NW Readiness For Oil Spills Drops As Risks Increase

The Oregon Responder releases boom during an oil spill prepardedness drill in the Columbia River. | credit: Bonnie Stewart.

The Oregon Responder releases boom during an oil spill prepardedness drill in the Columbia River. | credit: Bonnie Stewart.

Originally published on OPB.

Written by Ashley Ahearn.

Every year, vessels carry more than 15 billion of gallons of oil and fuel through Pacific Northwest waters, putting Washington and Oregon at constant risk of spills that could cripple parts of their economies and devastate marine life and environmentally sensitive shorelines.

A major spill at the mouth of the Columbia River or in the Strait of Juan de Fuca could cost Washington state 165,000 jobs and $10.8 billion in economic losses, said Curt Hart, communications manager, Washington Department of Ecology.

Avoiding calamity requires readiness resources. Yet as oil tanker traffic is rising, Washington’s oil spill program is facing budget cuts. It lost 7 of its 77 full-time staff positions during the 2009-2011 biennium and expects cuts to its $29 million two-year budget in the next biennium.

Most of the new tanker traffic comes from the Alberta oil sands industry, which pipes oil into Canadian ports and pumps it into tanker ships that carry it through the Strait of Juan De Fuca on the way to Asia.

Plans for a second pipeline into Canadian ports could add even more traffic, but the added risk is not offset by Canada because the crude oil from Canadian ports is not subject to taxes that fund Washington’s spill programs, Hart said.

The risk is great, too. Each tanker can carry about 36 million gallons of crude oil and another million gallons of heavy bunker fuel to power the ship, Hart said. Should a tanker run aground it would meet a rough landing on a rocky shoreline, and depending on the conditions, even a double hull could be breached.

“In the blink of an eye, a mistake could be made and we would have a disaster,” Hart said.

PREPARING FOR SPILLS

Both Oregon and Washington require every company that operates ships in their waters to develop a plan it would follow during an oil spill. In that plan, company officials must list a “primary response contractor” they would call to handle a clean up. The states also require the companies to demonstrate that their plans will work by completing oil spill drills — equipment deployment drills on the water or tabletop drills on land.

WASHINGTON STATE DRILLS TAKE A HIT

In the past, Washington officials performed hundreds of unannounced drills with individual vessels each year. But the number of those visits has dropped significantly during the past two years. This year, the department estimates it will oversee about 55 unannounced vessel drills.

Surprise Spill Drills Decline

Preparedness declines at a point where having proper plans in place to combat oil spills is even more necessary.

Preparedness declines at a point where having proper plans in place to combat oil spills is even more necessary. Source: Washington Department of Ecology.

Unannounced major spill drills have disappeared completely. Ecology oversaw eight of them in 2005, but hasn’t performed any since 2007. They required 15 to 20 Ecology staffers from several department to drop what they were doing and do the drill.

“It’s very hard to do one of those with the resources we have,” Hart said.

The Department of Ecology has shifted its focus to drills everyone knows are coming. Those planned equipment deployment drills have more than doubled since 2006, from 41 drills to 88 in 2011.

A SPILL TEAM TESTS ITS EQUIPMENT

Julie Knight is part naval commander, part mother hen and director of the Island Oil Spill Association — a nonprofit primary response contractor that cleans up spills in the San Juan Islands.

On a recent Saturday, she gathered about 30 volunteers on Lopez Island for an equipment deployment drill in Fisherman’s Bay.

“If people need anchors let me know,” she said.

Knight laid out the plans for the drill and the group broke into four teams that spread out around the bay. Each boat was loaded with equipment and hundreds of feet of boom – those floating yellow curtains that corral oil and keep it away from sensitive parts of the shoreline.

“We’ve been doing this since 1988, and we’ve only had one year that we haven’t had a response,” she said.

The people participating in this drill have come from the surrounding islands. They’re carpenters and fishermen, retirees and teenagers, and most of them are not getting paid to be here. The boats, and the people driving them, are an eclectic mix.

The Island Oil Spill Association is a low-budget non-profit set up mainly to handle smaller-scale spills. They don’t have large skimming boats or miles of boom needed for something like the Exxon Valdez or BP Deepwater Horizon disasters.

But if a spill were to occur in the San Juan Islands, Knight and her team probably would be the first on the scene, followed by the Coast Guard and larger primary response contractors.

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