Tag Archives: Exxon Valdez

New study refines Puget Sound pollution issues

A third-generation study of toxic pollution in Puget Sound claims to be the best estimate so far of total amounts of toxics entering Puget Sound each year.

New report on toxics in Puget Sound (PDF 7.3 mb). Click to download.
Washington Department of Ecology

As Craig Welch of the Seattle Times points out in a story today, it’s a big exaggeration to think that Puget Sound is suffering through enough drips and drabs of oil — largely from vehicles — to equal an Exxon Valdez spill every two years.

Craig is right to point out how previous studies overestimated the amount of several toxics. After all, politicians having been tossing around the dramatic Exxon Valdez analogy when it serves their purposes. Still, the total amount of oil or any other pollutant in Puget Sound is not really a good measure of the problems we face.

If you want to understand pollution in a waterway, it’s better to measure the concentration of the pollutant, see where that level falls on a toxicity scale, then consider how fish and other organisms are exposed to the pollution.

The new study for the Department of Ecology, titled “Toxics in Surface Runoff to Puget Sound,” analyzed 21 chemicals or groups of chemicals in 16 streams in the Puyallup and Snohomish river watersheds. The watersheds contain all different land types — commercial-industrial, residential, agricultural, forest, fields and other undeveloped lands. The idea is that researchers could extrapolate from these land types to represent all of Puget Sound. But such an extrapolation still requires a number of assumptions, which can throw off the estimates by wide margins.

At least we can say the latest study involved actual water-quality sampling. Previous estimates — including those that produced the Exxon Valdez analogy — were based on measurements of stormwater in other parts of the country.

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So you want to know about the Exxon Valdez disaster…

I wanted to write something today to recognize the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster. But I realized that many environmental reporters will be beating the bushes to put their personal stamp on a story that is now history.

Duck caught in oil from the Exxon Valdez.
Duck caught in oil from the Exxon Valdez
Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

Meanwhile, I’m rather snowed under by local stories that nobody else is working on.

So, in recognition of the anniversary, I decided to share some of the most valuable information I have found about the incident and its lessons for Puget Sound. You’ll find this information both deep and wide, as they say.

Let’s start with a story by Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News. The story outlines the status of various species affected by the oil spill, beginning with the AT-1 population of killer whales which has declined from 22 to 7 animals over the last 20 years.

These whales were already in trouble, affected by a declining food supply (seals) and high levels of toxic chemicals in their blubber — toxic chemicals that increase the risk of disease and decrease reproductive ability.

To make things considerably worse, some of the whales got caught in the oil 20 years ago today. Within a year, a third were dead. The oil did not cause the decline, but it may have accelerated the result, researchers say.

The AT1’s appear to be a remnant of a larger population with its own dialect and social behaviors, according to marine biologist Eva Saulitis at North Gulf Oceanic Society. Hopkins writes:

The depleted population won’t mate with other groups, Saulitis said. The remaining whales may be too closely related to have calves, and the two remaining females are getting too old to reproduce.

She estimates this group of whales will be extinct within 25 years.

Their distinct dialect of calls, such as the long, loud blast a lone male sounds when he’s separated from the group, will die with them.

The story also talks about the fish-eating AB pod as well as other species of sea life.

National Marine Fisheries Service also provides an excellent status report on the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill. You may wish to view a photo gallery or read about the status of injured species on the site.

The Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council also provides a 20th anniversary report and other information.

As for connections to Puget Sound, a fine investigative piece was written by Eric Nalder of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005. This kind of report allows the P-I to live on with significant meaning.

Much has been accomplished in Puget Sound since that report was written. See Washington Department of Ecology’s new release issued Monday and much more on Ecology’s commemorative Web site.

The organization People for Puget Sound has posted the recollections of people who remember the disaster.

Finally, if you’re short on time, radio reporter Ann Dornfeld of KUOW has put together a nice piece that reflects on the Exxon Valdez and changes in preparedness across Puget Sound.