Action Alert: Comment to Protect Washington’s Waters and Communities from Oil Spills

The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) is updating WA State’s Oil Spill Contingency Plan (see also Chapter 173-182 WAC) that requires large commercial vessels, oil handling facilities, and pipelines to have detailed oil spill contingency plans for appropriate equipment and trained personnel to respond to spills that may occur. A draft of the updated rule is now available for public comment until October 6, 2019.

This update is required to:

  • Address response requirements for spills of nonfloating oils (oils that can submerge and sink) which include Canadian Tar Sands crude oils (also known as diluted bitumen or dilbit).
    • The Canadian government’s re-approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and its associated increase in tanker traffic through Georgia Strait, Boundary Pass, Haro Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca underscores the urgency of being fully prepared for the increased risk of a spill of nonfloating Canadian Tar Sands crude oils.
  • Enhance planning standards for wildlife response in the event of a spill.
    • This includes requirements for monitoring and deterrence operations to keep whales, including Southern Resident Killer Whales, away from a spill. This is critical as the Southern Resident Killer Whales could become extinct if they suffer the consequences of an oil spill.

Your comments and testimony are needed to ensure that Ecology requires the strongest possible protections from oil spill impacts. 

Click here to see the Friends of the San Juans Comment Letter.

How to Comment:

Comments must be provided in writing or as testimony at the public hearings listed below. The deadline for submitting comments is October 6, 2019 at 11:59 PM.

Written Comments:

Click here to submit written comments by October 6, 2019 through Ecology’s online comment tool.

Public Hearings:

Ecology did not schedule hearings in the communities that are most impacted by the current and projected increased transport of non-floating oils. It would be great if islanders could attend the nearest hearing which is in Everett on Tuesday, September 17, 2019. Click here if you’re interested in carpooling to the Everett hearing.

There are also two hearings the public can attend via webinar: Tuesday, September 24 at 1:00 pm and Thursday September 26 at 6:00 pm. See below for more details.

Date Time Location
Tuesday, September 17 1:00 pm

Courtyard Seattle-Everett Downtown, 3003 Colby Avenue, Everett

Thursday, September 19 1:00 pm

Ramada by Wyndham Spokane Airport, 8909 West Airport Dr., Spokane

Tuesday, September 24 1:00 pm Webinar and in-person at:  Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. 6th Street, Vancouver.


For audio: 1-646-749-3122 / access code 424089589.

Thursday, September 26 6:00 pm Webinar Only. For audio: 1-571-317-3122 / access code 696815493

More Information and Items to Comment On:

Improving oil spill response time is the most important tactic to limit the impacts of a nonfloating oil spill.

The 2018 Strengthen Oil Transportation Safety Act (E2SSB 6269) gave Ecology the authority and a clear directive to update oil spill contingency plans to specifically address the unique characteristics and risks of nonfloating oils. However, Washington’s oil spill response program has not kept up with the latest science associated with realistically calculating oil spill response effectiveness as well as the growing and changing risks nonfloating oils pose to our region.

Additional equipment and personnel must be prepared to be deployed more quickly to contain and collect the spill of nonfloating oil — before it begins to submerge and sink. Ecology must act now to establish the strongest possible protection from spills of nonfloating oils. This can only occur if Ecology uses a more robust, quantitative and realistic methodology to evaluate oil spill response capabilities.

Ecology’s own Preliminary Regulatory Analyses for this update states (on page 40):

Non-floating oil impacts

Additional coordination and preparedness for dealing with spills of potentially non-floating oils reduce the likelihood that oils will weather and sink before they are addressed. Improved preparedness for potentially sinking oils could have helped reduce damages and ultimate cleanup costs from the Enbridge Kalamazoo spill that cost $1.2 billion to clean up.

Update the table in WAC 173-182-324 (2) to include accelerated timeframes and details on the amounts and types of resources and equipment needed to respond to a worst-case spill of nonfloating oil. The nonfloating Canadian Tar Sands crude oils should be regulated commensurate with their unique risks and spill response challenges. The draft update requires additional but unquantified resources and equipment to detect, contain and collect nonfloating oils to arrive within 6-12 and 12-24 hours. These timeframes are not soon enough and the draft update provides no assurance that the amount and type of resources and equipment will be sufficient to respond to a worst-case spill (as is required by WAC 173-182-030 (48) and see also WAC 173-182-030 (70)(c)).

Current draft update of table in WAC 173-182-324 (2):

Time (hours) Capability
1 Initiate an assessment and consultation regarding the potential for the spilled oil to submerge or sink.
6-12 Resources to detect and delineate the spilled oil such as side scan or multibeam sonar, divers, remotely operated vehicles, or other methods to locate the oil on the bottom or suspended in the water column could have arrived.
Additionally, containment boom, sorbent boom, silt curtains, or other methods for containing the oil that may remain floating on the surface or to reduce spreading on the bottom could have arrived.
12-24 Resources and equipment, such as sampling equipment, necessary to assess the impact of the spilled oil on the environment oil could have arrived.

Dredges, submersible pumps, or other equipment necessary to recover oil from the bottom and shoreline could have arrived.

Additional requirements for respiratory protection as well as air quality monitoring need to be established to protect oil spill responders. There should also be requirements for notifying shoreline residents and businesses and providing public health and safety in the early hours of an oil spill.

Wildlife response operations require additional detail and capacity.

WAC 173-182-540 Planning standards for wildlife response

The draft update only requires two wildlife response personnel to arrive within 12 hours of a spill to conduct wildlife response operations, with an additional 7 personnel to arrive within 48 hours. An unspecified amount and type of deterrent equipment is also required to arrive on scene within 12 hours. It is essential that wildlife response actions are initiated as soon as possible. In particular, deterrence actions that keep wildlife from entering a spill are critical to have underway immediately following a spill.

WAC 173-182-540 (2)(c)(ii)

Southern Resident Killer Whales were listed as Endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, in part, because of concerns about potential oil spill impacts.[1] A report from the National Marine Fisheries Service states, “Their small population size and social structure also puts them at risk for a catastrophic event, such as an oil spill, that could impact the entire population.”[2] Southern Resident Killer Whales are the only killer whales listed as Washington State Endangered Species.

The monitoring and deterrence operations to prevent Southern Resident Killer Whales from encountering spilled oil should be required for all killer whales in order to provide certainty that Southern Resident Killer Whales are deterred from entering an oil spill. Whale scientists that specialize in Southern Resident Killer Whales and trained naturalists can identify individual whales and differentiate between the different killer whale species. However, unless the oil spill contingency plan is updated to require experts who can identify Southern Resident Killer Whales as an integral part of all whale monitoring and deterrence operations, there would be no assurance that if only some killer whales were deterred from encountering a spill, that those whales would be the Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Other whales listed as Washington State Endangered Species are Fin Whales, Sei Whales, Blue Whales, Humpback Whales, North Pacific Right Whales, and Sperm Whales. The oil spill contingency plan should also require that these whales be monitored and deterred from encountering and being impacted by oil spills.

WAC 173-182-030 Definitions (70), WAC 173-182-540 Planning standards for wildlife response, and WAC 173-182-840 Content submittal and review of spill management team (SMT) and wildlife response service provider (WRSP) applications

The wildlife response operations included in the draft update are unclear as to what “capture” entails. Wildlife response operations need to include both the pre-emptive capture and release of wildlife at risk of being oiled and the capture of oiled wildlife for stabilization and rehabilitation. Also, wildlife operations need to include the immediate removal of oiled carcasses. In all applicable sections of the draft rule, replace “wildlife impact assessment, reconnaissance, deterrence, capture, stabilization, and rehabilitation operations” with “wildlife impact assessment, reconnaissance, deterrence, pre-emptive capture and relocation of wildlife at risk of being oiled, capture of oiled wildlife, stabilization, and rehabilitation operations, and the immediate removal of oiled carcasses

WAC 173-182-510 Requirements for response and protection strategies

It is not sufficient to merely require the identification of water column and benthic species at risk from sunken, submerged, or nonfloating oil spills. The Contingency Plan update should require the wildlife response operations needed to specifically address the water column and benthic species that could be impacted by a nonfloating oil spill.

[1] Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Endangered Status for Southern Resident Killer Whales, Federal Register Vol. 70, No. 222 (November 18, 2005) 69903 – 69912

[2] National Marine Fisheries Service. Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation. (National Marine Fisheries Service West Coast Region, Seattle, 2016)

The 2015 San Juan County Oil Spill Response Capacity Evaluation includes important findings and recommendations that address deficiencies on the current oil spill contingency plan. These recommendations should have been included in this update, or at the very least, thoroughly considered.

The San Juan Islands require heightened nonfloating oil spill response capacity.

The San Juan Islands provide critical habitat for forage fish, salmon, and Southern Resident Killer Whales and are surrounded by major shipping lanes that transit narrow channels and navigational challenges such as Turn Point, all of which are in close proximity to shoreline residences and businesses. The increase in tanker traffic transporting nonfloating oils increases the risk of nonfloating oil spills. Oil spill response operations would be especially challenging given the swift currents and depths of the waterways. The importance of early and aggressive containment and collection of nonfloating oil spills and effective wildlife deterrence operations are especially significant in this biologically rich oasis of the State.

It wasn’t until 1979 that San Juan County got a comprehensive growth plan and that was largely due to the Friends of the San Juan’s being there to advocate for the shoreline and the ecosystem. Since then, there have been constant waves of pressure by developers. Friends have risen each time, fighting to protect this fragile and precious place.

Liza Michaelson

member, San Juan Island