Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Spill Log: All spills matter

By Dave Byers, Ecology Response Manager, Spill Prevention, Preparedness and Response Program

A fishing vessel owner has published his first-person view of Ecology’s response this past November to an oil spill from his fishing vessel at Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle. Here is our file about the incident.

We have evaluated our regulatory responsibilities regarding this spill. We believe a warning letter is the most appropriate action for this particular incident. The letter lets the spiller know that any future spills may result in enforcement actions.

Whenever we issue orders, penalties, and other actions, we always inform recipients of their right to appeal and supply information about how to do so. Our actions can be appealed to the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board – an administrative review panel that is separate from Ecology.

In 2009 and 2010, Ecology’s Spills Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program issued 190 enforcement actions including:

  • Field citations

  • Civil penalties

  • Notices of correction or violation

  • Administrative orders

Oil spill response facts

Here’s some background information — always useful to understanding oil spill response in Washington — to fill some gaps left in the unhappy captain’s recounting:
  • All spills matter, regardless of size, due to oil’s toxic properties. Petroleum oil and fuels are toxic chemicals. They cause environmental damage and are poisonous to our birds, fish, and wildlife.

  • A quart of engine oil can easily contaminate 100,000 gallons of water and spread quickly to cover an acre of surface water.

  • Most oil spills in Puget Sound are less than a gallon. Our 2011 Puget Sound Toxics Assessment estimates that roughly 230 tons of petroleum compounds – including diesel fuel, gasoline, and lube oil – are spilled in the 12 counties that border Puget Sound every year. Roughly 165 tons are released to the fresh waters in the Sound region.

  • Every year, Ecology handles roughly 3,800 reports of oil and hazardous material spills and we mount about 1,200 field responses.

  • Most of the oil spills to water that we respond to are less than 100 gallons. Vessels are a common source and the majority comes from recreational boats, fishing vessels and smaller commercial vessels, not our large commercial maritime fleet.

  • We investigate several spills from boats and vessels every week. They are reported most frequently in our major marinas, the Lake Washington-Lake Union Ship Canal system, Columbia River, and Commencement and Bellingham bays.

  • All too often, the spills that get reported to us are “mystery” spills where we can’t identify where the oil came from.

  • Oil and water do mix. A portion of any spill gets absorbed into the water, adding another uptick to background level of toxic chemicals in that water body – this includes Puget Sound and the Columbia River, and our lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands.

Report spills quickly

When someone spills oil — and there’s no legal minimal threshold — state and federal law requires spillers to report it and begin cleanup right away. The quicker Ecology knows about the spill, the sooner we can mount a rapid, aggressive and well-coordinated response to try and minimize the environmental damage.

Ecology's spill responders don't just react to the oil that actually gets spilled but also the potential for spills to continue or worsen.

Unfortunately, our cleanup technology stops short for many spills we encounter, especially those mystery spills that don’t get reported right away.

Because it floats on water, uncontained oil spreads quickly on the surface. When this coating is less than a few molecules deep, it can be seen a shiny silvery or rainbow coating — also called a sheen.

In general, it is extraordinarily difficult to effectively collect and remove sheen. We often have to declare the spilled oil as unrecoverable, and allow it to dissipate naturally.

Dispersants don’t remove oil

State and federal laws don’t allow the use of dispersants like detergents and other chemicals that remove oil from the water’s surface. Chemical dispersants — like those used during the catastrophic 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico — don’t take oil out of the environment.

Instead, these agents just push the oil under the surface and into the water column. Left on the surface, oil stands a better chance of evaporating or degrading under conditions common in the Pacific Northwest.

Dispersants are illegal in Washington as well as other states and many other countries — and can only be used under extraordinary circumstances like responding to a major oil spill once the scientific and environmental pros and cons have been carefully weighed.

Spills and the human environment

Our spill responders encounter people from all walks of life. Most spills, while preventable, happen by accident. Most people never expect to become a spiller. We understand this. People react in many ways to such news, and the human atmosphere is often no easy part of our work.

Ecology’s staff works in a professional, courteous, and respectful manner. It is our job to provide spillers with guidance the proper steps to follow to contain and clean up an oil spill.

Under state law, they can be held liable for polluting state waters, be responsible for reimbursing Ecology for its response costs, and they may have to compensate the citizens of Washington for environmental damage to public resources such fish and wildlife, beaches and habitat areas.

Someone responsible for a spill has much new information to know. Our responders give spillers a verbal overview and leave them with written materials that provide details they will need. These include:
Many spillers tell us when they’ve caused a spill — and are ready to cooperate with state and federal responders with the cleanup and investigation. Being cooperative really helps speed things up. And a speedy response is critical for helping stop spills at their source. This can significantly diminish related environmental damages and costs for everyone.

Investigations based on science

During a spill, Ecology responders frequently collect samples – even when it’s not clear where the spill came from. Sometimes our investigation turns up a potential source — and we’ll seek to get direct samples from these places, too, if possible. Sampling can also rule out suspected sources. That's why it's an important part of a response and investigation.

Our scientists at Ecology’s environmental laboratory analyze all these samples as part of our investigation. The lab first can classify oil by general type and grade. A longer, more in-depth procedure can then produce a spectrographic fingerprint to figure out whether two or more samples originated from the same batch.

Spill responders take investigations and enforcement actions very seriously. No matter how things appear at the scene of a spill, we rely on the firm evidence this testing provides.

Oil spill response a serious matter

Oil spills are not pleasant, and preventing them is our highest priority. Yet, they do occur, and that’s when everyone’s cooperation is key to protecting our waters and keeping environmental impacts to a minimum.

We recognize that our potential actions can cause spillers stress and that's why we strive to make our decisions in as timely a fashion as possible.

1 comment:

joeroony said...

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