Understanding Ecology’s rulemaking to amend requirements for facility oil handling standards and vessel oil transfers 

This page provides detailed background information on Ecology’s rulemaking to amend Chapter 173-180 WAC, Facility Oil Handling Standards and Chapter 173-184 WAC, Vessel Oil Transfer Advance Notice and Containment Requirements.

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This rulemaking is a result of ESHB 1578 Reducing threats to southern resident killer whales by improving the safety of oil transportation (also known as the Oil Transportation Safety bill) which includes:

  • The legislature finds that a variety of existing policies designed to reduce the risk of oil spills have helped contribute to a relatively strong safety record for oil moved by water, pipeline, and train in recent years in Washington state. Nevertheless, gaps exist in our safety regimen, especially deriving from shifts in the modes of overwater transportation of oil and the increased transport of oils that may submerge or sink, contributing to an unacceptable threat to Washington waters, where a catastrophic spill would inflict potentially irreversible damage on the endangered southern resident killer whales.
  • Therefore, it is the intent of the legislature to enact certain new safety requirements designed to reduce the current, acute risk from existing infrastructure and activities of an oil spill that could eradicate our whales, violate the treaty interests and fishing rights of potentially affected federally recognized Indian tribes, damage commercial fishing prospects, undercut many aspects of the economy that depend on the Salish Sea, and otherwise harm the health and well-being of Washington residents.

Require all secondary containment structures (that prevent spilled oil from reaching the waters of the state) to withstand seismic forces:

WA State defines secondary containment in WAC 173-180-025 (32): "Secondary containment" means containment systems, which prevent the discharge of oil from reaching the waters of the state.

Secondary containment is critical to protecting the waters of the state, including groundwater. Primary oil containment is the storage tank or pipe wall. Secondary containment is the second – and the last – line of defense. The state knows what earthquake preparedness updates are needed and they should be required for all refinery and bulk oil handling facility secondary containment systems. 

Require all oil transfer operations to be pre-boomed (when safe and effective to do so):

WA State enacted requirements for advance notices of transfer operations and pre-booming oil transfer operations in response to an oil spill. The information provided in advance of an oil transfer helps Ecology regulate these activities and have the information needed to respond to a spill if one occurs. Pre-booming is an important oil spill mitigation measure. If a spill happens it is contained and more easily collected before it can oil shorelines and cause extensive impacts.

WA State’s oil transfer operation regulations went into effect in 2007 in response to the 2003 Foss Barge – Point Wells oil spill. Just after midnight on December 30, 2003, approximately 5,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil was spilled during an oil transfer operation in Edmonds. Because the delivering and receiving vessels were not pre-boomed (to contain the spilled oil) and also because the spill happened in the middle of the night such that hours elapsed before oil spill response containment and recovery could be initiated; in less than 24 hours of the spill, almost all the oil had moved ashore damaging 400 acres of the Suquamish Indian Reservation’s prime cultural and environmental lands, including salt-water marsh, old growth timber, beaches, and clam beds.

The state’s 2007 oil transfer operations regulations required the pre-booming of oil transfer operations, but left a loophole: pre-booming is only required for oil transfer operations that occur at transfer rates greater than 500 gallons per minute.

Additional information about the 2003 oil spill

Rate A vs. Rate B Oil Transfer Operations

Rate A oil transfer operations have a transfer rate greater than 500 gallons per minute. Rate A transfers require pre-booming IF it’s “safe and effective” – a determination that’s based on the current and weather conditions. Highly volatile products such as gasoline are exempt from pre-booming requirements. 

Pre-booming is not required for Rate B oil transfer operations which have a transfer rate of 500 gallons per minute or less.  Ecology staff have stated that when the law was enacted in 2007, the intent was for all cargo and fueling  operations to be included as Rate A transfers. However, cargo and fueling (bunkering) oil transfer operations do occur at transfer rates of 500 gallons per minute or less with no pre-booming required – a loophole too big to let stand. 

Oil transfer operations that occur over water in remote anchorage areas, and especially those oil transfers that occur without pre-booming are especially concerning because there aren’t the spill response resources immediately available like those that exist at terminals and refineries. If an oil spill occurs in a remote anchorage area, it takes time for oil spill response resources to arrive from other locations.

Oil Transfer Operations at the Anchorage Areas Near Vendovi Island

Anchorage Areas Near Vendovi Island

A good example of the increase in oil transfer operations and the increase oil spill risk and impacts are the anchorage areas near Vendovi Island. These five anchorage areas are adjacent to the locally protected Vendovi Island Preserve and Jack Island Preserve. The Vendovi Island Preserve is one of the wildest private islands in the San Juan archipelago and was a priority for permanent conservation for many years leading up to its protection in perpetuity by the San Juan Preservation Trust in 2010. In 2007, the Jack Island Preserve was protected in perpetuity by the San Juan Preservation Trust in partnership with the Nature Conservancy. The five anchorage areas near Vendovi Island are also in close proximity to the federally protected San Juan Islands National MonumentSan Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

No oil transfer operations occurred before 2014 (and none in 2015) and the number of oil transfer operations has significantly increased from two transfer operations in 2014 to 76 in 2021.

Vendovi Island Anchorage Areas – Total Number of Oil Transfer Operations 2014 – 2021

The total volume of oil transfer operations has also increased from 82,500 gallons in 2014 to 18,236,304 gallons in 2021.

Vendovi Island Anchorage Areas – Total Volume of All Oil Transfer Operations 2014 – 2021

The Rate B oil transfer operations that were not pre-boomed increased from two in 2014 to a high of 15 in 2020, and 13 in 2021; with an increase in volume from 82,500 gallons in 2014 to 705,567 gallons in 2020.


More information about oil transfer operations: 

Restrict all oil transfer operations to daylight hours when it’s not safe and effective to pre-boom:

Current regulations only require “restricting operations to daylight hours or favorable weather conditions” when Ecology issues conditional approvals of reports or programs. An important lesson that should have been learned from the 2003 oil spill is that spills that happen at night can delay the initial spill response. See the Seattle PI article above. The delays in spill response during the 2003 oil spill resulted in significant shoreline damages that may have been avoided if the spill had not occurred at midnight and if the spill could have been contained sooner.

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We live in such a pivotal time. Future generations are depending on us to protect and restore what will be their environment. We support the Friends because they tackle the issues that really make a big difference in our local environment, while also squeezing maximum value out of every dollar in their budget.

Ken and Mariann Carrasco

members, Orcas Island