New oil spill response base in Friday Harbor will address present — and growing — threat

Local responders keep their skills sharp through drills and training, to be ready when called to help
prevent small-scale oil spills in the Salish Sea. (Photo courtesy Islands Oil Spill Association)

By Genevieve Iverson

— Late one night, a fishing boat runs aground on the north shore of Patos Island with 4,000 gallons of oil onboard, threatening to leak into surrounding waters. The strong currents, wind and waves of Boundary Pass and the Strait of Georgia pose significant risk for the spread of oil — and for how responders approach the wreck.

That’s where Islands Oil Spill Association (IOSA) comes in. Contacted by the U.S. Coast Guard, IOSA responders arrive at the location with significant local knowledge of the island waters, aiding them in the risky situation.

This is just one scenario for potential oil spill that IOSA response has successfully prevented in the last thirty years.  A new response base to be built on San Juan Island will amp up IOSA’s prevention capabilities — all the more vital because local small-spill threats are not likely to get response from elsewhere.

A report by the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force on oil spills in 2018 on the west coast of the United States found Washington ranked highest, above Alaska, Hawaii, California and Oregon, with 2,610 spills of less than 42 gallons and 153 spills of more than 42 gallons.

To address the need for quick response to smaller oil spills in the San Juan Islands, construction on a new oil spill response operations base will begin this summer at Jensen & Sons Boat Yard and Marina in Friday Harbor. When complete, the base will be the on-water location for the local, nonprofit IOSA.

Currently, IOSA’s oil spill response equipment is spread across the San Juans, in on-the-water locations such as the Port of Friday Harbor but also in parking lots and temporary storage sheds that aren’t as easily accessed. With a physical base that provides a central location where IOSA staff and equipment are ready, Port of Friday Harbor Director Todd Nicholson anticipates that oil spill response times will be improved significantly.

San Juan County is the only county in Washington that collects money from taxpayers for oil spill response resources, according to Lovel Pratt, marine protection program director at Friends of the San Juans. Because of risk levels, oil spill prevention is an environmental priority for the islands, and IOSA receives $130,000 from the county levy every year.

Nicholson said that the aim is to hold the base to an approximately million-dollar budget. Currently they have about $700,000, Nicholson said, which could leave the rest up to future local fundraising. Most of that will be paid back to the Port of Friday Harbor through future rent of the space. Completion is set for 2021 or 2022, largely because site boundaries at Jensen’s need permitting and possible adjustments based on the cleanup of the area.

The importance of small-scale response

Small-scale oil spill response teams answer approximately 20-25 calls
every year. (Photo courtesy Islands Oil Spill Association)

A physical base in Friday Harbor “is going to be a vast improvement every way we look at it,” said IOSA interim executive director Brendan Cowen.

“Initial response isn’t so much an equipment-based response,” Nicholson noted, “It’s getting the right person with the right small equipment in a fast-enough boat to get eyes on the problem quickly.”

IOSA responds to about 20-25 calls a year. The most common type of oil spill risks in the islands are small-scale and require about five to 10 responders, Nicholson said. 

“Where IOSA is really instrumental is in regard to spills from recreational and fishing boats and derelict vessels,” Pratt said. 

Boats that sink or catch fire in a marina or bay require response within a two-hour window, Nicholson noted. 

IOSA fills a gap in San Juan County, Nicholson said, because the islands are unlikely to receive spill response support for anything but a large spill. Most sites in the islands are already within the two-hour response window with the right boat, Nicholson said, and having IOSA equipment and personnel ready to go will speed up the process. 

“The oil industry is not going to show up and help us with a boat sinking in the marina,” Nicholson said. “That’s IOSA.”

The new base in Friday Harbor will provide IOSA with office space in direct proximity to both the water and equipment storage. Maintenance bays, parking space, dock space and office buildings will provide room for spill response vessels and equipment, as well as a location for training and response teams, said Cowen. It could also act as a command post in the event of a large spill in the area.

With funds from taxpayers, oil refineries, the Washington State Department of Ecology and other grants, IOSA works with about $260,000 a year, Nicholson said. This is used to maintain equipment and employ a few key organizers who keep the business going and organize the more than 100 volunteers standing by.

Ever-present threat of the big spill

More than 300 vessels stand at the ready in Washington State to handle
large- and small-scale oil spills. (Photo courtesy Islands Oil Spill Association)

“Any [size] spill is going to cause damage and be detrimental to the environment and our economy and our quality of life,” Pratt said.

Between January and March of this year, approximately 802 million gallons of crude oil were transferred via vessel through Washington’s waters according to Ecology’s quarterly crude oil movement report.

“There are 308 spill response vessels staged in Washington,” said Ty Keltner, Ecology communications manager. “The number represents many different types of vessels such as large ocean-capable skimming vessels and smaller booming vessels, or oil storage barges.”

Among the larger of the response vessels includes the emergency response towing vessel (ERTV) housed at Neah Bay. This tug has been on location since 1999 for oil spill response due to the close proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the Strait of Juan de Fuca passageway, Keltner said. While this boat has proved its value by handling disabled ships and spills in that area, it would take the ERTV much longer to reach a larger spill within San Juan County. 

“By the time the Neah Bay tug would get [to the islands], given the narrowness of our waterways and our currents, a vessel in distress would likely have already gone aground or had an accident,” Pratt said.

The annual cost of positioning an ERTV in San Juan County could range from $4.3 million to $6.2 million annually, according to the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee. However, a tug wouldn’t fall under IOSA’s umbrella, Nicholson said.

With the lack of response tug in the islands, prevention of large spills becomes all the more important. House Bill 1578, enacted in 2019, requires a tug escort for oil tankers in Rosario Strait, which passes to the east of the San Juan Islands. 

“What’s really important to understand is that oil [spill] prevention is paramount,” Pratt said.

In the event of a larger spill in the shipping lanes around the islands, or one in Canada that threatens to move into the area, the IOSA would serve primarily as a local knowledge source, Nicholson said.

“What [an outsider] response team would really want to know is if we have a captain or crew that can get them safely into the area, that knows the channels and currents,” Nicholson said. “That’s where IOSA really shines in a larger response.”

Looking to the future

Movement of container ships through the Puget Sound continues to grow, based on expansions in surrounding areas. In Canada, the proposed Robert Banks Terminal 2 Project would increase traffic by 520 ship transits per year by 2024, and the Trans Mountain Expansion Project would add another 700 per year, according to a 2014 Marine Shipping Concerns report from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

The Friends of the San Juans estimates that with an identified 25 new or expanding projects in British Columbia and Washington, annual vessel transits could increase by 4,232 — up to 35% — if all projects were approved. 

U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards continue to work together to train and prepare for a major spill that would affect both areas. In May 2019 they conducted an oil spill response drill in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, in partnership with Washington’s Ecology and the British Columbia Ministry of Environment. Practice drills help to test the activation process for the Canada-United States Joint Marine Pollution Contingency Plan, Pacific Annex (CANUSPAC Annex) and to test moving response assets and personnel across the U.S./Canadian border, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

In Friday Harbor, the building itself won’t be especially glamorous, Cowen said, but it shows a movement forward for IOSA housing. Having the resources to house a command center and share with other agencies would be necessary in the event of a major spill. He said the base will be “really exceptional in terms of how government and industry and volunteer citizens and non-profits can all come together in a way that normally doesn’t happen.”

When the Friday Harbor operations base is fully functional, what’s next? The IOSA looks forward to a more secure situation, Cowen said. Equipment upgrades and improvements are on the horizon, but for now focus remains on building out the physical presence in the San Juan Islands. 

The next big project for IOSA could be another boat, Cowen said: a newer, improved boat that would deploy to spills within the islands. But that is further down the road. 

Genevieve Iverson was born, raised and currently resides on San Juan Island. She studied journalism and creative writing at Western Washington University, and is an avid sailor in the Salish Sea.