The Swinomish Tribe constructed two air monitoring stations in response to complaints about toxic emissions from refineries wafting through their culture.

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BP and Phillips 66 refineries are located in the Lummi Reservation near Ferndale, and the US Oil refinery in Tacoma is located on the Puyallup Reservation.The Swinomish Tribe constructed two air monitoring stations in response to complaints about toxic emissions from refineries wafting through their culture

The Swinomish Department of Environmental Protection's Todd Mitchell claims that the tribe is one of the few in the Northwest that can detect dangerous air emissions.

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Environmental Justice

Mitchell spoke at a Gonzaga University conference on environmental justice in Washington state on Tuesday, saying, "Our native people spend a lot of time outdoors, and we want to make sure conditions are clean for them."

"We're all used to sheltering in place because of quarantine now, but it's not something we want to do daily for air quality," he added.

Shell Incident

Mitchell identified an industrial accident at the Shell refinery in 2015 that resulted in a large release of petrochemicals.

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He said, "The air release drifted right down over the reservation, and there was air deflation, so it sat on top of us for a while, and it influenced our people, particularly our elders."

Wind from the north brought a haze of hydrogen sulfide, dimethyl sulfide, mercaptans, and benzene into the Swinomish Reservation and the town of La Conner, according to the Northwest Clean Air Agency.

According to the CDC, hundreds of people complained of inflammation of their skin, throats, and lungs, as well as headaches, nausea, exhaustion, and a lack of appetite.

Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell, declined to comment on the incident.

"We have a long tradition of meeting or exceeding air emission requirements at the Shell Puget Sound Refinery, and we remain committed to working in a manner that ensures the health and welfare of our staff and neighbors," Smith said in an email. "As part of that pledge, we'll use the latest available monitoring systems, track pollution in real-time, and pay particular attention to maintenance."

Clean Air Initiatives

According to the company's website, Shell has invested $500 million over the last 15 years to ensure that its Anacortes refinery meets or exceeds environmental standards.

For the 2015 event, Shell was fined $133,000 by the Northwest Clean Air Agency.

Marathon Petroleum did not respond to a request for an interview. Marathon is a global pioneer in reducing refining pollution, according to the company's website.

The Northwest Clean Air Agency has released seven "notices of violation" to the Shell Puget Sound refinery since 2015 and ten to the nearby Marathon Petroleum refinery.

Going Mainstream

Advocates have long argued that policymakers should fix the emissions that mostly affect people of color.

Many states are now on board with placing the interests of poor, highly polluted neighborhoods first after a year of racial reckoning and four years of deregulation under the Trump administration.

Governmental Backing

The office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is recruiting an environmental justice attorney, and the city of Seattle recently hired a five-person environmental justice team.

Ferguson on Tuesday pledged his office's commitment to all groups in the state dealing with environmental injustices.

On Wednesday, Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler encouraged the insurance companies to only fund industrial ventures that have received tribal approval.

"We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to elevate environmental justice to a mainstream issue," said Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition activist Paulina Lopez.

She claims that the need for clean air and water in deprived areas is now seeing the support that other environmental issues have long received.

"Your fitness should not be determined by your ZIP code," she added.

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Presidential Support

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The Biden administration vowed on its first day in office to "advance environmental justice" and include it in all decisions.

In March, the Washington state Senate passed legislation authorizing seven state agencies (the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Ecology, Sanitation, Natural Resources, and Transportation, and the Puget Sound Partnership) to cooperate.

The state House of Representatives is currently debating the measure.

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