Are we ready for next big oil spill?

Lack of secure funding threatens our ability to test spill response capabilities and a lot more

While Seattle sleeps, an environmental catastrophe unfolds in Seattle’s Elliott Bay.

A powerful ship loses its steering, and in the ink-black, pre-dawn of October 12, it collides with a tank barge pumping fuel into a giant container ship.

Aerial view of Seattle

Aerial view of Seattle from Ecology's marine monitoring  program, Eyes Over Puget Sound.

Several of the barge’s side tanks are punctured. A million gallons of oil spills into Puget Sound. Potentially, two million more gallons could quickly spill.

Early morning joggers in West Seattle can already smell it. The oil spreads across the bay, coming into contact with the feathers of marine birds. It’s beginning to slime the picturesque beaches of the Seattle shoreline. U.S. Coast Guard officers are already worried. How will they keep open a critical Washington port that delivers food and medicine to the rest of the world?

Oil sheen on water

Oil on water.

News helicopters are buzzing overhead. Social media is lighting up. Facebook and Twitter are popping with outraged comments. By midday, protesters line the beaches. Tribal members are dismayed.

How could this happen? The story goes national — international.

This is our biggest nightmare — the kind of catastrophic oil spill we work so hard to prevent and prepare for.

Thankfully, this disaster never happened.

In reality, this was a “table top” oil spill scenario we used to test a Seattle company’s oil spill contingency plan. In this case, more than 100 participants gathered Oct. 12 in Seattle to test how well the company and partners could respond to the fictitious spill. Besides the company, other partners participating included the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, state Department of Fish & Wildlife, a number of environmental contractors, and Ecology. Make no mistake, it was serious business.

Oil spill drills are part of contingency planning in Washington
People sitting at a table during an oil spill drill

Table-top, worst-case scenario spill drill held in Seattle Oct. 12.

This drill was literally a test of the company’s oil spill contingency plan, just one of the approximately 35 plans we review and approve for oil facility and commercial vessel operators across the state. We spent months ahead of drill day designing and organizing the drill with the company and other agencies so we could meet specific objectives within the plan.  It will take another couple of weeks to review what we saw at the drill and write our evaluation of the company’s performance.

We drill to help the oil industry be ready for spills

Outside of a real spill, which we want to avoid, drills are the best way for us to see firsthand the strengths and weakness of these response plans and improve them.

Each of the 35 facility or vessel plans we oversee are required to conduct three drills a year. This means that we design, attend, and write an evaluation for more than 120 drills annually. At many of these, response equipment is deployed — including boats, pre-positioned booming and pre-trained personnel, and contractors. Our oversight and evaluations provide consistent best practices we are able to carry across industry sectors and improve everybody’s plans.

Why it matters

A duck swimming in oil with oil on its bill

Oiled duck. Photo courtesy WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

The 2004 Legislature mandated that Washington have a “zero spills” goal, and as a result of everyone's collective work, we have one of the lowest spill rates in the nation. We don’t do this work alone. We work with many partners to make progress towards that goal. The oil industry is a big partner in helping us protect our state’s resources and economy, and to prevent oil spills from occurring.

Washington has a lot at stake. A large spill would change everything. We have one of the world’s most unique marine environments and a thriving economy. However, we live with the constant threat of a major oil spill. More than 20 billion gallons of oil is transported through Washington each year by vessel, pipeline, road, and rail.

Keeping our funding strong

We are working to keep our funding strong. We want to continue to fully participate in oil spill drills with industry.

Oil train cars rolling through Seattle

Based on information reported to Ecology, trains carry approximately 25 percent of crude oil that is transported in Washington.

We also need enough funding to carry out our legislatively directed 2015 Oil Transportation Safety Act. The Act was a significant step forward to protect Washingtonians from new oil spill risks, such as transporting oil by rail.

Without adequate funding, other important spill prevention and preparedness work is also at risk.

We are meeting with industry representatives to enlist their support for funding solutions we have in mind. We have a history of working together to build the successful program we have today.

Together, we want to find a reliable, equitable, ongoing revenue solution to support our oil spill prevention and preparedness work. We look forward to working with the Legislature, the governor’s office, the oil industry, tribes, and all stakeholders to maintain Washington’s spill prevention safety net.