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Responding to oil and hazardous materials spills

Our response team is always ready to respond to incidents involving oil spills and releases of hazardous materials. The sooner we can respond, the less injury is done to Washington’s public health and safety, environment, and economy. We have teams based in Bellevue, Bellingham, Olympia, Spokane, Union Gap, and Vancouver to provide year-round, statewide, 24-hour a day response services.

Whether we are responding to chemical releases, motor vehicle accidents, grounded vessels, train derailments, or cleaning up drug labs, our top objectives are to ensure the health and safety of citizens, the environment and the economy. In Washington, we're designated to coordinate oil spills and hazardous materials response efforts by working with state agencies and local emergency response personnel on incidents that threaten or impact state waters.

When incidents happen we work to:

Control and contain the source of pollution

Controlling a spill or release can be as easy as plugging a hole in a tank or as complex as capping an oil well on the bottom of the ocean. For spills to water we often use booms, which are floating, physical barriers made of plastic, metal, or other materials to slow the spread of oil and keep it contained.

Clean it up

One way we clean up oil spills is by using absorbent material that is oleophilic — in other words, it attracts oil but not water. This material comes in a lot of shapes and sizes including rectangular pads, long, thick sausage-like rolls, and even shredded material that looks like cheerleading pom-poms. Another device we use to cleanup spills is called a skimmer, which removes oil from the surface of the water. Companies or cooperatives with equipment and personnel that respond to oil spills, called Primary Response Contractors (PRCs), can also be hired to aid in cleanup efforts.

When spills occur we work not only to clean the environment, but also any impacted wildlife. Oil and hazardous materials can harm wildlife when they breathe in the fumes, absorb it through their skin, consume it while feeding or grooming, or become coated or smothered by it. We work with wildlife professionals and trained volunteers to safely capture, clean, rehabilitate, and release wildlife, as diverse as birds and sea otters all the way to frogs and turtles, back into the environment.

Investigate the cause

We work with spillers to find the cause of a spill or release so we can identify things like procedure changes or equipment fixes that could help reduce the chance of another spill or release happening.

Assess natural resource damages

Whenever oil or other pollutants are released into the environment they cause injury to Washington's resources. Working cooperatively with spillers, as well as other federal, state, and tribal resource trustees, we determine the extent of those impacts using a process called a Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Restore our natural resources

Ultimately the reason we assess the extent of the environmental impacts is so we can determine what type and how much restoration is needed to restore our resources to the condition they would have been had a spill or release not occurred.

One of our responders shows the various types of spill response equipment and how each is used. Credit: Garratt Powers