy Director, noted that Phillips 66 had failed to provide important information. More storage tanks usually mean more tankers, and Phillips 66 didn’t quantify the amount or types of vessel traffic associated with this project. That prevented Whatcom County from assessing the potential impacts of project-related vessel traffic on the Salish Sea ecosystem, including impacts to the region’s critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. Friends submitted comments; however, the revised Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance didn’t adequately address the project’s potential impacts to the orcas.

Friends of the San Juans appealed Whatcom County’s decision, and in November 2019 the Hearing Examiner’s decision modified the required mitigations to help ensure that this project will not likely result in significant adverse impacts to Southern Resident Killer Whales. Phillips 66 chose to file an appeal, naming both Friends of the San Juans and Whatcom County as co-respondents. In June 2020, the matter went before Whatcom County Superior Court, and this week we finally received a win for the Southern Residents. According to Judge Freeman, “the Court concludes that the hearings examiner did not exceed his authority in modifying the conditions in his final order” noting that “the record is significant with respect to environmental impacts of increased vessel traffic on resident killer whales.”

“Project applications that would increase vessel traffic in critical orca habitat should always be required to thoroughly address potential impacts,” said Brent Lyles. “Whenever possible, we need to reduce and not increase vessel noise and presence impacts, the risk of ship strikes, and oil-spill risks for this beloved and endangered population. This decision is an historic victory for the Southern Resident Killer Whales and the Salish Sea ecosystem.”

Learn more and read the judge’s decision.

Thank you to the Northwest Fund for the Environment and the Bullitt Foundation for supporting this legal work.

I look at the Friends of the San Juans as sort of like a guard dog. They are the first ones to bark if there is any danger to anything that needs protection. They are the ones that make the first sounds that say “Wake Up!”

Shaun Hubbard

member, San Juan Island and Seattle