State oil-spill law will push for better response efforts

Washington state lawmakers have approved legislation that strengthens the hand of the Washington Department of Ecology, as the agency continues to beef up the state’s oil-spill response capabilities. See reporter John Stang’s story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

Some of the specific requirements were stripped out of the original bill introduced back in January by Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. You may wish to review my initial blog entry in Water Ways Jan. 13. In place of detailed requirements, Ecology was given a strong hand to decide what kinds of equipment are needed for each area of the state, including Puget Sound.

In that sense, Rolfes’ initial goals for the legislation remain in place:

  • Require oil companies to have prompt access to state of the art equipment that is able to aggressively respond to potential oil spills.
  • Direct oil companies to stockpile spill cleanup equipment that can operate around-the-clock in the unique environment of Washington’s waters, with high waves and strong currents. The ability to handle spills even at night or in heavy fog is essential because every minute is critical in the early hours of a spill.
  • Ensure that the Department of Ecology conducts large-scale in-water drills to test our preparedness.
  • Require that local fishermen be trained to help respond to oil spills, before they are needed in an emergency.
  • Ensure that the industry works with local emergency management centers before a spill occurs.

Industry officials say the legislation was not needed, because the state’s oil-spill-response capability already was increased the past few years and additional requirements can be imposed as needed by Ecology. Like it nor not, when this bill becomes law, Ecology will find itself under a renewed moral directive to ensure that the proper equipment, professional personnel and volunteer responders are put in place.

Environmentalists will be watching closely to see how Ecology handles this new mandate, including a new level of planning and practicing.

“Unfortunately a large oil spill in Washington waters is almost inevitable,” Bruce Wishart, policy director for People for Puget Sound, said in a news release issued by House Democrats. “This bill will help better prepare the state to protect our shorelines, orca whales and other wildlife, as well as the businesses that depend on clean water, such as shellfish growers.”

According to marine mammal experts, a large oil spill is considered one of the major threats to the long-term survival of Puget Sound’s killer whales.

“This is another step in the long road to becoming the best prepared state in the nation when we have an oil spill,” said Jerry Joyce of the Seattle Audubon Society in a news release issued by People for Puget Sound. “Oil spilled in our beautiful waters threatens thousands of birds, marine mammals, fish, crabs and other sea creatures, as well as the well-being and livelihood of thousands of people.”

The other thing to watch is whether Ecology provides sufficient staff to oversee the additional contingency planning and inspections required by this legislation. The “fiscal note” for the bill assumes most of the work can be done with existing staff, but staffing levels have been difficult to maintain during the state’s economic crisis.

The vote on the amended Senate bill was nearly unanimous, as the only opponents were Republican Sens. Jeff Baxter of Spokane Valley and Jerome Delvin of Richland.

The vote on the earlier, and more specific House bill, was largely divided along party lines. Republicans who crossed over to vote in favor of the bill were Reps. Glenn Anderson of Fall City, Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup, Mike Hope of Lake Stevens, Kevin Parker of Spokane, Norma Smith of Clinton and Hans Zeiger of Puyallup. Christopher Hurst of Enumclaw was the only Democrat to vote against it. Members of the House will vote again when they consider the revised version.

One thought on “State oil-spill law will push for better response efforts

  1. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the oil spill protection law today. Here are some quotes offered in news releases:

    Gregoire:
    “Our state is already recognized for having one of the strongest spill prevention and response programs in the nation. But the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster illustrates the importance of being as well prepared as possible for a major spill. This bill helps ensure that Washington gets the best tools and equipment to mount an aggressive, rapid and well coordinated response in the event of a major spill in Puget Sound and other waters of our state. We are the first state in the nation to pass significant new legislation in this area.”

    Prime sponsor Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island: “Our citizens expect us to be able to respond quickly and effectively in the case of a large oil spill. To do so is key to protecting our quality of life and our economy here in Washington state, from the Columbia River to Puget Sound. This bill will help maintain our state’s evergreen legacy.”

    Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island: “Unfortunately, a large oil spill in Washington waters is almost inevitable. This bill will keep us prepared, so when a spill happens, we can protect our coastal communities as well as the businesses that depend upon their functionality through a quick and effective response.”

    Tom Bancroft, executive director of People For Puget Sound: “As a scientist who studied the devastating effects of the Gulf disaster first hand, I commend the legislature and the governor for putting these additional safeguards in place. Top priority is to keep oil spills from happening. But, if they occur, we need to minimize the damage by being fully prepared to respond to protect Puget Sound and Washington waters.”

    Bill Dewey, spokesman for Taylor Shellfish Farms and a member of Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association: “We have a lot of friends who grow oysters in the Gulf of Mexico who are still suffering the effects of the Deep Water Horizon spill. This legislation will better prepare Washington state to respond to an oil spill emergency so that a similar disaster can be averted in Washington waterways.”

    Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant to Friends of the Earth: “What the final bill lacks in specificity is made up for in heightened political attention to assure that Ecology’s rulemaking process is both prompt and protective of Washington’s increasingly endangered waters.”

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