Washington State House Democrats


State House unveils oil spill protection plan

As a federal fact-finding commission releases its report today on the BP oil disaster, environmental leaders in the state House put forward measures to keep Washington waters safe

OLYMPIA – Environmental leaders in the state House of Representatives today announced a proposal designed to prevent catastrophic oil spills and establish stronger spill-response plans in Washington waters. Legislators say that last year’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico exposed shortcomings in industry regulation and cleanup plans, underscoring the danger for the Puget Sound if such an event occurred here.

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill released its final report this morning, which sheds greater light on the breakdowns that led to the spill and hampered response efforts. Last week one chapter of the report was released in advance, finding that the spill was not the result of exceptional circumstances, “… rather, the root causes are systemic, and absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.”

“We may not have offshore drilling here, but we do have 4,000 tankers delivering 15 billion gallons of oil on Washington’s waterways each year,” said Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. “We can take lessons learned from today’s report to protect our economy and environment.”

Unlike the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound is a confined body of water, meaning an oil spill here cannot easily disperse into the open ocean. The state Department of Ecology has estimated that a significant oil spill could cause $10.8 billion in economic losses and affect 165,000 jobs in Washington, as the Puget Sound ports in Seattle and Tacoma together form the second-largest harbor in the country for container traffic.

Rolfes will soon introduce a bill that puts a series of expanded and new responsibilities on oil companies that operate in Washington waters. They will need to take greater responsibility, at their own expense, for the safe travel of oil tankers, with updated contingency plans and proper equipment in place for a swift, effective response in the event of a spill.

“This is about protecting our state’s economic interests. We need a healthy Puget Sound for economic success, tourism and recreation. In many ways, it defines our way of life here,” Rolfes said.

A significant aspect of Rolfes’ bill involves boosting the level and sophistication of dedicated spill-response equipment in Washington waters, such as investing in boom that functions in large waves and heavy current, and equipment that can detect oil at night.

Tankers traveling in Washington waters must also establish what’s called a “vessels of opportunity” system, which is an oil-spill response that involves a network of commercial fishing vessels and non-dedicated commercial vessels that are under contract, beforehand, to respond to spills. This was a lesson learned from the BP spill, where coordination occurred after the spill, leading to a chaotic and ineffective response.

Tankers must also establish a volunteer coordination system, working with a network of local emergency management centers and organizations that manage recovery volunteers. The vessels of opportunity systems and the volunteer coordination systems will undergo periodic, large-scale practice drills so that resources and skills are kept up-to-date.

“The state’s Oil Spill Preparedness and Response programs are facing the same budget difficulties as the rest of the state,” said Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, who will co-sponsor the measure. “It’s time for the industry to step up to the plate and be part of the solution.”