Encyclopedia of Puget Sound

Risk of a major oil spill generates action in Olympia

Bills in the state legislature target oil spill threats to Puget Sound and its endangered killer whales.

Close up of oil on water collected behind an oil boom. Photo: WA Department of Ecology (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/2f25AiG
Close up of oil on water collected behind an oil boom. Photo: WA Department of Ecology (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/2f25AiG

As oil-carrying vessels arouse new concerns about the fragility of the Salish Sea, Washington state officials are pushing to adopt new rules to counter-balance the increasing risks of a collision and potential oil spill.

Few doubt that a large spill of oil would cause profound damage to the Puget Sound ecosystem. Marine mammal experts have even warned that a major oil spill could drive the critically endangered killer whale population to extinction.

Denise Clifford, government relations director for the Washington Department of Ecology, said this state has learned a great deal from devastating oil spills of the past — including the oil barge Nestucca, which collided with its tugboat near Grays Harbor on Dec. 21, 1988. The vessel spilled about 231,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil, which damaged sensitive areas for hundreds of miles along the West Coast, killing an estimated 56,000 seabirds and other marine life.

Through the years, lessons from oil spills, large and small, have led the state and Coast Guard to adopt new laws, regulations and voluntary standards, Clifford told the House Environment and Energy Committee in February. One of those changes was a requirement for double hulls on oil tankers and barges to reduce the risk of a spill during a collision. The Nestucca was a single-hulled barge.

“As a result, Washington does have one of the lowest spill rates in the nation,” she said. “But as trends change and risks increase, we can do better.”

Assessing the risks of oil spills has become a key to decision-making, especially with the emergence of a heavier crude oil, changes in tank vessels, and the prospect that more ships will travel more dangerous routes.

New legislation

Bills now before the Legislature would require a tugboat escort for oil barges and tankers carrying more than 5,000 deadweight tons through Rosario Strait, a narrow, potentially hazardous passage to the east of the San Juan Islands. Rosario Strait is a primary route for large ships traveling between Seattle and Tacoma and refineries in northern Puget Sound. Currently, tug escorts are not needed for tankers under 40,000 deadweight tons, and there are no escort requirements for oil barges of any size.

Oil tanker in Fidalgo Bay near Anacortes, WA. Photo: Linda on the bridge to NewWhere (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/QaFjnZ
Oil tanker in Fidalgo Bay near Anacortes, WA. Photo: Linda Severson (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/QaFjnZption

House Bill 1578, which passed the House on a 70-28 vote and is pending in the Senate, also calls for the careful study of other possible measures, including an emergency rescue tug that could stand by to assist any ship that loses power or steering in and around the San Juan Islands.

The original bill would have given the Department of Ecology authority to approve the rescue tug after the study, but that provision was removed in advance of a hearing on March 19th before the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee. Now the Legislature will need to approve further changes.

The greatest increase in tanker traffic is expected in Haro Strait and Boundary Pass––the traditional feeding grounds for Puget Sound endangered orcas.

Officials representing oil interests argued against the legislation during a February hearing in the House, but those present during the March 19th hearing expressed concerns only about issues yet to be resolved.
Tugboat and barge owners still oppose the legislation, however, said Charlie Costanzo of American Waterways Operators. Tug escorts are not only unnecessary, Costanzo argued, they actually increase vessel traffic. He also raised concerns about state rules being imposed into areas traditionally under Coast Guard jurisdiction. 

The proposal to require a tug escort for vessels carrying oil through Rosario Strait rose to the top of possible measures outlined in a risk assessment study called the Vessel Traffic Risk Assessment, or VTRA, according to Scott Ferguson, Ecology’s spill-prevention manager. The study involved a computer model able to track the movement of ships throughout Puget Sound and to calculate the likelihood of a collision or grounding under various weather conditions, mechanical problems and human failures.

Computer model

The model was designed by Johan Rene Van Dorp of George Washington University and Jason Merrick of Virginia Commonwealth University. They did not rely on numbers alone, Ferguson said. A particular strength of the study, according to Ferguson, was an ongoing collaboration with experts familiar with the local waters, the ships and the changing conditions of Puget Sound, along with people and organizations interested in the outcome.

“It has been a very collaborative process, with a lot of interest from various tribes, environmental groups and others,” Ferguson said.

Assessing oil-spill risks through computer modeling is a specialized field, made more difficult by the complex bathymetry of Puget Sound and the uncertainty of plans to increase oil transportation on the water. Still, the importance of understanding the risks was strongly reflected in the proposed legislation, which calls for an ongoing modeling effort in consultation with a variety of experts and interested parties.

Related article

Oil spill risks by the numbers

Four images of fishAn EPA-funded study of oil spill risks in Puget Sound forms the basis of new legislation to regulate vessel traffic in the region. We break down some of the numbers from the study and look at where the risks may be greatest.

Sponsors of the legislation are promoting the measure as an important step in “reducing threats to southern resident killer whales.” It so happens that the greatest increase in tanker traffic is expected in Haro Strait and Boundary Pass — the traditional feeding grounds for the orcas. Known for its fragile ecosystem, this area is considered especially hazardous for ship traffic, because of its narrow channels and rocky reefs. 

Map of Salish Sea showing Haro Strait and Boundary Pass. Map: Pfly (CC BY-SA 4.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3948028Haro Strait and Boundary Pass are traditional orca feeding grounds. Map: Pfly (CC BY-SA 4.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3948028

“The low probability but high consequence of a major oil spill demands well-thought-out, continuing efforts to prevent a spill from occurring and to protect these sensitive areas,” according to a report to the Legislature issued by Ecology.

Changes in vessel traffic

Worries about a potential oil spill have been heightened by proposals for new oil and cargo facilities at the Port of Vancouver in Canada, as well as a shift from oil tankers to less-regulated oil barges in U.S. waters. The changing nature of oil cargo — including the addition of diluted tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada — has raised additional concerns. Tar-sands product, known as diluted bitumen, has a tendency to sink, making it more difficult to locate and remove contamination following an oil spill.

The proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline alone would more than triple the oil-carrying capacity of that pipeline route, from 12.6 million to 37.4 million gallons per day. Tankers used to transport that oil from an expanded Westridge terminal near Vancouver would increase from about five tankers per month to a maximum of 34 tankers per month, according to a 2013 report regarding the terminal’s anticipated vessel traffic, which will largely depend on the market for oil.

Over the past 10 years, the number of tankers coming through the Strait of Juan de Fuca has remained about the same, according to vessel-traffic statistics, but the type of vessels has changed. Traditional tanker ships have declined, while the number of articulated tug barges, or ATBs, have increased. An ATB is a two-part system, employing a tugboat that fits into a notch in the stern of its barge.

Current vessel traffic

Currently, about 8,300 large ships known as “deep-draft vessels” pass through the Strait of Juan de Fuca each year, coming and going from the ocean, according to findings by the state Department of Ecology. Roughly 60 percent of them head north to the Port of Vancouver and other ports in British Columbia, while 40 percent head to Puget Sound ports. Of the 8,300 vessels, about 6,500 are container ships, bulk carriers, and other cargo vessels. The rest, about 1,300 vessels, are classified as tank vessels, including oil tankers, chemical carriers and barges. Not included in those numbers are ferries, fishing boats and recreational craft.

Map showing routes of deep draft vessel traffic in and out of the Salish Sea. Map: Kris Symer/PSI.
Approximately, 8,300 deep draft vessels pass through the Strait of Juan de Fuca annually. Map: Kris Symer/PSI.

The level of shipping is dependent on the economy, but it is expected that ATB traffic will continue to increase in the Salish Sea as fewer tankers bring crude oil from Alaska, according to Ecology. As for cargo vessels, the Northwest Seaport Alliance predicts a sizable increase in goods being shipped into and out of Puget Sound. With larger container ships being put into service, however, the amount of ship traffic into Puget Sound ports is not likely to increase, according to Ecology’s report.

The Port of Vancouver, on the other hand, has proposed facility expansions that could result in a 40 percent increase in cargo traffic over the next 10 years if all projects come to pass. Facility upgrades are planned at 11 of the port’s 27 marine terminals. Projected increases include an additional 300 container ships each year over the 748 arriving in the Canadian portion of the Salish Sea in 2017, according to Ecology.

The project getting the most attention when it comes to concerns about oil spills is the completion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which alone would dramatically increase tanker traffic. Chances of moving to construction were increased when the Canadian government purchased the pipeline from Kinder Morgan, followed by an endorsement from the National Energy Board of Canada. The board attached 157 conditions of approval — including a tug escort for outbound oil-laden tankers moving through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

If the pipeline project moves ahead and Puget Sound refineries change their operations, more tanker traffic from Canada could be directed through Rosario Strait to serve those refineries. A change in the federal law in 2015 to allow crude oil exports could also increase oil shipments. Washington ports could theoretically load tankers with crude that arrives by vessel, rail or pipeline for shipment to foreign markets.

Amid these potential changes in marine traffic and oil transportation, the Washington Legislature last year approved the Strengthening Oil Transportation Safety Act. It was this act that caused Ecology to take a fresh look at various oil-spill risk assessments and offer recommendations now before the Legislature.

While the VTRA report can identify potential risks, it should not be viewed as a crystal ball, since the model contains many assumptions.

“You have to be careful with the modeling,” Ferguson said. “It gives us a potential, but it should not be seen as an absolute representation of what might happen.”

After reviewing the risk analysis and other studies, officials with the Department of Ecology developed recommendations to the Legislature with the assistance of staffers from Puget Sound Partnership and the Washington State Board of Pilotage Commissioners. Many of those provisions were adopted by the House on March 7 and are now before the Senate.

The vessel-traffic legislation came out of the Governor’s Office and was sponsored by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, who was elected last fall, becoming the first Native American woman to take a seat in the House of Representatives. In presenting her bill on March 19th, Lekanoff said she grew up in a small Alaskan fishing village, where many of her high school classmates went to work immediately after graduation cleaning up after the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The untold loss of marine life — including orcas — in that disaster is something she hopes Washington residents never have to experience.

Proposed legislation in-depth

Here is some of what the proposed legislation would require.

Tugboats in Rosario Strait

The legislation would mandate tug escorts for oil tankers, towed barges and ATBs over 5,000 deadweight tons that pass through Rosario Strait and waterways to the east. The current requirement only covers oil tankers over 40,000 deadweight tons. If passed by the Senate, the requirement would go into effect Sept. 1, 2020.

Escort tugs, which accompany ships under pilotage rules, have been shown to prevent accidents and potential oil spills by pushing ships out of danger if they lose propulsion or steering. Escort tugs also may reduce risk by serving as an extra lookout on the water.

During a hearing in February, Greg Hanon of the Western States Petroleum Association questioned the requirement of tug escorts for oil barges. He said Ecology’s own report describes the history of barge accidents in Puget Sound, and it shows a record of practically no spills.

Seattle Port Commissioner Fred Felleman, speaking for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, countered by citing seven barge incidents, including one that took out a navigational buoy. These situations, with potential for an oil spill, could have been avoided with a tug escort nearby, he said.

Other areas of Puget Sound

The legislation calls on the Washington State Board of Pilotage Commissioners to address the question of tug escorts for oil-laden vessels in other areas of Puget Sound. The route of tank vessels through Haro Strait and Boundary Pass should be given equal priority with that of Rosario Strait, the bill says. Both areas are considered hazardous, based on the VTRA report, because of their narrow channels and rocky reefs.

Ecology’s recommendations call for working with Canada’s Pacific Pilotage Authority and others to develop similar escort requirements for barges traveling through Haro Strait on their way to Canadian ports. Canada already requires tug escorts for tankers.

Emergency response

Risk analyses and studies indicate that safety would be increased with an emergency-response tug standing by to assist vessels that lose power coming through Haro Strait and Boundary Pass. It could be similar to the rescue tug stationed at Neah Bay at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to Ecology.

The legislation would require an analysis of the need for a rescue tug along with a review of the rules governing emergency-response vessels at least every 10 years. The discussion about emergency tugs should begin this year during the Salish Sea Shared Waters Forum involving both the U.S. and Canada.

The majority of vessels that would benefit from a rescue tug for Haro Strait would be inbound and outbound from Canada, according to the Ecology report. The agency recommends working with Canadian officials to figure out what types of vessels might use a rescue tug, consider the potential of multiple missions for the vessel, study the feasibility of different locations for the tug, and determine what capabilities the tug should possess. The process would also consider cross-boundary contracting and funding issues.

The U.S. and Canada jointly manage the safe movement of vessels across the international boundary through the 35-year-old Cooperative Vessel Traffic Service.

Expanded reporting

The legislation allows Ecology to develop a more extensive reporting system for oil movement — whether by vessel, pipeline or rail. The result would allow for “a complete oil-movement picture through the state” and allow for better planning, according to the agency.

Risk assessment model

While consultants have been hired to develop many of the risk-assessment models used today, the legislation would authorize Ecology to hire its own team of modelers. The bill would require the modelers, by Sept. 1, 2023, to assess and report on the benefits of an emergency response tug in Haro Strait, Boundary Pass and Rosario Strait.

Two of Ecology’s recommendations were forwarded to the Puget Sound Harbor Safety Committee (PSHSC), a nonprofit organization that promotes marine safety through voluntary actions. Members represent industry, government and advocacy groups:

Voluntary speed reduction

The PSHSC should launch a process to consider a voluntary slowdown of vessels in areas of concern, including Haro Strait, Boundary Pass and Rosario Strait, according to Ecology.

The primary goal of what would become “standards of care,” or SOC, would be to reduce the risk of oil spills, but it would also reduce underwater noise to the benefit of killer whales in the area.

The SOC for Puget Sound should complement a voluntary slowdown of vessels in the Canadian portion of the Salish Sea, according to Ecology. The Canadian effort is part of the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program organized by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

Standards for a second watch

PSHSC should consider voluntary standards of care for a second watch stander in the wheelhouse of ATB and tug-towed tank vessels on selected routes under specified conditions, according to Ecology. The idea is to use existing crew members as extra eyes on the water to assist the watch stander in charge of navigation.

The SOC would specify operating conditions in which the second lookout would be put into action, such as during hours of darkness, restricted visibility, heavy weather and increased vessel traffic.

About the Author: 
Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.