Oil transportation- whether via rail or on our waterways- has been getting a lot of attention lately. With proposals on the table for new export terminals in Grays Harbor and the Columbia River & other refinery expansions, both of which result in major increases in vessel traffic and increased probability of an accident, it’s time for the State of Washington to adopt improved safety measures to better protect our communities and the marine ecosystem from a catastrophic spill. 

Water is a way of life in Washington, and our special marine and freshwater places would be damaged irreversibly by a major oil spill. Photo: Gus Gates, WA Policy Manager

Water is a way of life in Washington, and our special marine and freshwater places would be damaged irreversibly by a major oil spill. Photo: Gus Gates, WA Policy Manager

One tanker or vessel accident is one too many. Our waters are already at risk from oil spills, despite claims from some that the State of Washington has the best vessel safety track record in the world, numerous spills have occurred in the past as highlighted in this recent piece by the Sightline Institute. If we don’t learn from our past mistakes, we are bound to repeat them. The truth is, we’ve gotten pretty lucky with many near misses and almost spills. With massive increases in the projected amount of oil to be transported into our state and moved elsewhere via water, it’s a prudent step to update our safety measures right now, and seriously consider if approving new export terminals and increasing the chance for a major spill is really the legacy that we want to leave for future generations.

The risk of a major spill would devastate our economy and way of life in the Northwest, recent studies show that recreation is a huge economic engine to our state, and that doesn’t even account for other key marine based industries such as shellfish aquaculture and fishing that our communities depend on. Our leaders need to take steps to protect our waterways, fortunately this issue has been getting increased attention with the 2014 Legislature and Governor Inslee initiating a Rail & Marine Oil Transportation Study. However, time will tell if the Department of Ecology will truly incorporate the strong concerns expressed by the public and actually strengthen recommendations with meaningful protections as part of the final draft expected to be released March 1st.

The Washington State Legislature is currently considering numerous bills to take steps at implementing some of the anticipated recommendations from the final Oil Transportation Study. SB 5087 & HB 1449 are both aimed strengthening transparency for communities to know when and what oil is being moved, holding oil companies accountable in the event of a spill, expanding authority to establish proven spill prevention measure such as escort tugs, and increased community preparedness and emergency response. Another bill (SB 5057) is also under consideration, although it’s much weaker and is focused more on the rail side and terrestrial impacts.

Escort Tugs are an important step in the right direction. Currently they are only required within the Puget Sound.

Escort Tugs are an important step in the right direction. Currently they are only required within the Puget Sound.

Surfrider is working on the issue of oil transportation as it relates to coastal and marine impacts, along with our partners in the Environmental Priorities Coalition. If you are interested in getting involved on this issue, whether it’s writing a letter to your legislator, or attending an upcoming public hearing, please contact WA Policy Manager Gus Gates.

Below are some of the key areas that we feel are essential pieces to any policy moving forward.

  • Giving the public information on how oil is moving through our communities
  • Authorizing common sense oil spill prevention measures, like escort tugs
  • Ensuring companies carrying oil, not taxpayers, pay for cleaning up all oil spills
  • Providing funding to modernize our system that safeguards communities and waterways