Thursday, October 13, 2011

Spill Log: NZ oil spill and incidents at home

By Curt Hart, Communications Manager, Spills Program

Photo of the St. Elias barge incident, near Anacortes
A dry-cargo barge, St. Elias, aground five miles southwest of Anacortes, Wash., in Rosario Strait, Oct. 10, 2011.
Local communities along New Zealand’s North Island are bracing today for the potential impacts of a 450,000 gallon oil spill along that nation’s North Island.

The spill started October 5 after the Rena, a 775-foot Liberian-flagged containership ran aground on a reef 12 miles from shore. The grounding damaged the vessel’s structure causing the fuel tanks to leak.

More than 100,000 gallons has already spilled.

The dark oil is heavy and persistent, and responders anticipate the remaining 350,000 gallons will also likely spill. Wildlife experts have already collected 500 dead seabirds. Many more birds will likely perish without being found. To make things worse, bad weather has halted response operations.

It also raises the question: Could something like the Rena spill happen here?

Ecology works to prevent, prepare for, and respond to oil spills

In Washington State, thousands of commercial ships from all over the world transit over our waters every year. Our maritime industry is vital to the state, national, and global economy.

The Department of Ecology sets pretty high standards to reduce the likelihood the vessels will cause pollution problems, especially oil spills. We also make sure these large vessels can quickly respond to any spill that might occur.

This is important because an oil tanker can carry up to 36 million gallons of crude oil as cargo and large commercial freighters can carry up to about 3 million gallons of fuel to power its engines and other systems.

For the most part, our maritime industry is very responsible and takes oil spill prevention and response very seriously. They know the environmental, economic, and cultural costs of a major spill would be staggering. We’ve calculated that a major spill here could cost Washington’s economy nearly $11 billion and impact 165,000 jobs.

The last big oil spill to hit our waters happened seven years ago on October 13, 2004, when the Polar Texas spilled between 1,000 to 7,000 gallons of crude oil in Dalco Passage between Point Defiance and Vashon-Maury Island in Puget Sound.

We don’t need to go back 18 months ago to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to remind us of our vulnerability. Unfortunately, we had two incidents happen just this week that reminded us why we can’t be Pollyannaish about the spill risks to our state.

Monday barge grounding in the San Juan Islands

On Monday October 10, there was a lot of news coverage about the a 322-foot dry-cargo barge called the St. Elias that ran aground five miles southwest of Anacortes in Rosario Strait in the eastern San Juans.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Ecology are still investigating how the barge wound up on the rocks.

As part of the coordinated federal-state response to the incident, Ecology deployed emergency spill responders and vessel specialists to the scene. It is our job to help ensure no oil spilled. If it does, Ecology helps make sure the oil is rapidly contained and cleaned up.

Fortunately, the St. Elias barge wasn’t carrying very much oil but did contain explosives. And that meant the Coast Guard had lead authority over the incident with Ecology’s assistance. If there had been a spill or spill threat, we would have had shared responsibility for the response.

Ecology was surprised to learn that the St. Elias was carrying more than 18 tons of explosive military cargo. We were greatly relieved no one got hurt and that after an initial inspection the barge was able to be successfully towed to Indian Island near Port Townsend.

What didn’t surprise us was the 10-foot by 10-foot hole divers found in the St. Elias’ forward starboard hold. After all, it was a very hard grounding.

We were fortunate. The St. Elias wasn’t a fuel barge. It could have been — and if so, we’d be facing a similar-sized spill like the one going on in New Zealand — or possibly something even much worse.

Egyptian containership loses power, propulsion Tuesday

The following day, Tuesday October 11, Ecology was again working closely with the Coast Guard to monitor and manage another incident involving a large commercial ship.

The Edfu, an empty 728-foot Egyptian bulk carrier lost power and propulsion in the Pacific Ocean about 9 miles west of Cape Disappointment, near the mouth of the Columbia River. The vessel was on its way to Kalama, Washington, to load grain for export.

But in this case, empty doesn’t mean empty of oil. While the Edfu didn’t have any cargo, it was carrying 98,000 gallons of black fuel oil and 2,700 gallons of diesel fuel on board. We were worried the ship would drift and run aground creating an oil spill and a salvage problem.

Fortunately, the vessel was able to deploy its anchor Tuesday night. Yesterday, the vessel regained power but was ordered 25 miles out to sea, escorted by two ocean-going tugs. As a precaution, it stayed out a second night.

This morning, the Edfu crossed the Columbia River bar with the tugs and is now moored in Astoria, Oregon. No oil was spilled. But the incident kept Ecology busy planning for the worst but hoping for the best. And we certainly appreciate the way our Coast Guard partner went out of the way to protect our state.

We and the Coast Guard have boarded the ship and we will work together to find why the Edfu lost power.

Could it happen here?

So back to the question: Could something like the New Zealand spill happen here in Washington?

We’d sure like to give everyone a definite “no.” Unfortunately, we have had similar spill risks in the past and continue to face similar risks to our waters. The St. Elias barge and Edfu grain ship incidents highlight just how close we came this week.

Ecology will stay vigilant and work hard with our many partners to prevent spills, ensure that industry is ready to respond, and be on the forefront to mount a rapid, aggressive and well coordinated response should such a spill happen.

Under a new law passed in the spring by the 2011 Legislature, Ecology will be working throughout 2012 to update the oil spill readiness rules to enhance our broader community’s ability to respond to an oil spill day or night, rain or fog, and during other bad conditions.

The stakes are high. But so are the risks. And we know that Washington’s economy, environment and quality of life is well worth of protecting.

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