Washington’s oil spill protections greatly expanded since 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska

OLYMPIA - In the 20 years since the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, spilling 10.8 million gallons of crude oil, Washington has made tremendous strides to prevent devastating spills to its state waters.

“Our number one priority is preventing spills from occurring in the first place because the economic and environmental consequences are greater than ever,” said Washington Department of Ecology Spills Program Manager Dale Jensen. “All spills matter, regardless of size, and the Washington Legislature acknowledged this by setting a ‘zero spills’ goal for Washington. We take this mandate very seriously.”

According to Ecology records, approximately 15 billion gallons of oil is transferred over Washington waters every year by ship, fueling facility, tank truck and rail - more than 1.5 million gallons an hour.

Since the March 24, 1989, disaster, Washington’s spill prevention, preparedness and response program has evolved into one of the most highly regarded systems in the nation, and the combined spill volume for Washington and Oregon is the lowest in the nation according to U.S. Coast Guard data.

Jensen said maritime shipping and oil-handling industries send their representatives from around the world to drill with Washington state to test their preparedness for a major spill.

However, the state hasn’t always had such a strong program. In 1970s and 1980s, Washington had more than 20 large-volume oil spills in Puget Sound, along the Columbia River and outer coast. While Ecology responded to these spills, there was no cohesive state spill response program.

Washington’s largest spill occurred on Jan. 1, 1972, when the U.S.S. General M.C. Meiggs, a 622-foot military troopship, grounded in an intertidal area north of Shi Shi Beach near Cape Flattery, spilling about 2.3 million gallons of heavy fuel oil.

The spill that helped define Washington’s current spill prevention and response strategy occurred on December 23, 1988, when the fuel barge Nestucca spilled 231,000 gallons of heavy fuel near Grays Harbor. While the bulk of the oil washed ashore near Ocean Shores, the spill harmed wildlife and fouled beaches as far south as Oregon and north to Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

As a result, states on the west coast and British Columbia formed the Pacific States-British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force to determine how best to share spill response resources, build on lessons learned from spill incidents, identify risks, and prevent spills.

The Exxon Valdez spill occurred the day after the first Task Force meeting.

These spills spurred strong action by Washington lawmakers. In 1990, the first organized spill preparedness group was created within Ecology to help ensure refineries, pipelines and other land-based oil storage facilities could effectively respond if they spilled oil.

In 1991, the state Office of Marine Safety was established to focus on oil spill prevention from large commercial vessels including oil tankers and cargo ships. In 1997, the office merged into Ecology to form the agency’s current spills program.

Ecology’s authority was expanded to regulate vessel operations and establish spill prevention rules to address the risks that cargo and passenger vessels posed to state waters.

Since 1991, the state has pursued efforts to establish an emergency response tug at Neah Bay to keep disabled ships off the rocks and spilling oil in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the outer coast.

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