For the first time in a decade, the plan the state uses to guide oil spill response on Grays Harbor has gotten an update — a hefty one.
Though the timing of the update with regard to three crude oil shipping proposals in the works for the Port of Grays Harbor is coincidental, the proposals were a big factor in how the plan was revised and in what detail.
“We greatly expanded the number of strategies, based on the potential projects in case they get permitted and are built,” said Department of Ecology Spill Preparedness Section Manager Linda Pilkey-Jarvis. “They definitely were a factor. If they end up not being built, it doesn’t matter, it still has improved our plan considerably by expanding our number of strategies and the geographic extent of our plan.”
Pilkey-Jarvis said the Geographic Response Plan nearly doubles the response strategies specifically for Grays Harbor — from 31 to 55 — in the new version, and adds in-depth contact lists for local agencies and stakeholders.
“That’s a pretty big difference between the old and the new,” she said.
She explained the plan as a sort of environmental triage. It doesn’t contain every spill scenario and isn’t meant to, but it provides a detailed road map for the first cleanup efforts.
“How quickly you can get there and start responding is probably the No. 1 factor” in successful spill cleanup, Pilkey-Jarvis said.
“Once oil is spilled, the damage starts right away. Nobody should believe that boom is like a wall or a curtain, but this is going to reduce the impact, it’s going to reduce the time the oil stays in the water, it’s going to reduce the impact on your high-priority resources,” she added.
Inland spill gap
The plan picks three locations considered likely to have a spill: the mouth of the Harbor between Westport and Ocean Shores, the Port, and, for the first time, up the Chehalis River near Cosmopolis.
That upriver spill location is new and reflects the potential for a spill on the rail line near the river.
However, the expansion of the plan also exposes a notable gap in the state’s spill response strategy: What does the state do if there’s a spill upriver? The plan contains several strategies for one point on the river, but no guarantees.
“We went further up the river, we tried to find the extent of the tidal influence. … But the real deal is that in this state, we have not made enough progress in developing the strategy for the inland areas,” Pilkey-Jarvis said. “And now that we have this real or proposed rail transport of oil, that’s exposed the weakness in our plan in that area.”
That knowledge gap is a huge red flag for opponents of the crude-by-rail plans of Westway Terminals, Imperium Renewables and U.S. Development.
Arthur “R.D.” Grunbaum called the plan “woefully inadequate.”
Brady Engvall of Brady’s Oysters commended the state’s efforts to formulate a quick spill response plan and protect what it can, but said the new version of the plan doesn’t do any more to protect his business than the old one did.
He’s on the list to be notified in the event of a spill, but Engvall said that won’t enable him to save his oysters.
“How do you move thousands upon thousands of pounds of product on short notice? There’s nothing that we can do. There’s just nothing to do. We’re at really high risk, and they pretty much admitted that,” Engvall said.
For Grunbaum, there’s no amount of planning or strategy or cleanup guarantees that will change his position that crude oil must not be transported through Grays Harbor.
“We can all plan to do something in a disaster, but in a disaster, that’s what it is — it’s a disaster,” Grunbaum said. “There’s no real way of putting the genie back in the bottle. There’s only one thing that really prevents devastating accidents, and that’s to not put the problem in harm’s way.
“There are projects that can be brought into Grays Harbor that would bring us jobs. Take a look at what the cars have done, take a look at what the grain has done. There are products that wouldn’t be dangerous for our marine resources and our existing jobs that we depend upon to survive.”
Engvall and Grunbaum agreed even a basic response plan like the GRP should go up the Chehalis River farther. Pilkey-Jarvis said she’s hoping for more funding to be able to do just that.
“We are under-resourced. The governor is proposing in his budget some additional resources to make better progress in the inland GRPs, so we are hoping. If it doesn’t happen, we will struggle the best that we can,” she said.
The Grays Harbor Geographic Response Plan is one of 19 plans that make up the Northwest Area Contingency Plan, which sets regional response strategies and priorities.
The plan details methods to clean different types of oil and fuel from the sediment, which will be important for general cleanup as well as areas where the best way to get oil off the water is to sweep it onto the shore and use a vacuum truck to collect the bulk of it.
For the Chehalis River spill point near Cosmopolis, one of the strategies involves booming at an angle sweeping oil toward the shore near Morrison Riverfront Park.
“Sometimes we are developing a collection strategy, so we pick out a likely piece of real estate with the intention of purposely driving oil that way so we can collect oil there — sort of like a sacrificial beach. So property owners should be aware of that,” Pilkey-Jarvis said.
For on-water recovery, the type of substance spilled isn’t specified, she said. There are just too many variables to plan every nuance in advance.
“You can’t predict where the oil will be. The on-water recovery aspect really has to be dependent on the conditions of the day and where the oil is. You don’t pre-script that,” she explained. “Each oil type will behave differently. For example, something like jet fuel is a much lighter oil that will evaporate quickly and spread very quickly, versus a heavier kind of a crude, which lingers much longer in the environment and spreads more slowly.”
There are several bodies of water in Washington where oil cleanup would be difficult, and some of the strategies in the new plan were developed specifically for Grays Harbor and its unique challenges.
“Grays Harbor is a real tough area because of the influence of the river there and the currents. You have some incredibly sensitive environments, and at different times of the year some of the hardest conditions for responding in. It’s a tough place,” Pilkey-Jarvis said.
Notification, even if it won’t ultimately help in all cases, is still an important part of the response plan. Farms with irrigation systems drawing water from the affected area or hatcheries may be able to avoid major damage if they know a spill is coming.
If any or all of the crude oil shipping and storage proposals are successful, Pilkey-Jarvis said she doesn’t expect the plan itself to be modified beyond what it is now. The big change will be the level of equipment available to implement cleanup.
“You have to grow the level of preparedness with the level of risk. If these other companies do come in, the Harbor should expect to grow its level of readiness,” she said.
There are caches of cleanup equipment around Grays Harbor as required, and as shippers start bringing in more hazardous materials, they would be required to keep more equipment in those caches or add caches.
“They each individually have to present their own oil spill plan, and they’re going to have to start contributing to that cache that is resident,” Pilkey-Jarvis said. “We’ll have more assets to be able to deploy this plan, so we’ll be faster at that initial containment.”
In the event of a spill, claims for damages can be filed with the spiller, and separate natural resources damage assessments will be done by the state to pay for damage to public resources.
“In Washington state the spiller has a legal obligation to clean up every bit of the oil that they spill. People should be assured the response will continue there until it’s done,” Pilkey-Jarvis said.