Washington state's Department of Ecology wants an additional $2. 2 million in the next two years to boost oil-spill protections after a spill in South Puget Sound in October. Gov Gov. Gary Locke...

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Washington state’s Department of Ecology wants an additional $2.2 million in the next two years to boost oil-spill protections after a spill in South Puget Sound in October.

Gov. Gary Locke has earmarked $2 million for the request in his two-year budget proposal. It would be paid for by an existing tax on crude-oil imports.

The plan calls for spending the money to train volunteers to help with oil-spill cleanup; buy equipment to corral spills and ease communication between agencies; improve planning for oil-spill response; and study ways to improve citizen involvement.

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The spending proposal won praise from members of a task force created by the governor and U.S. Coast Guard to recommend reforms after the spill at Dalco Passage near Tacoma, which soiled more than 20 miles of Vashon Island and Maury Island beaches.

The task force’s draft report was delivered to Locke on Tuesday.

Richard Wright, president of an oil-industry-financed cleanup company, said the spending should boost public confidence and public involvement in how spills are handled.

“Overall, I’m really happy,” he said.

But environmentalists and some local officials on the task force warned that the measures weren’t focused enough on preventing oil spills.

“We need to stop messing around with puny investments and budget dust, essentially, and really step up to the plate and do what needs to be done for prevention,” said Naki Stevens, program director for the nonprofit People for Puget Sound.

The group, as well as King County representatives, unsuccessfully pushed for creation of a citizen watchdog group to monitor government and industries to prevent and control spills.

They argued that such oversight makes agencies more vigilant, reducing the likelihood of delays like the ones that plagued cleanup of the Dalco Passage spill.

But some task-force members, including oil and maritime representatives, said it could create a redundant, and potentially adversarial, layer of citizen involvement.

The 1,000-gallon spill was first reported around 1:30 a.m. Oct. 14, but Coast Guard and Ecology officials did not immediately investigate. Once further sightings came in after daylight, a heavy fog slowed response.

The idea of a citizen group is worth further study, said Ron Shultz, environmental-policy adviser to Locke.

But the governor’s first priority is enlisting citizen volunteers to help watch for oil spills or clean them up if they happen, he said.

Scheduled to depart in January, Locke won’t be part of the political negotiations needed to shepherd this spending proposal through a Legislature facing a projected $1.5 billion deficit. It’s not clear if his replacement — either Democrat Christine Gregoire or Republican Dino Rossi — will press for it.

Shultz said the plan stood a good chance of approval because there is a public call for better oil-spill response and because the money would come from an oil tax dedicated to oil-spill protection.

Roughly $9 million has accumulated in an account set up to pay for spill cleanups.

State Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, who sits on the committee that would hear the plan and on the Senate’s budget committee, said she considered the spending proposal “doable.”

Regala, who hadn’t seen the Ecology Department proposal, said she “wanted to see some strong, coherent, substantive recommendations on how we could respond to oil spills without saying, ‘Well gee, it was dark and we couldn’t respond; it was foggy and we couldn’t respond.’ “

The Ecology Department’s plan includes $560,000 in the next two years to buy oil-spill cleanup and communications equipment, including gear for volunteers and a helicopter-mounted infrared system that would improve detecting oil spills in the dark.

Two people plus a consultant would be hired to train volunteers statewide at a cost of $430,000 over two years.

Another $610,000 would pay for studies of technology to track spills, updates to maps of ecologically sensitive areas around potential spill sites and an evaluation of statewide equipment needs for cleanups. Other money would go toward cleanup drills.

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