Despite spending tens of millions of dollars each year preparing for oil spills and cleaning them up — and despite having some of the nation's toughest oil-spill standards — some experts warn Washington is not as ready for a big accident as we think we are.

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It’s a nightmare scenario: A large freighter bound for Seattle runs aground, pouring 2.1 million gallons of syrupy oil into north Puget Sound.

Today, two decades after the Exxon Valdez dumped more than five times that much oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, there’s still concern that emergency crews would be overwhelmed by a catastrophic spill here.

The sheer difficulty of getting oil out of water, coupled with unpredictable weather, fierce currents and thousands of miles of shoreline, make any attempt to tackle a big spill in Puget Sound uncertain at best.

Despite spending tens of millions of dollars each year preparing for oil spills and cleaning them up — and despite having some of the nation’s toughest oil-spill standards — some experts warn the state is not as ready for a big accident as we think we are.

“I strongly feel we need to be better prepared,” said Mike Cooper, chairman of the state’s Oil Spill Advisory Council, a task force created to police oil-spill programs.

The council recently issued a 330-page study that found even under ideal conditions, 20 to 40 percent of oil from a 2.1 million-gallon spill — 50,000 barrels — near the Strait of Juan de Fuca could be recovered within two days. That’s well below the target set in state plans.

It also warned of a possible shortage in equipment and volunteers to quickly place protective barriers around Puget Sound beaches and bays, scrape oil off beaches, and clean oil-coated birds.

Cooper, a Democratic Snohomish County Council member, said the state should require a big boost in spill equipment from industries — enough to suck up 70 percent of a Valdez-size spill within two days.

But several spill experts questioned how much better things would get with more money and equipment. The desire for environmental protection, they warned, runs up against the reality of what happens when millions of gallons of oil are dumped into the ocean.

“I’m here to tell you, every piece of equipment in the world, if it was brought to bear, couldn’t do that,” Richard Wright said of Cooper’s goal. Wright is the Northwest regional vice president of Marine Spill Response, a nonprofit funded by the oil industry to handle oil spills.

Advances made

The United States has made advances in oil-spill protection since March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez struck a reef and spewed 11 million gallons of Alaska crude into the water.

A slew of state and federal laws demanded sturdier oil tankers and better planning. Oil and shipping industries were forced to pay for stationing enough equipment across the country to ensure quicker cleanup of a major spill.

In Washington, the state Ecology Department has a $16 million-a-year spills budget. Ecology estimates companies spend roughly $41 million a year preparing for spills.

But how do you know when you have enough equipment to slurp up a big spill?

The Coast Guard settled on an approach: If a company said its skimmer could suck up 100 barrels of oil an hour, assume in the real world, it could work at 20 percent of its capacity.

Then, it’s a simple matter of math. If you want skimmers to collect 50,000 barrels in 48 hours, you force companies to have enough equipment around to do it, based on the 20 percent formula.

That approach has come under fire as too crude and may overestimate how much oil a skimmer can collect.

Critics say the 20 percent rule doesn’t account for the dramatic differences in the way equipment performs, depending on the type of oil, weather conditions, or elapsed time after the spill.

Skimmers also need other equipment. For example, once they are full of oil, they need to be emptied into a barge, or the skimmer winds up out of commission.

Math model

The oil-spill council’s research tried to take these factors into account in its report. The result: State standards call for enough equipment to suck up 48,000 barrels of oil near Port Angeles in the second day of a big spill. The council study estimated that in a 50,000-barrel spill, roughly 20,000 barrels would be collected in the first two days. The results would be lower — approximately 10,000 barrels sucked up in two days — in a spill off the Washington coast near the Olympic Peninsula.

But an oil-industry representative on Washington’s spill council said the report is fundamentally flawed because it misuses a mathematical model to estimate how much oil can be recovered.

“The report would seem to indicate and support quite strongly the supposition that we are not prepared to respond to a large-scale oil spill,” said Scott McCreery of BP, who sits on the spill council. “And I have grave concerns that that’s real misleading to the public.”

The spill council’s staff, however, say they used conservative assumptions that probably overstated how well things would really go.

It also gives a more nuanced picture than the conventional approach, said council executive director Jacqueline Brown Miller. She likened it to the city of Seattle deciding how many snowplows it needs to keep the roads clear.

“You can’t just say, ‘Well, there could be a snowstorm of such-and-such magnitude and the average scoop is so big’ and just multiply that out,” she said. “How heavy is the snow going to be? How many trucks do you have that are capable of having a snow scoop attached to the front?”

Bigger, better drills

The debate underscores the need for bigger, more realistic drills to test what would happen in a big spill, said Bruce Wishart, of the environmental group People for Puget Sound.

“When you look historically at how we’ve responded to spills and how people respond to spills around the nation and around the world, we find that it’s often a comedy of errors,” he said.

In 2003, a tank barge near Edmonds overfilled, dumping nearly 5,000 gallons of oil into the Sound. The ensuing response was hobbled by mistakes. An overflow alarm on the barge failed to go off. People couldn’t start two boats to tow floating barricades — called boom — to corral the spill.

The following year, response to a 1,000-gallon spill south of Vashon Island was delayed after initial reports of the late-night spill weren’t pursued aggressively. Morning fog blinded airplane spotters.

State officials say they have worked to prevent repeats of those mistakes. Washington is considered to have one of the toughest spills programs, with companies bringing people from around the world to train here, said Dale Jensen, head of the state Ecology Department’s spills program.

Report cites gaps

But Cooper, the council chairman, said the program needs to be stronger. He wants a dramatic increase in spill equipment stationed around the Sound and Washington’s outer coast.

The report, Cooper noted, also found there wouldn’t be enough equipment and people to clean oil off beaches in the first two days of a particularly bad spill. And the council found the state only has enough equipment to clean 100 oiled birds in the first 48 hours of spill, when a major spill could oil thousands of birds.

A lead spill official for the Coast Guard in Seattle, Scott Knutson, said the report showed potential weaknesses that warrant closer study. He pointed to the recommendation for better equipment to track oil spills at night or in fog.

“We have some gaps there. No doubt about it,” he said.

While there’s always room for improvement, the state already requires more equipment on hand than federal standards call for, and recently beefed up those standards even further, said Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, head of the preparedness program in the Ecology Department’s spill program.

Dealing with the aftermath of a spill by cleaning oiled beaches is a prolonged effort that can’t be gauged just by response in the first two days, she said.

Wildlife

The state has lagged behind in preparing to clean oiled birds, relying for years on a volunteer program with little success, said Brian Edie, who oversees spill planning for the state Fish and Wildlife Department. It’s trying to catch up.

Oil companies must now have plans in place to handle oiled wildlife. They are building mobile animal-cleaning trailers that can be dispatched quickly to a spill.

Some question whether the council report really means the region needs a lot more equipment.

“In my mind they have reached the point where they have adequate people and adequate equipment,” said Al Allen, a nationally recognized oil-spill consultant from Woodinville, who works for governments and the oil industry.

Still, there’s broad agreement that a multimillion-gallon oil spill in Puget Sound would be devastating to the environment. A major spill poses the biggest extinction threat to the Sound’s orcas over the next half century, according to the federal government.

Once that much oil is loose on the water, bad weather, currents and darkness could wreak havoc even with the best plans.

The Coast Guard’s Knutson said that’s why it’s critical to guard against spills in the first place.

“Prevention is the answer. We want to prevent spills,” he said. “Oil in the water, boy, that’s too late.”

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com