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Rising danger: Project tracks where oil spill might go in the Salish Sea

Crude oil tankers like this may become a lot more common along the Pacific Northwest. Credit: Ting Chen/Flickr (CC)

The rapid rise of tar sands oil shipments through Canada to the Northwest is leading to increased worries about oil spills in coastal waters. Tanker traffic is expected to increase 600 percent, from the current 60 tar sands oil tankers a year to over 400. With memories of Exxon Valdez, the Deepwater Horizon and, more recently, Galveston fresh on their minds, residents of the San Juan Islands recently launched a study to simulate the route of a potential oil spill in the Salish Sea. 

Captain James Slocomb navigates his boat, the Sea Otter, through near shore waters of the San Juan Islands.“44.561 West, seas flat, calm and the wind out of the North at about 10 knots,” he says. The captain and crew are on a unique mission, dropping plywood drift cards into the water to simulate what would happen in the event of an oil spill. They are hoping to get plenty of reports from the public about where the sea's currents carry the cards.

Tar sands oil from Canada is on the rise at refineries on the coast, adding to already heavy tanker traffic. If Kinder Morgan's proposed Trans Mountain pipeline in Canada is approved, the company estimates tanker traffic would increase 600 percent from 60 tankers a year to over 400.

Oil spill preparedness in the Northwest has traditionally been modeled on crude from Alaska's North Slope. The effects of tar sands or diluted bitumen, aka dilbit, on these waters is unknown. How it sinks depends on ocean currents and the presence of any flooding from rivers, which would increase sediment or mud and add to the weight of the bitumen. Stephanie Buffum of Friends of the San Juans, a conservation group active since 1979, says, “You know here in the Salish Sea we're sloshing around twice a day with significant tidal variations and that can move oil around very quickly. So we could see the entire shorelines with a bathtub line full of dilbit.”

The San Juans, which are among the state's most popular attractions, serve as a home to resident orcas, seals, salmon and marine life. “If our beaches are covered with oil we will be decimating the primary food source for not only marine mammals but fish and birds as well,” says Buffum. And, she adds, it would decimate the islands' recreational and tourist economy.

Captain Slocomb, a retired Exxon Valdez first responder now living off Friday Harbor, was in charge of the global information system database for spill reports. His memories remain vivid. “It was sort of like scenes out of an apocalypse movie with thousands of people crawling on the beach pressure washing and miles of steam cleaner hose. It was a very other worldly scene and it smelled like hell.” He checks navigation charts as the Sea Otter enters Rosario Straits between the San Juan Islands and the mainland.

This is where a majority of roundabout traffic carrying Kinder Morgan tar sands travels as it is offloaded at Anacortes refineries. Some of the refined products, including those from oil delivered to the refineries pipeline or by train from North Dakota, also get shipped down the West Coast through here. Pointing to a small island named Vendovi, Slocomb says, “Right at the moment there's a tanker anchored on either side of it and there's another one down here off of the March Point Refinery.”

Sea Otter crew member Sanford Olson is a retired Navy officer and has experience driving large ships. “Bad weather, difficult navigation, fog, mechanical failure, errors made by the people who are running the ship — all of these things can result in an accident that would be catastrophic for the islands,” Olson says. He's also a member of the Islands Oil Spill Association, one of only a handful of private first responder organizations on the coast. Even with the state's highly regarded Regional Response Team, an oil spill here would be devastating, he says.

“We can't protect 400 miles of shoreline because it's mostly rocky and there's nothing we can do about that," Olson says. "It's going to get on the rocks and tide flats. It may not look like it but there are enormous numbers of animals and plants that need that environment and could be easily destroyed for years. Our biggest concern is to try to prevent this from happening and the only way we can do that is to say let's not build any more oil terminals.” Five refineries and oil-train terminals are operational with more terminals proposed in Washington and Oregon.

Gary Shigenaka, a marine biologist with NOAA, has been tracking the growth of tar sands shipments in the Northwest and done long-term recovery studies of Prince William Sound. He's also studied the nation's biggest inland oil spill, which occurred in July 2010 when a pipeline owned by Enbridge spilled a million gallons of tar sands oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River. The EPA directed Enbridge to complete cleanup by the end of last year but extended the deadline to October of this year.

How would tar sands impact the ecosystem of the Salish Sea, San Juan Islands and Canada's Gulf and Queen Charlotte Islands? ”That's sort of the $64 million dollar question,” Shigenaka says. First affected would be biological communities on the surface of the water. “And if it sinks you've got the third dimension of dealing with organisms both in the water column and potentially on the bottom," he says, "so it expands the potential for affects pretty substantially.”

The challenge for the Salish Sea and Northwest coast is the huge increase in expected volume of oil to be transported, says Shinegaka. Whether carried by pipeline, rail car or marine vessels, oil from elsewhere in North America will be coming through the region. “I've used the analogy of a lottery ticket," he says. "You know you can buy one ticket and be in the game but if you buy a thousand tickets, your odds are better at winning. In this case it's a bad outcome.”

Friends of the San Juans released 200 drift cards into the Salish Sea. The drift cards state that they're part of a study to “inform our knowledge of ocean currents, potential oil spills and raise awareness regarding spills from shipping in the Salish Sea.” People who find the cards are asked to report the time the card was found and where on an interactive website,, where the results from some earlier drops and the first reports from this one are already available. The map is part of a research project to better understand the path an oil spill might take and how far the oil could travel.

The project is a collaboration between Friends of the San Juans and B.C's Georgia Straits Alliance and Raincoast Conservation Foundation. This fall they plan to drop more than 1,000 cards at key locations from Burrard Inlet in southwestern British Columbia, through the Gulf and San Juan Islands and out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Like a message in a bottle, the drift cards, say organizers, carry a simple message: This could be oil.

So far, 55 of the recently released cards have been reported on the spill map,  primarily on the eastern and southern side of the San Juan Islands but also as far as Victoria. The members hope there won't be anyone reporting an oil spill. Last month, 6,300 gallons of crude oil spilled at Shell's Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes but was contained.

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