Neah Bay Marine manager Chad Bowechop remembers the sicken-ing smell of the Strait of Juan de Fuca after 400,000 gallons of heavy oil spilled into it in 1991.
The Tenyo Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel, collided with a Chinese freighter on July 22, 1991, and sank, spilling oil into the water north of Cape Flattery as it went down. The oil spread to the east and the south.
A doctor on the scene of the Tenyo Maru spill described to Bowechop the effect the oil had on shellfish at low tide.
"When the tide went out and it was a hot day he could literally smell the clams and the mussels cooking on the rocks," Bowechop said. "The oil was literally cooking our shellfish."
Beyond concerning, the scene of the "disastrous" spill made him heartsick, Bowechop said.
The spill, just two years after the notorious Exxon Valdez spill, brought renewed awareness that some stakeholders in the Northwest, like the Makah Nation, weren't adequately prepared to prevent or respond to oil spills off the coast, he said.
Nearly two decades later, as oil continues to gush off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, progress has been made but there is more to be done, Bowechop said.
"What the Gulf Coast proves is there needs to be much more dedicated response equipment," he said.
Tug helps prevent, respond to spills
Starting July 1, an emergency response tug will be stationed at Neah Bay full time and solely at the expense of the industries that use it most.
State Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, worked on the legislation that shifted funding for the now year-round tug from the taxpayers to the companies whose oil tankers, cargo ships, barges and cruise ships travel through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, since 1999 the tug has been deployed to assist 45 vessels, including 11 that had the potential to run aground and spill a combined 5 million gallons of oil.
"It's important for the state to ensure that our areas are protected regardless of what is happening nationwide or worldwide," he said, referring to the response resources that were sent to aid the gulf. "The tug does that."
Van De Wege said the tug also is able to go into Canadian waters to aid distressed vessels.
"An oil spill even in Canadian waters could impact our shores," he said.
The risk of a spill
The Department of Ecology is one of the main response groups for oil spills in Washington. The risk of a spill off the coastlines of Northwest Washington is the result of several unique characteristics.
Washington has the fifth-highest refining capacity in the nation and Puget Sound is the closest national port in the contiguous United States for ships carrying crude oil out of Valdez, Alaska, according to the department.
Port Angeles, which has a deep harbor fit for large ships, was the site of the state's eighth-largest spill. In 1985, the Arco Anchorage spilled 239,000 gallons of crude oil when it ran aground.
More recently, in 2002, a Panamanian tanker spilled almost 1,000 gallons of oil into Port Angeles harbor while refueling.
The largest spill in Washington history occurred in 1972 when the USS General M.C. Meiggs grounded near Cape Flattery and spilled an estimated 2.3 million gallons of heavy fuel oil.
Every hour, 1.5 million gallons of oil are transferred over Washington's waters, according to Ecology records. That equals 15 billion gallons a year.
Van De Wege said he knows people who were involved in the response to the 1985 spill.
"I think we've made progress for prevention and response (since then)," he said.
The need for response equipment
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's Marine Sanctuary has strong interest in protecting marine life in the Northwest in the event of an oil spill.
The marine ecosystem of the sanctuary is very productive and has more than 25 species of marine mammals, said Resource Protection Specialist Liam Antrim.
"If you look around the world, that's a pretty high number occurring in one place," he said. "It's an extraordinary place."
Antrim, who works in Port Angeles, said he was involved in the Arco Anchorage and Tenyo Maru spill response efforts as an aquatic toxicologist. Even a year after the Arco Anchorage spill, there still was oil coming off the shore, he said.
While he feels response groups are ready for a moderate-sized spill in good weather, the more common weather conditions off the peninsula's coast paired with tidal and current challenges would make it difficult for adequate equipment to reach the scene of a spill in time, he said.
"Every time there's been a major spill, there just isn't enough stuff getting on scene fast enough and it's just not adequate for the conditions we have," he said.
Bowechop said the equipment provided for oil spill response off the Olympic Peninsula just might not cut it during times of inclement weather.
"The gear needs to be fitted or reconciled to its operating environment," he said.
Not only do the gear and equipment need to be adaptable to the unique conditions of the Northwest coast, they need to be dedicated for response to ensure they're nearby and available when needed, he said.
Machinery, personnel sent to aid in Gulf spill
Not only was oil spill response equipment from the Olympic Peninsula sent to help in the Gulf spill, but members of the Coast Guard stationed in Port Angeles were deployed.
Gaylin Maghupoy, of Sequim, was deployed to Houma, La., in early June and will spend 60 days there processing the hundreds of Coast Guard personnel helping in the response.
Maghupoy said her command post has hundreds of people to process and there are five or six command posts.
The responders are helping to clean off boats and provide environmental enforcement, she said.
Van De Wege said there are many lessons to be learned from the Gulf spill, including the need for a robust and rapid response in the event of an oil spill.
But the biggest lesson, he said, is the need to become less dependent on oil in the first place.
Hands across the Sand
Sequim residents are joining in a local Hands Across the Sand gathering to raise awareness about the dangers of offshore drilling and call on leaders to end America's oil dependence and move the nation into a clean energy future.
The event at noon Saturday, June 26, at Dungeness Landing County Park is being held along with similar events nationwide. Participants will gather at 11 a.m. and hold hands in solidarity for 15 minutes beginning at noon. Dungeness Landing County Park is off Marine Drive on Oyster House Road, north of Sequim. Parking is limited.
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