Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst: Increasing our readiness to respond to oil train spills

New, geographically localized oil spill response plans are dramatically improving Washington’s readiness to respond to spills, especially along oil train routes in Central and Eastern Washington.

In the second quarter of 2017, 14.4 million barrels of crude oil — or almost 605 million gallons — traveled through Washington in 21,139 rail cars.

What's at risk

Many of these rail routes travel along major highways, or run next to rivers or Puget Sound. A major accident or spill could put Washington communities at risk or cause major damage to the environment and the economy.

Our work to prepare for the worst is not new. For decades, we’ve prepared oil spill response plans for Puget Sound and other marine waters to make the state ready for an accident involving tanker ships and refineries. Now, we’re expanding this work to reflect the changing energy picture that’s led to an increasing amount of oil entering our state by railroads and pipelines.

Just three years ago, we had 19 plans that mostly concentrated on protecting shorelines in Western Washington. Now, we have 42 plans, and we’ve expanded across the Cascades.

This expansion is a result of the 2015 Oil Transportation Safety Act, and highlights Washington state’s efforts to protect people, the environment and our economy from new oil spill risks.

Six of the new plans cover areas on the east side of the mountains along oil train routes. Five plans in western Washington address potential spills from pipelines and railroads.

Map of Geographic Response Plans in Washington

Current Geographic Response Plan areas in Washington

Why it matters

Geographic response plans take a lot of the guesswork out of the response during the early hours of a spill. The plans signal where local authorities should place oil containment equipment and which agencies and governments to notify. The plans identify specific actions that can be taken locally to protect bird and fish habitat, wetlands, water intakes, fishing areas, fish hatcheries, boating areas and public parks and beaches, and cultural resources like petroglyphs, ancient tools and fish weirs.

The geographic response plans are also pieces of a larger effort that guides a coordinated response to oil spills in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

“Geographic response plans build on our focus to prevent oil spills to water and land and are part of our up-front planning that helps us deliver a rapid, aggressive and well-coordinated response to oil and hazardous substance spills wherever they occur,” said Dale Jensen, who manages Ecology’s spills program.

Here are our new and updated plans. You can also see them on our online, interactive map.

New plans

Updated plans

  • Admiralty Inlet –  extends from eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca to Foulweather Bluff
  • Hood Canal –  covers 704 square miles and is bounded the Hood Canal Bridge to the north, Quilcene to the west, Seabeck to the east, and Belfair to the south
  • Snake River - Ice Harbor – covers a 41-mile reach of the Snake River from the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the Lower Monumental Dam

Did you know?

Washington has one of the lowest oil spill rates in the nation, and one of the most comprehensive spill prevention, preparedness and response programs anywhere. We respond to about 4,000 spills a year. Visit our website to learn more about what we do to prevent, prepare, and respond to oil spills in Washington.