New bill would strengthen state’s oil-spill response

During last year’s oil blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico, I kept thinking about our home waters of Puget Sound.

I kept hearing reports about the conflicts and confusion among the state, federal and local governments operating in the region. I am fairly convinced that intergovernmental cooperation would be better in Washington state, because I have seen representatives of numerous agencies working together on blue-ribbon panels, high-level committees, contingency-planning efforts and oil-spill drills.

One big question that remains controversial is whether this state has enough of the right kinds of oil-spill response equipment in the right places.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island, announced legislation to address this issue. She offered her legislative proposal as the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill released its final recommendations about what went wrong in the Gulf and what should be done to improve deep-water drilling and oil-spill responses.

Rolfes offered these thoughts in a news release:

“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. We can take lessons learned from today’s report to protect our economy and environment.”

Unlike the vast Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound is a confined body of water, where oil would not easily disperse. The time it would take oil to reach our shores could be minutes or hours, not days.

The legislation proposed by Rolfes would be based on these key provisions:

  • Require oil companies in the state to have prompt access to state of the art equipment that is able to quickly and 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 the industry train and prepare local fishermen 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.

Although the commission studying the Gulf oil spill focused its effort on deep-water drilling, its report is a reminder that we all need to understand the risks involved with oil, wherever it is drilled, refined, transported and used. Visit the commission’s website to read the report and related documents.

In Washington state, the debate will continue over how much more should be done to avoid and respond to oil spills, especially as this new legislation moves forward.

Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association told Associated Press reporter Phuong Le on Tuesday that he had not yet reviewed Rolfes’ proposal. But he noted, “Washington state already has one of the best spill systems in the country and we’ve seen a significant improvement in reductions of oil spills.”

One thought on “New bill would strengthen state’s oil-spill response

  1. Hats off to Rep Rolfes!

    I have come to believe that by training and equipping resident fishers (emphasizing those that don’t go to AK) in a so called “vessel of opportunity system” we can make more of an improvement (cost-effectively) than by requiring more “dedicated” equipment.

    The reason for this that there are fishermen who live throughout the sound and are familiar with the waterways. They are also highly motivated to protect that which earns them their living. What’s most important is the speed with which the gear can be deployed from the time of notification and that the gear that is deployed is appropriate for the operating environment.

    While much has been said about how little new development there has been in spill response since the Exxon Valdez, the fact of the matter is that if the US simply required spill responders to use the same equipment that is built in Norway and used in the North Sea oil fields (see NOFI) we would be well ahead of the game.

    The folks in Prince William Sound rely heavily on fishermen deploying NOFI’s “current buster” boom that not only can be dragged through the water 3-4 times faster than regular boom (increasing encounter rate) but it also stores the oil in a cod-end that can be skimmed out. The only NOFI boom in Washington is owned by the Navy and they deployed theirs to the Gulf.

    Having said that, I do believe there is still room for technological improvements especially for rougher sea states we find in the Straits and coast. We are fortunate to have some excellent shipbuilders in the NW who could certainly design better equipment if there was a financial incentive to do so. This could be accomplished by increasing the State’s response requirements as Rolfe’s is trying to do and by making R&D funds available as the Oil Spill Commission recommends.

    On thing needs to be done for sure and that is to revisit dispersant use altogether. The State and Coast Guard have given the industry credit for dispersant stockpiles at the expense of improving mechanical recovery equipment when we are still not even clear on the impacts or efficacy of dispersants.

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