People sat glued to their televisions watching the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill 11 million gallons of thick crude oil into the pristine waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound after striking a reef in March 1989. Thousands of oil-soaked birds, otters, fish and whales, some still alive, moved helplessly in and under the gluey blackness.
Nearly 34 years later, globs of oil still wash up on shore, and the marine habitat has still not recovered, according to scientists.
In the San Juan Islands, 1,200 miles southeast of the Exxon Valdez spill, the prospect of such an event drives the work of those passionately trying to avoid the same fate. With its fragile marine ecosystem and tourism-based economy, the islands sit in one the busiest shipping channels in the country, and see a growing number of oil tankers and cargo vessels pass by each day.
“A major oil spill is one of the biggest threats to San Juan County … its environment and its economy [and] quality of life,” said Lovel Pratt, Marine Protection and Policy Director for the environmental protection nonprofit the Friends of the San Juans.
A sheen and a smell
An alarm was raised on August 13 last year when an oil sheen was seen spreading off the west side of San Juan Island. The sheen, and its accompanying rotten-egg smell, were from the sinking Aleutian Isle, a 49-foot fishing vessel, which released 2,500 gallons of diesel fuel as it slipped under the surface of the Salish Sea. [Correction Feb. 7, 2023: The vessel released an estimated 2,000 gallons.]
The spill was rated a Type 2 out on scale of 5 (5 being the most severe), or “moderately volatile,” according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While not considered a major spill, the incident still required a great deal of equipment and the help of numerous response agencies. It was the first Type 2 incident in Puget Sound for the U.S. Coast Guard in 15 years.
In short, it was a wake-up call.
First to respond to the spill were islanders themselves, who spotted and smelled the oil and contacted the Islands’ Oil Spill Association (IOSA).
IOSA manages a trove of equipment including a trailer of booms, floating barriers to keep oil at bay and absorbent materials. “[It’s] nothing super-fancy: basic equipment with the idea that nowadays there will be a professional response organization coming to handle the spill,” said Brendan Cowan, Director of San Juan County’s Emergency Management Department and board member of IOSA.
IOSA in turn contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, who alerted the Washington Department of Ecology, the Swinomish Tribe and whale protection agencies.
As oil seeped out of the boat, IOSA deployed booms to prevent the spread of oil. [Correction Feb. 7, 2023: Ecology deployed the booms.] Mainland agencies arrived hours later and attempted to stop the leaking oil and to drain the vessel’s fuel tank. The situation became complicated when the boat sank, eventually resting 200 feet below the surface for 42 days before it could be raised and removed. During this time, the vessel remained a significant threat to the environment, according to Ecology, and was closely monitored for additional oil leakage, which ultimately was minimal. Many island beaches remained walled off with lines of orange boom for the last months of the summer.
Responders generally considered the response a success. Cowan said the spill response went as “good as can be expected.” Paul Hamdorf, Interim Director of IOSA during the Aleutian Isle spill, echoed Cowan, and praised the smooth communication between island and mainland responders, a result of pre-established relationships.
Deep, lingering concerns
Not everyone was happy. In September, dozens of islanders sent comments and suggestions to Ecology with concerns about how long the cleanup and boat removal took.
“[Residents] were concerned that they would like to see some of that equipment more readily available,” said Sonja Larson, the Response Technology Specialist for Ecology. “That’s a challenge we haven’t identified a solution for.”
Many islanders were concerned about the lack of equipment locally to deter endangered Southern Resident killer whales, who fortuitously were in the Port Angeles region at the time of the spill but could have been harmed had they swam through the oiled areas. [Correction Feb. 7, 2023: Whales were reportedly in the spill vicinity during the incident.]
The spill was small and diesel, not crude, oil which allowed a longer response time and less robust equipment.
Future spills, however, may not be as forgiving. And as Cowan noted previously, “As much as it hurts me to say it, I think in this part of the world, at some point in time, there will be a major spill.”
Isolation and self-reliance
The isolation of the islands spawns self-reliant measures, one of which was the creation of IOSA in 1988. The group formed after an unidentified oil spill resulted in oiled birds and clumps of black oil washing ashore in Mosquito Pass and Westcott Bay on the west side of San Juan Island. At the time, mainland response agencies were unable to provide help for over 24 hours, a critical period in oil response, leaving islanders with a sense of helplessness.
Led by Julie Knight, IOSA founders developed the goal of being prepared to provide essential resources for an initial spill response within just three hours of a spill.
“No one [was] going to take care of ourselves but we needed something to protect the islands,” said Cowan. The group gained nonprofit status and acquired grants with which they purchased enough equipment and underwent enough training to become critical first responders in containing a spill.
A nonprofit group of volunteers on the frontlines of disaster response is unusual. San Juan County is the only county in Washington that collects money from taxpayers for oil spill response, according to Pratt. “Because of risk levels, oil spill prevention is an environmental priority for the islands,” which is why IOSA receives $130,000 from a county levy every year, she said.
Under the leadership of Knight, IOSA responded to smaller oil spills without calling in mainland backup.
Five years ago, Knight stepped away from the organization for health reasons, and IOSA had to redefine its role as just a small piece of the initial response, recognizing that they were without the adequate equipment or paid experts to fully handle a larger spill. In their current search for an executive director, they are still redefining their role, leaving the islands to rely more heavily on mainland responders.
Taking too long?
This leaves some worried in the heavily trafficked, isolated location where having an island response is the greatest asset in the case of a spill. IOSA has pushed to get more response equipment, as has Pratt who has been working to obtain an emergency response towing vessel that could quickly respond to a vessel in distress. In 2019, San Juan County funded an oil spill impact study to assess risk and rate effectiveness of solutions, such as the response tug and additional whale deterrence equipment.
Ecology is analyzing the effectiveness of such a proposal and expects to have reports ready by September, which will determine the fate of a tug and other additional equipment, said Brian Kirk, Prevention Section Manager for Ecology.
For Kirk, the challenge is assessing risk. Predicting where a spill will occur is virtually impossible, which makes it difficult to evaluate what additional preventive measures should be put in place. “Where would we be best served by spending that money?” he asked.
For Pratt, things are taking far too long.
According to the 2021 Salish Sea Vessel Traffic Projections published by the Friends of the San Juans, vessel traffic will increase by 25% due to the 22 proposed on-land vessel terminals, fossil fuel infrastructure expansion projects and the completion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. All of this will result in significantly more oil carriers, barges and ships of all sizes sailing in and out of the Salish Sea.
“The cumulative impacts of all this increase in vessel traffic include accident, fire, hazardous material and oil spill risks, but also noise, ship strike and ship presence impacts on the marine ecosystem including Southern Resident orcas,” Pratt said.
In islanders’ hands
But there is hope, and it lies in the hands of islanders. “In the event of a catastrophic spill, if [IOSA] can take the impact from 80% bad to 50% bad that’s a big deal,” says Cowan. Part of this is continuing to serve as first responders, as has always been their role. But beyond this, the hope is to continue fostering strong relationships with mainland responders, an important piece of response coordination that only a few years ago was missing, and was proven invaluable in the case of the Aleutian Isle sinking.
Cowan believes that IOSA, even amidst internal changes, is an essential part of the puzzle, and remains a unique asset to the islands. “IOSA has a toolkit of potential capabilities,” he noted — one of which is the group’s goal to educate vessel owners at the islands’ marinas about preventive measures to mitigate the many small, but cumulatively significant, spills that occur each year.
Friends of the San Juans is seeking to get enough equipment on the islands to meet the Legislature’s response steps for the first four hours after a spill, when responders must deploy a specific type and amount of boom with the capacity to capture and store oil. Currently, IOSA’s equipment can handle the requirements for only the first three hours of a spill. Grants could buy the equipment to make the islands more self-reliant in case of a major disaster. [Correction Feb. 7, 2023: Response requirements during the first four to six hours after a spill include tasks requiring hiring trained personnel.]
With current resources and with what the lessons the Aleutian Isle response taught, are the islands prepared to handle a large oil spill? Both Cowan and Pratt gave a resounding “no.”
“I don’t have a problem with standing up and saying that, but not everybody will,” said Cowan.
— Reported by Kathryn Wheeler