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January 17, 2017

WA Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Ocean & Coastal Resources over Oil Terminal Development

Last week, in a unanimous ruling from the Washington Supreme Court, the Quinault Indian Nation, Citizens for a Clean Harbor, Sierra Club and Grays Harbor Audubon were victorious in their legal challenge in arguing that Washington’s Ocean Resources Management Act (ORMA) should be applied in the review process of coastal oil terminal development within Grays Harbor. 

Surfrider was an original party to the legal challenge in 2013 when the City of Hoqiuam and Department of Ecology found no significant impact of 2 of the 3 proposed oil terminals to be built within Grays Harbor. We filed a legal challenge along with the above partners to send the matter to the Shoreline Hearings Board, and they agreed that these projects needed to initiate a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process as part of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). More on the background of our involvement on this multi-faceted campaign can be found here. At that point we decided to step back from further legal action, while the other groups moved the issue forward. At question was whether the State of Washington’s Ocean Resources Management Act (ORMA) should apply in the review of these projects for their potential impact on marine habitats, fisheries, and the coastal environment. Despite an unfavorable ruling from the Court of Appeals, the groups kept up their persistence and advanced the issue to the Washington Supreme Court. In a huge ruling for ocean and coastal resources, fisheries, and recreation, the Washington Supreme Court agreed unanimously that this issue deserved further review under ORMA. You can read the full decision here: Orma decision92552-6 Opinion

Of interest from the ruling: “The purpose of ORMA is to carefully review development projects that involve nonrenewable resources and pose a risk of damage to the environment in Washington’s coastal waters. Because the entire purpose of respondents’ projects is to store and transfer fuel from Washington’s coast to Washington’s waters, the projects fit squarely within ORMA’s broad reach. Second, the proposed terminal expansion projects also qualify as”[o]cean uses” and “transportation” as defined in WAC 173-26-360(3) and (12). These projects will increase transportation of petroleum products over land and sea. To say they do not constitute ocean uses or transportation would be to improperly narrow the intent of the law. Finally, although not addressed by the parties, respondents’ proposed projects qualify as “coastal uses” under WAC 173-26-360(6). A plain reading of the rule shows respondents’ projects constitute coastal uses because they are facilities situated along the waters of Grays Harbor and involve using the coast to store and transport fossil fuel products.

Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” Washington Supreme court, January 12th 2017

This is a huge win for coastal advocates in a very important legal test for ORMA, and this ruling and legal precedent will have a major impact on new uses along Washington’s coast, especially those involving nonrenewable fossil fuels. So is this the final nail in the coffin for Oil Terminal development within Grays Harbor? We certainly hope so, and at the very least raises the bar significantly for oil development proponents. Despite this ruling, one of the groups Contanda (formerly known as Westway) still seems hell bent on threatening the existing 30% of Grays Harbor jobs that rely directly on a healthy marine ecosystem. Check out their PR spin in the Tacoma News Tribune.

Washington Chapters of Surfrider continue to believe that developing oil export terminals within the coastal zone is Not The Answer, and we will continue to monitor these unenlightened project proposals until the last nail is in the coffin.

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