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Air agency: Shell refinery emissions sickened many

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By KIMBERLY CAUVEL: 13 April 2016

ANACORTES — Harmful emissions from the Shell Puget Sound Refinery in February 2015 could have been avoided had the refinery followed protocols, the Northwest Clean Air Agency announced Tuesday.

A yearlong investigation suggests Shell failed to follow shutdown and decontamination procedures while cleaning the refinery’s east flare system, according to a news release from the regional air agency.

The refinery allegedly took shortcuts in shutting down and decontaminating its east flare system, leading to the release of chemicals on Feb. 20, 2015, that affected hundreds in La Conner and in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

The Northwest Clean Air Agency sent a notice of violation to the refinery on Friday. Shell has 30 days to respond to the allegations before the air agency can begin to consider a penalty, according to the release.

The refinery received the notice Monday, according to a statement from refinery spokesman Cory Ertel.

The refinery regrets the impact the incident had on its neighbors to the south, according to the statement.

“We are committed to learn from this incident, and remain cooperative with all appropriate agencies to ensure this does not happen again,” the statement says.

According to Northwest Clean Air Agency documents, Shell may have flushed equipment with water once, rather than the required three times, and allowed water to drain from another piece of equipment for less than half of the required time.

“This incident sickened many people in the community, and people felt unsafe in their homes and at work,” Mark Asmundson, executive director of the agency, said in the release.

Shell’s alleged actions led to a surge of moist, chemical-laden gases moving through the flare line, extinguishing the flare flame and allowing the release of unburned chemicals, including hydrogen sulfide and benzene, according to the Northwest Clean Air Agency.

According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry the inhalation of those chemicals can cause a variety of health effects, ranging from watery eyes and nausea to death depending on the concentration and length of exposure.

The refinery’s air operating permit requires a flame be maintained to burn harmful chemicals, making them less harmful.

With the flare flame out Feb. 20, 2015, chemical emissions from the refinery were carried by light winds south through the Swinomish reservation and La Conner, according to the release.

Hundreds of people reported symptoms such as eye, throat and lung irritation, headaches, nausea and fatigue.

The Northwest Clean Air Agency received 67 complaints and followed up on 176 written accounts of more than 550 affected people who live and work on the Swinomish reservation. The tribe said 12 people sought medical treatment and five reported going to an emergency room or hospital following exposure to the emissions.

“Our inspector confirmed the extent and severity of this incident in the field,” Asmundson said in the release.

The agency’s notice of violation accuses the refinery of taking shortcuts leading to an illegal release of chemical emissions that negatively affected community members’ health, safety and welfare.

Following the emissions, both La Conner Mayor Ramon Hayes and Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Brian Cladoosby filed complaints with the Northwest Clean Air Agency.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, p:Reporter Tagline[email protected]p:Reporter Tagline, Twitter: p:Reporter Tagline@Kimberly_SVHp:Reporter Tagline, p:Reporter


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