Oil Spill Prevention and Response Off The Olympic Coast

 

The Olympic Coast would be devastated in the event of a major oil spill.Action needs to be taken now to prevent oil spills and to develop an effective response system if a spill does occur.†††††

 

     The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Final Environmental Impact Statement / Management Plan estimates a high probability of oil spill damage to Sanctuary resources if oil development occurs off the Washington coast.The document also recognizes that spills from oil tankers, container ships, and other marine vessels could have a major impact on the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS).

 

Oil spill prevention and response is challenging.The Olympic Coast is faced with the threat of international oil shortages, increased demands for off-shore drilling, increased shipping through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, increased pressure from the shipping industry to reduce regulatory costs, the potential for major policy reversals at the national level (i.e., recent moves in Congress to lift bans on off shore drilling), and state budget shortfalls that could cause irreversible damage to oil spill preparedness.This OCA position paper summarizes the current oil spill prevention and response system for the Olympic Coast, identifies specific environmental damages that could results from a major oil spill, and provides recommendations for strengthening oil spill prevention and response off the Olympic Coast.

 

Oil Spill Prevention and Response Off the Olympic Coast

 

Current Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS) regulations restrict oil exploration and development within Sanctuary boundaries.This includes an area from Cape Flattery to the Copalis River.Sanctuary boundaries extend out into the ocean 25 to 50 miles.The OCNMS Management Plan Review (to be initiated in the fall of 2005) could remove this ban on oil exploration and development in Sanctuary waters, resulting in devastating oil spills.

 

During the past decade, the OCNMS has also developed a voluntary program for coastal shipping that designates an Area-To-Be-Avoided within the Sanctuary.This keeps ships at a significant distance from the coast and allows time for oil spill response.Sanctuary staff have reported substantial compliance with this voluntary policy by oil tankers and other ships transiting the coast and entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

 

Oil exploration and development along the Olympic Coast is currently precluded by a Congressional ban that could be lifted with changes in the US energy policy.Future development of oil reserves south of the OCNMS could result in spills that reach Sanctuary beaches.Available data on winds, waves, and currents indicate that an oil spill in this area would likely travel northward and shoreward during winter months.Current Sanctuary regulations do not restrict oil exploration and development outside Sanctuary boundaries.

 

Washington State regulations currently require that oil tankers transiting the Strait of Juan de Fuca be accompanied by a tugboat that can prevent grounding and oil spills in the event of an accident.With the advent of double-hulled tankers, oil industry lobbyists are making a push for termination of these regulations.However, the risk of tanker related catastrophic oil spills remains, and is even heightened by increasing ship traffic in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

 

Rapid tugboat response is essential for preventing grounding of all ships (including tankers) that are in trouble.Tugboats based in the Puget Sound area, or even Port Angeles, can not respond quickly enough to prevent vessel grounding and oil spills off the outer coast.Current state funding for the tugboat stationed 200 days per year (excluding summer months) at Neah Bay expires in 2008.Summer fog off the coast creates a high risk of shipping incidents and oil spills.

 

Oil spill contingency resources (equipment and rapid response expertise) in Washington are focused primarily on the Puget Sound, with only limited resources available for protecting the Olympic Coast.The WA Department of Ecology is currently up-dating their Oil Spill Contingency Plan Rule.This rule determines the level of expectations for the shipping industry to maintain adequate standards, equipment, supplies, and expertise to respond to oil spills.The rulemaking process is scheduled for completion before the spring of 2006.

 

The US Coast Guard and WA Department of Ecology have initiated an Ecological Risk Assessment process to examine the array of tools that are available for oil spill response off the Washington coast.Some oil spill response stakeholder groups would like to see more widespread use of oil spill dispersants in place of more traditional response options.Significant discussions are underway regarding the ecological effects of oil spill dispersants.

 

Environmental Concerns With Oil Spills Off the Olympic Coast

 

The coastal ecosystem is comprised of diverse habitats, including rocky shores, sand and cobble beaches, kelp beds, rich estuarine environments, sea stacks, and near shore islands.These environments are abundant in life, providing excellent habitat for marine mammals, nesting birds, salmon, and shellfish.Depending on the time of year, almost 100 bird species and 29 mammal species, some of which are listed as endangered, may be using these habitats.Many of these birds and mammals use the coast and islands for reproduction and rearing.

 

Marine Mammals:Several marine mammals commonly found along the Olympic Coast (i.e., sea otters, northern sea lions, and multiple species of whales) are listed under the US Endangered Species Act.Oil contamination of these and other marine mammals can cause eye irritation, impairment of thermal regulation, loss of buoyancy, toxicity, and ultimately death.Oil spills can also decrease marine mammal food sources and destroy habitat characteristics essential for survival (i.e., shelter).An oil spill could wipe out at least one yearís offspring of marine mammals, and in a worst case extinguish multiple species from the Olympic Coast.

 

Birds:The highly productive waters of the Olympic Coast provide exceptional habitat for numerous migratory and resident bird species.Several of these species are listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act (e.g., brown pelican).Others are recognized at endangered by the State of Washington (e.g., snowy plover, marbled murrelet).Oil spills can have direct impacts on birds (e.g., reduced mobility, thermal regulation impairment, toxicity, reproductive abnormalities, and death) or indirect impacts (e.g., decreased food sources, habitat degradation).†††††††††

 

Fish:Olympic Coast near shore habitats are nursery grounds for some of Washingtonís most productive salmon and ground fish stocks.Oil spills can have lethal and long-term sub lethal effects (e.g., behavioral changes, reproductive abnormalities) on fish.Oil spills can also contaminate fish targeted for human consumption.†† The fishing and shellfish industries could be shut down for years by an oil spill, affecting local tribes and other coastal fishermen.

 

Near Shore Habitats:Near short habitats (e.g., kelp beds, estuaries) are productive breeding grounds for forage fish and other marine organisms that serve as important food sources for mammals, birds, and fish.These near shore habitats can be severely impacted by oil spills.Oil can smother or poison kelp, sea grasses, and other marine plants.

 

Recommendations

 

     Current Restrictions on Oil Exploration and Development in the OCNMS:The OCNMS Management Plan Review should result in an affirmation of the current ban on oil exploration and development in Sanctuary waters.

 

     New Restrictions on Oil Exploration and Development South of the OCNMS:The OCNMS Management Plan Review should further protect Sanctuary resources through development of new regulations that will control oil exploration and development south of the Sanctuary.Extension of Sanctuary boundaries should be considered as one way to accomplish this.

 

     Tugboat Escorts for Oil Tankers:Washington State regulations that require a tugboat escort for all oil tankers transiting the Strait of Juan de Fuca must remain in place.

 

     Year Round Tugboat at Neah Bay:State and/or federal funding should be provided for a permanent year round tugboat to be stationed at Neah Bay that can respond to ship incidents along the coast and western portion of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

 

     Oil Spill Response Equipment and Expertise:The Oil Spill Contingency Plan rules being modified by the WA Department of Ecology must include additional resources that improve oil spill response at all sites in the state, but especially along the outer coast.

 

     Oil Spill Response Technology Options:Washington State regulations should require a comprehensive approach to oil spill response that uses all appropriate technologies and avoids an over dependence on one tool (e.g., oil spill dispersants).

 

Suggested Reading

 

US Environmental Protection Agency Oil Program. (www.epa.gov/oilspill/eduhome.htm).Summarizes information on oil spill threats to marine mammals, birds, and fish and outlines options for effective oil spill response.