Oil spill would be catastrophic in Puget Sound




Posted on August 4, 2010 at 6:06 PM

SEATTLE - Government scientists said Wednesday that nearly 70 percent of the spilled oil is mostly gone -- either dissolved naturally, burned, skimmed, or dispersed.  Some even eaten naturally by bacteria.  NOAA says 52 million gallons remain in the water.

However, an oceanography professor at Florida State University calls the report is shaky at best and says there's much we don't know about where the oil has gone.

And while there is hope, there still is a lot of skepticism and a little bit of worry that somehow that news might cause the government to think twice about safety precautions currently in place.

"I was immediately skeptical. Petroleum is a complex chemical," said Chris Wilke who heads the Puget Sound Keeper Alliance, an organization that watches for pollution on Puget Sound.

Every year, 14 billion gallons of oil is transported over Washington waters, according to the state's Ecology Department. Every tanker is escorted by a tug east of Port Angeles.

As of last month, the oil companies are now paying for the permanent stationing of a rescue tug at Washington's northwest tip - a tug that would keep a ship in trouble off the rocks, a tug designed to prevent another Exxon Valdez disaster.

But if a spill happened…

"With the colder water possibly heavier oil and poor circulation within Puget Sound, so any oil that made it into the Puget Sound would be with us for a long time," said Wilke.

Colder water means oil would be slower to evaporate and that oil eating-bacteria helping out in the Gulf, that's been considered by the state.

"When we've evaluated those, they just don't work in waters as cold as here in Puget Sound," said Curt Hart, Department of Ecology.

In Washington's inland waters, oil could reach the shoreline quickly, while it took weeks to make landfall in the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, Washington's Ecology Department is taking lessons learned from the Gulf, and is looking to apply them here.

There are major concerns over oil's toxic effects.
"We're looking at how dispersants drive oil down into the water column, and how it acts in our environment," said Hart. "Low probability of a spill, but the results would be catastrophic.

Now, under the rules in Washington, dispersants and the burning of oil on the surface would not be used in Puget Sound. They would be used off the outer coast, but these techniques are all being studied against the backdrop of what was experienced in the Gulf.

The Ecology Department says a spill here could have an $11 billion impact to the economy. Some industry estimates say it would cost $10,000 to $20,000 per gallon to clean up.