On the one-year anniversary of the BP well rupture and rig explosion that led to a multi-million gallon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill into law in Washington Wednesday to enhance the spill response program here.
The new law, which relies on the Ecology Department to make new rules, should make it easier for crews respond to oil spills in stormy conditions and at night and help ensure volunteers and fishermen are on hand to help, actions supporters said would institutionalize lessons Washington’s learned from local spills and the BP disaster.
“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 the primary sponsor of House Bill 1186.
Ecology Department spokesman Curt Hart said Washington needs to take the threat of oil spills seriously because 15 to 20 billion gallons of oil are transported over state waters every year as cargo in tankers and as fuel.
The new law will authorize the department to strengthen the rules that tanker companies have to follow and pay for so 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.
That said, industry in the state has a good safety record, Hart said, and the state 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 last year 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.
One of the problems the state had containing the Dalco Passage spill, Wishart said, arose from the simple fact that it was discovered at night and response teams couldn’t fly over the spill and see how big it was until hours later when it was light. At that point, the oil had reached the shore and dispersed more widely, making it harder to clean up.
In terms of lessons 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.