Protecting the great Columbia River

Was the mighty Columbia River created by volcanoes, floods and earthquakes, or was it created by Coyote, who according to tribal legend, realized that there were salmon in the ocean and that people needed to eat them?

Did Coyote stage a large battle with a great beaver, backing the beaver up into the Cascade Mountains, where the beaver tail scraped out the Columbia River Gorge? Is this what opened up a channel from the ocean to bring the salmon to the people?

This tribal legend told in oral tradition, taken from a Northwest Power and Conservation Council Columbia River history report, is just one example of the rich cultural lore associated with the river.

Today, the river is this and a whole lot more. It’s a vital shipping corridor that benefits both Washington and Oregon, and our regional and international economies.

Three tanker vessels on the Columbia River

Bulk cargo ships at anchor in Astoria, Oregon. Photo courtesy of  Alex Butterfield, CC BY 2.0.

Keeping an eye on vessel traffic

Here at Ecology, we are watching vessel traffic on the river with an eye to protect it from oil spills.

Each year, hundreds of oil-carrying vessels enter the Columbia River to deliver more than a billion gallons of gasoline, jet fuel, and other petroleum products to ports in Washington and Oregon.

The river is a busy corridor. Oil-carrying tankers and barges share space with cargo ships, passenger vessels, recreational boats, and fishing vessels.

A big oil spill could not only harm the river, its shorelines, and the fish and animals that depend on the Columbia’s waters, it could also impact both states’ economies. The river could be closed to vessels that deliver goods and services to communities along the river, interrupting the region’s export of grain and other farm products.

A tanker vessel on the Columbia River

Chemical tanker heading to sea from the mouth of the Columbia River. Photo courtesy of Bruce Fingerhood, CC BY 2.0.

A spill could threaten both Washington’s and Oregon’s rich cultural and historic resources that lie along this vital corridor. Based on 2006 numbers, a large spill could cost Washington $10.8 billion and 165,147 jobs.

Many hands help keep the river safe from vessel mishaps. They include the Lower Columbia Region Harbor Safety committee, the Northwest Area Committee, the Sector Columbia River Area Maritime Security Committee, the Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots, and the U.S Coast Guard.

We recently worked with them all to complete a just-out report on Columbia River vessel traffic safety for the Washington Legislature.

A key finding is an obvious point — while the likelihood of a major oil spill on the Columbia River is low, the consequences are high to both Washington and Oregon.

Why we did the evaluation

As our energy picture changes, new oil-handling projects may come online that would increase the number of oil tankers transiting the river. Concerned about the potential increased risk of spills, the Washington Legislature directed us in 2015 to assess vessel traffic management and safety within and near the mouth of the Columbia River to determine:

• The need for tug escorts for vessels transporting oil as cargo
• Tug capabilities to ensure safe escort
• The highest level of protection that can be attained using technology, staffing, training, operational methods, while considering cost and achievability.

Spill prevention is a collaborative effort

Our evaluation showed us that the river has a robust set of safety standards already in place to reduce the risks of accidents and oil spills, but that more could be done to ensure we’re prepared should worst come to worst. Some of these safety measures are mandated by state and federal laws and regulations, while others are voluntary. For example, all tank vessels operating on the Columbia are required to have double hulls, reducing the likelihood of spills from collisions and groundings, but if tanker traffic increases, tug escorts could provide added protection to reduce oil spill risks.

Many partners participated as we conducted the evaluation, and together we generated a common framework for understanding oil spill risks and identifying potential risk reduction measures. A key recommendation in the report is that existing collaborative maritime safety programs are our best opportunity to prevent oil spills on the river and bar.

Keeping our spill prevention safety net strong

The safety evaluation is a valuable step in protecting both Washington and Oregon against future oil spills. The river is valuable and worthy of our attention. Just ask Coyote, the beaver, the salmon, and the people.

Read the full report online, access a brief focus sheet, and find additional information about our risk assessment work on our website.