Friday, February 26, 2010

Ecology “eyes in the sky” spots oil slick in Lake Washington ship canal

By David Mora

On Wednesday, February 17, Christopher Krembs of our Marine Monitoring Program was making a routine marine monitoring flight over Puget Sound to gather water quality information. As his float plane headed over Seattle, Christopher spotted and took pictures of an oil spill sheen spanning the width of the Lake Washington Ship Canal at the Ballard Locks. He quickly reported the spill and sent his photographs to Ecology’s spill response team in our regional office in Bellevue.

Pleasure craft caused oil spill

Our investigation later revealed that the spill happened the day before we saw it. Crew members of the Princess Mary, a 70-foot pleasure craft, accidentally overfilled a tank during an internal fuel transfer. About 12 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into Salmon Bay. Our spill responders followed up and talked to the crew of the Princess Mary. Howard Zorzi, who oversees spill response activities in northwest Washington, and responder Shannon Dickson, concluded the crew’s actions to clean up the spill had been successful at recovering a majority of the spilled fuel. However, an unrecoverable sheen did drift throughout the bay. Like most oil spills, the Salmon Bay spill was caused by human error and should have been prevented. Ecology takes its legislatively-mandated goal of zero spills to our state waters quite seriously and will likely take enforcement action for the spill.

Photos show even small spills matter, highlight continued coordination

Based on Christopher’s photographs, it appears that patches of sheen migrated back and forth across the Ship Canal with changes in wind direction – leaving an oily trail. Because oil spreads out quickly on the water, the thin sheen was only molecules thick and nearly impossible to clean up by the time we spotted it from the air. And as all petroleum products are also environmental poisons, even small spills harm water quality and marine wildlife. They also contribute to the toxic contamination in Puget Sound. Howard and Shannon reported that the photos and documentation were helpful and that this incident demonstrates how Ecology’s Spills Program and Marine Monitoring Unit to continue to work together to monitor and protect the health of Puget Sound.

If you spot an oil spill, even a thin sheen, please let us know. Here’s how to report it.

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