Regulations and agreements to protect Puget Sound were tested recently, with the arrival of tankers holding excess oil during the economic slowdown.
With a glut of oil filling storage facilities, tankers are being used to store oil offshore. At least one briefly lingered in Puget Sound.
Puget Sound must not be used for floating oil storage, which increases the risk of a devastating spill. Puget Sound is an environmentally sensitive area and critical to the survival of multiple endangered species.
Washington has a strong spill-prevention system and low rate of spills, but that cannot be taken for granted, especially with Canadian tanker traffic expected to substantially increase after the downturn.
Starting in the 1970s, the state aggressively pushed for spill-prevention measures, such as requiring tug escorts. The federal Oil Pollution Act was passed in 1990, following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, and Washington created its marine-safety office in 1991.
Since then, the state repeatedly strengthened its spill-prevention rules. It’s now in the process of building a vessel traffic risk model to guide improvements to its tug escort and emergency systems.
Among the useful tools developed are time limits on tanker-anchorage sites. Those sites, near Anacortes and Vendovi Island in Skagit County, can only be used for six to 10 days at a stretch.
After reports of offshore storage along the West Coast, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Puget Sound port captain issued a helpful advisory on April 29, reminding vessel operators and others about the protocol.
The safety bulletin, from Capt. Linda Sturgis, cautioned vessels about heading toward an anchorage site “without a reasonable date and time for a berth.”
That means they can’t use Puget Sound as a parking lot, lingering without a plan to unload. The rules reduce risks to the environment and also provide for efficient use and continued commerce.
“The anchorages aren’t really meant for people to stay long-term, they’re meant for short-term adjustments in plans and scheduling,” said Laird Hail, director of the Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service.
This is only the latest reminder of how important it is for Washington, the federal government and private industry to maintain and continually improve spill-prevention rules and response plans.
Tanker traffic to Washington ports declined over the last decade, as Alaskan oil output decreased, and crude shipments by rail and pipeline increased.
Still, more than 20 billion gallons of oil was transported annually through Washington by vessel, rail and pipeline, before the downturn.
Tanker traffic through busy and sometimes treacherous waters is also slated to grow again with Canada opening a new pipeline to export oil from Vancouver, B.C. The Port of Vancouver expects to see about 400 crude tankers yearly, up from 30 to 50 in recent years.
Preparation and diligence paid off during the recent surge in offshore oil storage, preventing impacts on Puget Sound. But that was a minor challenge compared to what’s coming from Canada.
As the world and Washington resume economic growth, the state and industry must continue investing in and improving the critical safety net protecting Puget Sound and the marine environment.