Preparing for a bad day: Oil industry practices saving wildlife during a spill

On July 12, 2018, 28 oil handling companies worked with expert contractors, to demonstrate just how ready they are to care for oiled wildlife, should Washington experience a tragic oil spill. 

Inside a large warehouse at the Satsop Business Park in Elma, neatly arranged tents and trailers held everything the experts would need to save oiled wildlife. There were areas set aside for medical evaluations, a laboratory, and all of the trappings to do the job — plastic wash tubs, baby cribs, playpens, pet carriers, blow dryers, cooling fans, and the secret oil-busting sauces: Dawn and Palmolive dish soaps.

A woman explaining how to clean oiled birds.

Michelle Bellizzi of International Bird Rescue explains the process to clean oiled birds. Hear her talk Ecology's short YouTube video.

Why it matters

Every year, 20 billion gallons of oil moves through Washington by vessel, rail, and pipeline. If something goes wrong, that oil poses a significant risk to our state’s environment. Washington is fortunate that it has not experienced a major oil spill for many years, but we are constantly preparing for the worst.

To be ready, we operate a robust program of prevention, preparedness, and response to protect our communities, environment, cultural resources, and economy.

Historically, Washington has experienced spills along its coast and inland waters. And when birds and wildlife get mired in toxic oil, the spill can quickly become deadly if spill responders don’t take action.

Why oil handlers have to be prepared in Washington

We require oil-handling industries that operate in Washington — such as facilities, pipelines, large commercial vessels, and railroads — to have oil spill contingency plans that detail how they would respond to an oil spill.

A man showing off an oikomi pipe

Andy Carlson of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife shows an oikomi pipe, which can be struck underwater to deter orca whales from an oil spill. Learn more about orca recovery. 

Their plans require them to conduct tabletop and equipment-deployment exercises, and, once every three years, they must demonstrate they can deploy equipment to help them respond to oiled wildlife.

The state Department of Fish & Wildlife also participates because it is responsible for overseeing responses to oiled wildlife.

Location, location, location

The exercise is always held in a location that is at risk for a spill. In this case, Satsop, near Grays Harbor, was chosen because of the vessel traffic off the coast and within Grays Harbor itself, a deep draft port.

Should the harbor experience an oil spill, there would be a lot at stake, including risks to nearby Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge supports large numbers of waterfowl, seabirds, and raptors. Bowerman Basin, within the refuge, is a critical staging area for shorebirds during their spring and fall migrations.

Another challenge is in finding a location that has the water and electricity to support the wildlife rehab effort. Oiled birds don’t just need medical evaluations, they need warmth, they need feeding, and they need lots of water for washing, and water-filtration tanks, so water can be cleaned and reused.

A plastic bird used for demonstration.

Fortunately no real birds participated in the day's practice.

The site also needs to be close to hotels, restrooms, and restaurants to support the wildlife handlers and volunteers. In the past, we've tested the mobile systems at fairgrounds and port facilities.

Large investment by the oil industry

To their credit, oil handling operators developed the mobile wildlife rehabilitation system in use today.

Practicing deploying the equipment represents a large investment by the oil industry. Industry pays to rent the location and brings staff to pass on knowledge about the equipment and how to set it up. The oil handling companies also hire expert wildlife rehab experts and response equipment contractors.

If you would like details about volunteering to help with an oiled wildlife response, find out more at