New law will enhance state oil spill response

Gregoire: Ecology will apply lessons from Gulf disaster

April 21, 2011 

On the one-year anniversary of the BP well rupture that led to a multimillion gallon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill into law Wednesday to enhance the spill response program in Washington.

The new law, which relies on the Ecology Department to make new rules, should make it easier for crews to respond to oil spills in challenging conditions and help ensure volunteers and fishermen are on hand to help, actions supporters said would fill gaps in Washington’s response system that local spills and the BP disaster brought to light.

“My real goal with this is when we have a spill – and we will – that we all know we did the best we could to be prepared for it,” said Rep. Christine Rolfes, a Bainbridge Island Democrat and primary sponsor of House Bill 1186.

Ecology Department spokesman Curt Hart said Washington needs to take the threat of oil spills seriously because 15 billion to 20 billion gallons of oil are transported over state waters each year as cargo in tankers and as fuel.

The new law will authorize the department to add to the rules that tanker companies have to follow and to the equipment they have to pay for so that they’re ready to respond to spills.

Hart said Ecology gets about 3,800 reports of mostly minor spills per year, and it organizes about 1,200 field responses.

“We know that we can’t ever be complacent,” he said.

Frank Holmes, the Northwest regional director for the Western States Petroleum Association, said the oil industry in Washington already spends millions of dollars per year for pilots, tug escorts and spill response teams.

Holmes said he thought the bill would set up a good framework for improving spill-response rules, but he was disappointed that lawmakers were using the BP spill to draw attention to the issue.

“We don’t have any drilling in Washington waters, so to try to use that as an example of the risks, I don’t think is appropriate,” Holmes said.

In general, industry in the state has a good safety record, Hart said, and Washington hasn’t experienced a major spill since 2004, when a ConocoPhillips tanker spilled at least 1,000 gallons of oil in Dalco Passage near Commencement Bay.

People for Puget Sound policy director Bruce Wishart said the new law would apply lessons that the state learned both from the BP spill and from the smaller Dalco Passage spill.

“We realized that we really weren’t prepared for a large-scale spill in Washington state, and we didn’t want to be caught flat-footed like the people in the Gulf were,” said Wishart, who helped develop the legislation.

One of the most important things it will do, he said, is require the Ecology Department to develop new standards for the kind of equipment that tanker companies and the oil spill response businesses they contract with will have to keep on hand. These could include infrared technology to help response teams see oil slicks at night and better skimming equipment and booms to contain and clean up spills.

The Dalco Passage spill, Wishart pointed out, was discovered at night, and response teams couldn’t fly over the spill and see how big it was until daylight. At that point, the oil had reached the shore and dispersed more widely.

In light of lessons learned from the BP spill, the new law will require the Ecology Department to enact rules to improve the state’s vessel of opportunity system, or network of private boats that can respond to a spill, and develop a system for coordinating spill-response volunteers.

The Ecology Department’s new rules will be tailored to the specific situation in Washington, Hart said.

In many of the state’s water bodies, such as Puget Sound and the Columbia River, spills can reach the shore much more quickly than they can in the Gulf of Mexico, so the new requirements will be designed to facilitate fast reaction times.

Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826

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