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  State told to draft oil-spill safeguards

    Thursday 11 March 2004

Thursday, March 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

By Craig Welch Seattle Times staff reporter

In the wake of a 4,800-gallon oil spill that spread from Richmond Beach to the Kitsap Peninsula, legislators this week ordered the state to create new oil-spill-prevention rules for Washington’s two dozen fuel-transfer stations.

They urged state regulators by 2006 to require, under some circumstances, that containment booms be preplaced around marine vessels before petroleum is loaded or off-loaded on Puget Sound ? an attempt to improve the likelihood that spilled oil will be quickly corralled before it spreads.

The state also may require oil companies and barge operators to employ extra people during transfers or use automatic shut-off systems to make sure a vessel’s tanks don’t overflow into marine waters.

While industry groups and some environmentalists were generally pleased by the compromise, others felt lawmakers had postponed the hard work and given the industry too much leverage to water down regulations as they’re being created.

"Making that bill mean anything will come down to arm wrestling that will go on for months," said Fred Felleman, with Ocean Advocates.

The measure awaits only the governor’s signature, which is expected, and budget writers’ inclusion of $200,000 in the state budget to cover the costs.

The legislation came in response to the Dec. 30 spill at Chevron’s Point Wells transfer facility. A 248-foot Foss Maritime barge overflowed, spilling oil into Puget Sound. Workers struggled to contain the spill, which quickly shimmered across the Sound and into a pristine Suquamish tribal estuary at Indianola, Kitsap County, where it slathered crabs and other shellfish and polluted a marsh.

Dozens of cleanup workers spent almost two months on the spill, but officials of the state Ecology and Health departments expect some damage to be long-lasting. The state and Coast Guard, which require dozens of oil-spill-prevention rules, still are investigating the incident to determine what went wrong. Foss has not completed final cost estimates, though the expense is expected to run into the millions of dollars.

In the spill’s aftermath, lawmakers noted that some Washington transfer facilities routinely employ containment booms during fuel transfers, and experts suggested that in the Chevron case, pre-booming could have prevented the spilled oil from spreading. They also noted that some barge companies require at least two people on board during all fuel transfers. Only one Foss tankerman was on duty Dec. 30.

Specifically, the Department of Ecology has until the end of the year to report to the Legislature on its recommendations for changing oil-transfer rules. By 2006, it must write rules "including standards requiring deployment of containment equipment prior to transfer ... when determined to be safe and effective." It also will require Washington’s ferry system to put together spill-prevention plans.

Kathy Fletcher, with the conservation group People for Puget Sound, was pleased that lawmakers from both parties agreed that sending workers out in skiffs to drag floating plastic curtains ? or booms ? around a marine vessel before it transfers fuel is often the best way to prevent spilled oil from spreading out of control. California requires that for most transfers, and it’s required in Alaska for oil tankers loading crude in Prince William Sound. But the idea had merely been kicked around in Washington.

However, after heavy lobbying by representatives of the Washington State Petroleum Association, the Steamship Operators and others, lawmakers ? and some environmentalists ? agreed that pre-booming in high winds, or when transferring highly combustible fuels such as gasoline, may be dangerous or do little to contain oil.

"There was some discussion about when a boom might hurt rather than help," Fletcher said. "We thought the compromise was reasonable ? though if you have a location where currents are wild, maybe you should have to wait before doing any transferring."

"What really happened here is so typical," Fletcher added. "Things get talked about and talked about and talked about, but it took the spill to give it enough political support to move ahead. It’s kind of a backward way of doing business."

Industry groups were pleased that the new measure requires the Department of Ecology to work with an advisory committee made up of environmentalists and industry representatives before writing the rules.

"We don’t want spills; they cost way too much money," said Randy Ray, with the Puget Sound Steamship Operators Association. "But we don’t want a one-size-fits-all approach, either. In certain situations, booming might make sense. In some cases it does not."

But Felleman, of Ocean Advocates, said he was pessimistic that the process would actually result in strict measures.

"The current legislation has the potential to do good but does not ensure success," he said. "The idea that each site should be looked at uniquely is good, but I promise you, in the end, there will be few to no sites that end up with a requirement to pre-boom."

In the meantime, Foss spokesman Joe Langjahr said his company will participate in the advisory committee but won’t commit to pre-booming unless it is required by future rules. Since the spill, though, Foss has agreed to always use two tankerman when fueling at Point Wells.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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