Ecology tests oil-spill readiness in Puget Sound

Washington state officials were wondering if spill responders would be ready for an oil spill in Puget Sound this week, given that 26 of the most knowledgeable contract employees had been sent to assist in the Gulf of Mexico.

So officials with the Washington Department of Ecology announced a surprise drill today, calling on Marine Spill Response Corporation and its subcontractors to respond to six pretend spills all at the same time.

“This was the first time we have ever been involved in a simultaneous unannounced drill in multiple locations,” said Curt Hart, media relations manager for Ecology’s spill program.

“It went very well,” Curt told me. “What we can say is that we have not lost any readiness in Washington. But nothing is perfect. There will be lessons to learn from every (spill exercise.)”

MSRC serves as the response contractor for 20 regulated oil-handling and shipping companies in Washington state. With 26 top-level people gone from MSRC in this region, much the responsibility fell to Global Diving and Salvage, a company that normally get assignments for specific tasks. In this case, Global officials played a key role in calling the shots.

Ecology had been stressing to MSRC that the company should send people to help in the Gulf but not if it had to reduce its response in Puget Sound. Today’s exercise tested that agreement, including the capabilities of Global as it “backfilled” for MSRC.

Hart seemed pleased with the outcome. First-level responders and their equipment were generally ready at the terminals where the simulated spills took place, and additional equipment was called into play.

The locations of the simulated spills were in Anacortes, Bellingham, Port Angeles, Seattle and Tacoma, with Neah Bay added at the last minute. The drill ultimately called out 16 vessels and 41 personnel. The drill tested communications and equipment.

“We held their feet to the fire,” Hart told me.

While today’s simultaneous exercise was a first, another 50 drills are scheduled through the rest of the year to test all aspects of the industry’s oil-spill contingency plans, according to Hart.

In addition to the drills, Ecology inspectors have conducted 23 inspections this year to make sure equipment is available and ready, he said.

With 22 billion gallons of oil transferred across Puget Sound each year, the risks of a spill are very real, Curt said, despite an extensive prevention program, which includes placing boom around ships during oil transfers whenever practical.

Ecology is maintaining a list of equipment and personnel requested or deployed in the Gulf oil spill.

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