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A whale of a win for Southern resident orcas

  • Mon Apr 26th, 2021 9:37am
  • News

Submitted by Friends of the San Juans

On April 6, 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,” Friends’ Executive Director Brent Lyles said. “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, Friends’ Marine Protection and Policy Director Lovel Pratt 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 orcas. Friends submitted comments; however, the revised Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance didn’t adequately address the project’s potential impacts on 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,” Lyles said. “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 a historic victory for the Southern resident killer whales and the Salish Sea ecosystem.”

Learn more and read the judge’s decision at

About Friends of the San Juans

Friends of the San Juans is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring the San Juan Islands and the Salish Sea for people and nature. Founded in 1979, the organization has become a leading proponent of safe shipping, clean water, healthy forests and farmlands, natural beaches and resilient communities. Through innovative programs, Friends harnesses science, education, and legal advocacy to help protect what you love about the San Juan Islands and the Salish Sea.