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
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
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS) regulations restrict oil
exploration and development within Sanctuary boundaries.† This includes an area from Cape Flattery to
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
exploration and development along the Olympic Coast is currently precluded by a
Congressional ban that could be lifted with changes in the
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
spill contingency resources (equipment and rapid response expertise) in
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
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
Coast near shore habitats are nursery grounds for some of
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.
∑ 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:†
Year Round Tugboat at
∑ 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).
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.†