Wednesday, August 29, 2012

‘Tis Only Human to Spill...

(Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)
After Friends of the San Juans’ board member San Olson told me about a talk he was giving on risks associated with increased vessel traffic in our shared Salish Sea waters, I came across the photo on the left in the Peninsula Daily News. It accompanied a story about an oil-spill drill conducted last week around Port Angeles.

I recall one of the first field trips taken by the newly-formed Puget Sound Water Quality Authority in December 1985 was out to the Strait near Port Angeles where the Arco Anchorage, carrying 814,000 barrels of Alaska crude, went aground due to a navigational error, spilling 5,690 barrels -- or 239,000 gallons—of oil. (Tom Callis at the PDN wrote a good retrospective on the incident two years ago.)

A couple of images and sensations are still pretty fresh for me today: one is the smell of spilled oil, the vapors that permeate everything; the other is the sad frenzy at the bird rescue cleaning station set up at Peninsula Community College.

Since then I’ve never been to a spill that bad which was caused by a drift grounding or navigational error, thank goodness, but that may be due to subsequent progress in establishing better navigational oversight and stationing a stand-by rescue tug in the Strait. Since the rescue tug system went into service in 1999, there have been 46 times when the tug has responded to a vessel in distress. Neah Bay Emergency Response Tug - Summary of Responses

In 1999 the Coast Guard reported that: “The number of vessels greater than 300 GT in size transiting the Strait of Juan de Fuca is projected to grow from about 11,000 transits in year 2000 to over 17,000 transits in year 2025, an increase of 50%. Petroleum movements, including cargo oils and ship bunkers, are forecast to grow from about 360 million barrels in year 2000 to 457 million barrels in year 2025.” Use of Tugs to Protect Against Oil Spills in the Puget Sound Area

But San Olson told me one of the main points in his talk was that there’s a lot more vessel traffic on the horizon not anticipated in spill contingency planning by either US or Canadian agencies.

The proposal to export coal to China from Cherry Point near Bellingham would at full capacity fill approximately 487 large cargo ships making about 1,000 vessel trips through the waters of the straits.

Kinder Morgan of Canada proposes to export tar sands oil from Burrard Inlet and Burnaby near Vancouver and there’s consideration to expand tar sands export at March Point in Anacortes. If so, another 225 more oil tankers could pass through the Salish Sea annually.

I’m sure every precaution will be taken to ensure vessel safety and spill prevention if these proposals come to pass. But it’s only human to err— and to spill oil.

And we learn a few things from these spills. We learn that it’s a lot cheaper to keep the oil out of the water and prevent spills than to attempt to clean them up.

We got a lot better at handling reports of oil spills and coordinating spill response after the Dalco Passage oil spill in October 2004.

We put regulatory safeguards in place to keep oil out of the water when fuel was being transferred over water or between land and water after the Point Wells oil spill in December 2003.

And, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon debacle in 2010, the state strengthened spill contingency planning, spill equipment deployment and spill response training.

Which brings me back to the picture of the oil spill drill last week.

It’s certainly a nice summer day, calm and pleasant, and I’m sure the drill went well. The Arco Anchorage spill happened on a cold, windy December night. So did the Point Wells fuel transfer spill. The Dalco Passage spill was reported in the early morning hours before dawn as the October fog rolled in.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.

--Mike Sato

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