Local workshop considered effects of large oil spill on lives of islanders

by Ken Carrasco, Orcas

Member of the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee

Have you thought about the personal financial consequences to you and your family if petroleum carried by a tanker or the fuel from another type of large vessel accidentally spills into our county waters? The potential of either scenario has plagued our islands for years and will increase if proposed delivery and facility expansions in Canada or the US are completed.

A workshop held at Camp Orkila on Orcas Island this week considered the potential economic, social, and environmental impacts on our lives from such a spill. Titled “Environmental & Socioeconomic Impacts of Vessel-Related Spills to Salish Sea Communities”, the workshop attracted over 70 participants and was organized by the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee (MRC). The workshop gathered residents and representatives from local, state, federal, and Canadian agencies, Coast Salish nations, and nongovernmental organizations.

The workshop was introduced by author Dave Anderson, who discussed his book “Spill: Oil and Orcas in the Salish Sea.” Anderson’s book tells the very possible story of fuel spilling from a freighter that strikes the rocks at Turn Point on Stuart Island while avoiding a recreational vessel.

One of the outcomes from the workshop was the realization that while residents are relatively familiar with the impacts on our local ecosystem from such a spill and the containment response, there still seems to be little awareness about the impact on individual lives and finances.

The workshop participants drew on the experiences of those who had already personally experienced a spill, in particular the ExxonValdez spill in Alaska. For example, these participants recalled that the first impact would actually be a positive one on the hospitality industry as responders rush to the area.

In the long term, however, the impacts on our local economy would be negative. Throughout the rest of the world the “brand” of the San Juan Islands as a desirable tourist destination or to live and retire may decline, depending on the significance of the spill and the media coverage. As visitorship shrinks, local businesses would lose revenue and unemployment would rise, and amenities that residents now accept as commonplace could disappear without the adequate retail revenue base to sustain those businesses. In addition, property values could decrease leading to losses in equity for property owners.

The second day of the workshop finished with a discussion of steps the participants could undertake to prepare for a petroleum spill, such as the community learning beforehand what resources are available from FEMA and other entities before they are needed posthaste.

It was observed that in every community studied for resilience to a local catastrophe caused by an oil spill or natural event, decades were often required before significant environmental and economic recovery and this emphasizes the need for events such as this workshop.

The workshop was facilitated by David Roberts of Kulshan Services LLC and was funded by the U.S. EPA through the Puget Sound Partnership. It was also sponsored by the Northwest Straits Initiative. Students from the Resilience Institute at Western Washington University helped facilitate the workshop.