As a spill preparedness manager for Ecology, this phrase may seem a way to lower tensions. But in a worst case oil spill preparedness drill, they are serious, high-energy words. About 10 times a year, we say and write this four-word phrase hundreds of times. Oil handling companies and vessel shipping firms in Washington must develop special “oil spill contingency plans” that describe the “who, what, when, why, and how” the firms will respond to an oil spill. We review and approve the plans but they don’t just gather dust. We conduct drills to test individual plans so we know each company is ready to effectively respond.
Our worst case drills simulate how a company would respond if a large oil spill happened during their operations. We also conduct tabletop drills, smaller in size and scope that focus on specific response readiness activities and equipment.
Our drills are critical. We get to see the strengths and weaknesses of each plan. Drills allow us to help companies improve their spill readiness. We get to work with private cleanup contractors and our local, tribal, state and federal partners. And it all works. The companies we regulate transfer over 12.5 billion gallons of oil over Washington waters annually. In five years, none have had a serious spill.
Unfortunately we also must say, “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Ecology is facing financial challenges. Our spill prevention and preparedness budget was reduced by $2 million. We had to cut 8 full-time positions. Our drill program has been hit especially hard. Worst case drills are expensive, complicated, and take a lot of resources. We coordinate with hundreds of people and manage tons of information. We have fewer qualified people to carry out our preparedness work. For the foreseeable future we won’t be able to plan for, participate in, or evaluate worst case spill drills.
It’s a tough decision but we had little choice.
On the bright side, Washington’s oil handling and shipping community and our public partners have a decade of carrying out a strong drill program. This track record means our temporary, short-term withdrawal hopefully won’t lower industry’s spill readiness and response capabilities.
What will Ecology do instead?
We are focused on keeping and improving readiness activities in the earliest hours of a spill. Actions in those initial hours can make or break a response. Although we’re reducing our role in worst case and tabletop drills, we are increasing our presence at deployment drills. These test response equipment readiness and effectiveness, equipment operator training, and equipment maintenance. Although we’re shifting resources, Ecology will still be meeting with our regulated community and conducting drills. To find out more details about changes to the drill program, please see our drills Q&A page.
It’s important we develop solid preparedness tools and keep our cool if an incident happens. My hope is that we will return to our old way of business soon while still enhancing Washington’s spill readiness. However, I want to hear from you about how future drills can best serve Washington’s spill readiness needs now – and in the future.