Cherry Point facility expanded without permits, NWCAA investigation finds


A Northwest Clean Air Agency (NWCAA) investigation into Petrogas’ Cherry Point facility found the liquefied petroleum gas exporter expanded its facility without necessary permits. 

Beginning in 2015, Petrogas allegedly made a number of changes to its Ferndale facility that increased its railcar shipping capacity. Since those changes, the facility has increased the amount of propane unloaded per year from about 1,000 railcars to more than 16,000 in 2019, according to NWCAA’s investigation findings, which were sent to Petrogas and Whatcom County government. Ship traffic also expanded from 2 to 5 moorings, parking a vessel for loading and unloading cargo, per year to 26 in 2019.

The company could now face fines and/or further regulation from NWCAA and Whatcom County. Representatives from both the agency and county said all three parties are in communication with each other and negotiations could take months. 

In December 2020, AltaGas, an energy infrastructure company based in Calgary, Alberta, took over controlling interest of Petrogas. Through emissions self-disclosures submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NWCAA in May 2021, AltaGas notified both agencies that it had found an unpermitted venting of volatile organic compounds at the facility. NWCAA then launched its investigation, reviewing past emissions reporting records, site inspections and information collected from Petrogas. It found that between 2014 and 2019 Petrogas modified the facility’s method of operation to increase its rail and ship deliveries.

AltaGas spokesperson Stephanie Cook told The Northern Light in an email that equipment to reduce emissions at the Ferndale facility has since been installed. Cook also said AltaGas is also working with NWCAA and Whatcom County to review the permit history of the facility and ensure operations comply with or exceed applicable laws, regulations and industry standards.

“We are committed to operating Ferndale in a safe and responsible manner, and are focused on maintaining safe and reliable operations, protecting the environment and reducing our impact,” Cook wrote.

The facility is the only operating liquefied petroleum gas export terminal on the West Coast, according to Petrogas’ website.

These violations resulted in methane, ethane and volatile organic compounds emissions. According to the notice of violation, volatile organic compounds are precursors to ozone, which can be unhealthy to people with lung disease, children older adults and people who are active. Scientific studies have linked ozone exposure to airway irritation, coughing, difficulty breathing, inflammation, aggravation of asthma and permanent lung damage with repeated exposures.

Fortunately, NWCAA spokesperson Seth Preston said based on the agency’s air quality monitoring system, it does not believe the company’s emissions increase has been harmful to the community.

“We did not see any immediate health impact from the increased emissions from the vent at Petrogas,” he said. 

NWCAA is responsible for regulating such emissions in Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties. Companies must report emissions to NWCAA and are required to obtain a permit for expansions that would increase its emissions. 

Petrogas sought and was granted NWCAA’s permission to replace two aging compressors at the facility in 2016, but it failed to get permits for the expansion, according to NWCAA. The Washington State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) checklist submitted to the county for the compressor replacement project stated that Petrogas promised there would be no additional expansions and the project wouldn’t increase the facility’s railcar traffic. However, according to NWCAA, Petrogas quadrupled its railcar handling and was already underreporting its emissions.

NWCAA notified Whatcom County of Petrogas’ expansion as the county was the lead permitting agency in the 2016 replacement project and could be the lead agency in future permitting processes. 

Mark Personius, Whatcom County planning and development services director, said in an email the county is currently in an information gathering stage and is reviewing whether there are issues with the SEPA review. 

“We have also met with AltaGas to request additional information about Petrogas operations, past, present and future,” he wrote. “Once we have all the information about those operations and how they relate to Petrogas’ permitting with NWCAA and Whatcom County over the last five to seven years, we can better determine the regulatory compliance path going forward for the Petrogas facility.”


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