Updated vessel study helps Washington prepare for (and prevent) oil spills

Ecology has reached another milestone in our efforts to protect Puget Sound and the larger Salish Sea. We have completed a year-long effort updating the 2010 vessel traffic risk assessment. The new risk assessment is an in-depth look at ship traffic through Puget Sound — not just for oil tankers, but for all large commercial vessels that could pose a threat to our environment if they caused a spill.

What’s in the 2015 Vessel Traffic Risk Assessment?

The risk assessment provides updated information about the risks of oil spills from commercial vessel traffic operating on the Salish Sea. It also models potential impacts from planned future developments, (such as expanding the Kinder Morgan pipeline or opening a new marine terminal) as well as potential benefits from a variety of spill prevention measures. The work was directed by the Washington Legislature in the 2015 Oil Transportation Safety Act. Even though the report is new, it’s called the 2015 assessment because it is based on 2015 vessel traffic data.

Who developed the vessel risk assessment?

The assessment was conducted by principal investigators from George Washington University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Researchers at the two universities are experts in analyzing vessel traffic in waterways like Puget Sound and developing models showing potential risks and ways to address those threats. A workgroup with representatives from government, tribes, industry, and environmental organizations provided input and guidance to Ecology and the investigators. The assessment builds upon previous studies from 2005 and 2010.

Why is this important?

At Ecology, we’re proud of the fact that no major oil spills have occurred in the Salish Sea from collisions or groundings for more than 20 years. Having no accidents is no accident: This record is a result of a comprehensive safety regime that includes international, federal and state standards, and regional collaborative efforts by government, tribes, and stakeholders through forums such as the Puget Sound Harbor Safety Committee.

When it comes to the unique ecosystem and resources of the Salish Sea, however, we can never rest on our laurels. Our region is extremely vulnerable to the damage an oil spill could cause. Preventing oil spills requires continuing efforts, including building on what we learn from research such as the new risk assessment.

The bottom line

The modeling results in the 2015 Vessel Traffic Risk Assessment show that international and domestic vessel standards and current waterway management activities (like vessel requirements and inspections) dramatically reduce the likelihood of oils spills in Puget Sound and Salish Sea. That is good news, but should not stop our work: looking to reduce the risk of oil spills from ships and barges.

The risk assessment shows that there are opportunities for further reducing risk by looking at a portfolio of mitigation measures including tug escorts, stationing rescue tugs in key waterways, and keeping tanker tonnage restrictions in place. It serves as an excellent tool for tribes and stakeholders to use in future planning and budget efforts. You can access the full report or the 2015 VTRA Focus Sheet on Ecology’s website.