‘Small’ Oil Spills Can Add Up To Big Costs

Oiled mallard ducks recuperate in cribs inside heated tents after a Sunnyside oil spill.Rowan Moore Gerety/Northwest Public Radio / Northwest Public Radio
Oiled mallard ducks recuperate in cribs inside heated tents after a Sunnyside oil spill.
Rowan Moore Gerety/Northwest Public Radio / Northwest Public Radio

by Rowan Moore Gerety Northwest Public Radio


State Fish and Wildlife Biologist Brian McDonald is careful not to raise his voice as he approaches a row of baby cribs in a warehouse in Pasco, Washington. Each one holds mallard ducks.

“They’re typically in pretty rough shape—they’re sick, they’re cold, they’re oiled, they’re hungry,” he says.

The ducks were hit by an oil spill in Sunnyside earlier this month. McDonald says oil coats the ducks’ feathers and breaks down their natural waterproofing, “so each time they go into the water, it’s like a scuba diver going in without a wetsuit.”

Though they don’t always make headlines, 95 percent of oil spills in the U.S. are relatively small — less than the size of a tanker truck you might see on the highway. Washington State’s Department of Ecology responds to about 400 oil spills a year, nearly all of them a few thousand gallons or less.

Jeff Lewis, who leads the department’s spill cleanup in central Washington, says: “Early on, it’s usually a lot of detective work. In this case, it wasn’t intuitive where this thing came from.”

With spills to running water like the one in Sunnyside, he says, “they had to find the most upstream pipe they could see that was producing oil, and start narrowing your search.”


Emergency crews responded to a 1,500 gallon oil spill in Central Washington’s Yakima River in early March, 2015.
Emergency crews responded to a 1,500 gallon oil spill in Central Washington’s Yakima River in early March, 2015. Washington Department of Ecology


Lewis says responders looking for the source of the Sunnyside spill eventually traced the oil over 24 miles of moving water, from the Yakima River through a network of irrigation ditches. The culprit was a single storage tank on an old feedlot. Cleanup took as many as 50 people working 11 days straight.

“Even though 2-3,000 gallons of oil may not seem like a lot where it’s in aggregate form, in a tank, when it spreads out over the water, it can get into the weeds, into the cattails,” Lewis says. That makes cleanup a much more complicated undertaking.

All told, the U.S. spends almost $3 billion annually cleaning up spills on lakes, rivers, and streams. That’s the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez cleanupevery single year.

It’s too soon to say exactly how the Sunnyside spill began, but corrosion and punctures are the most common cause. So-called “structural failures” account for one out of every four inland spills.

“The oil industry in the U.S. has been around 120 + years,” observes geologist Ed Owens. “There are pipelines laid down, which, in some areas, are long since abandoned.”

In rural areas, used motor oil like the stuff in Sunnyside was long used to keep dust down on dirt roads. Everywhere there’s oil, there are tanks or pipes to hold it: everything from farms and gas stations to backup generators.

Since a lot of this infrastructure is underground, Owens says leaks often go unnoticed until it’s too late, as happened with a spill discovered beneath New York City’s JFK airport in the 1990s.

“Thousands of gallons of jet fuel had been spilled over the years,” Owens says, “and only when some of that leaked into a small creek, and it was decided to better look at this, they discovered the problem was really quite huge.”

Over time, the EPA has strengthened regulations on facilities used to store and transport oil. Spills today are just a quarter of what they were in the 1970s.

But those regulations don’t cover everything. “There’s bound to be old tanks out there that predate the regulations,” Owens says. “They’ve never had to fit into the system, because either they went out of use—that doesn’t mean to say they were empty—” or, at a few thousand gallons, they’re small enough that no special permit is required.

The EPA says it didn’t know about the Sunnyside tank until after the spill. And when the agency does do inspections, it finds leaks more than half the time.

BNSF Railway Could Face Big Fines After Hazardous Spills In Washington

The view from the BNSF Railway rail yard in Spokane.Courtney Flatt
The view from the BNSF Railway rail yard in Spokane.
Courtney Flatt


By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

Washington regulators say the region’s biggest oil-train operator should be penalized after failing to comply with reporting requirements following 14 spills of hazardous materials, including crude oil.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission said Thursday an investigation had found that between Nov. 1 of last year and Feb. 24, BNSF Railway committed 700 violations of the state’s reporting requirement for railway spills of hazardous materials. Four of those spills involved trains carrying crude oil through Washington state.

Under the state’s requirement, BNSF was obligated to  call a toll-free number within 30 minutes of an incident.

“When a company fails to notify, that means that critical response resources might not be deployed and that really could cause potential harm to the public and the environment,” commission spokeswoman Amanda Maxwell said. “That could also lead to a delay in response and containment resources necessary to clean up the spill. That’s why that 30 minutes is vital to the response and reporting of the incident.”

Companies can face fines of $1,000 for each day such an incident goes unreported.

State officials say BNSF Railway could owe up to $700,000  for failing to inform responders about the 14 spills.

Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF, issued a prepared statement, saying her railway “believed we were complying in good faith with the requirements from our agency partners.”

The statement went on to say BNSF had followed guidance from state regulators with the commission, reviewed its own reporting notification process, and changed its practices to address regulators’ concerns.

According to the commission, BNSF will have the opportunity to request a hearing to respond to the allegations and ultimately the commissioners will decide the outcome.  Commissioners will consider several factors, including how serious and harmful the violations were to the public, whether the violations were intentional, and how cooperative and responsive BNSF was.

Conservation Groups Concerned Oil Spill Would Harm Wildlife

An oil train moves through Skagit County in Western Washington, headed to refineries in the Northwestern part of the state. | credit: Katie Campbell
An oil train moves through Skagit County in Western Washington, headed to refineries in the Northwestern part of the state. | credit: Katie Campbell


Courtney Flatt, Northwest Public Radio


As more oil trains travel along the Columbia River and Puget Sound, conservation groups worry that cleanup plans could harm sensitive wildlife, like endangered salmon and shorebirds.

That concern is prompting legal action. The Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Columbia Gorge Thursday filed a 60-day notice to sue the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency. The conservation groups say the oil spill response plan needs to be updated to account for endangered species.

Jared Margolis, an attorney for the center, said the response plan hasn’t been updated in 10 years. That means the plan doesn’t include new wildlife habitat and new species on the Endangered Species List, like smelt, also known as eulachon.

“If those spill response plans aren’t up-to-date, they could boom the oil right into critical habitat for endangered species, which can really impact the salmon and sturgeon.” Margolis said.

Margolis said the Gulf Coast’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill taught conservation groups that cleanup efforts, like burning oil and mixing oil with the dispersants, could harm endangered species.

An EPA spokeswoman said she could not comment on pending litigation. She said cleanup plans in the Northwest include monitoring for endangered species.

Pollution From Columbia River Dams Must Be Disclosed

By: Associated Press; Source: OPB


The Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. A legal settlement requires the Army Corps of Engineers to disclose the pollution that its dams put into the river. | credit: Amelia Templeton
The Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. A legal settlement requires the Army Corps of Engineers to disclose the pollution that its dams put into the river. | credit: Amelia Templeton


For the first time in its history, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have to disclose the amount of pollutants its dams are sending into waterways in a groundbreaking legal settlement that could have broad implications for the Corps’ hundreds of dams nationwide.

The Corps announced in a settlement on Monday that it will immediately notify the conservation group that filed the lawsuit of any oil spills among its eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon and Washington.

The Corps will also apply to the Environmental Protection Agency for pollution permits, something the Corps has never done for the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The settlement filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, Oregon, ends the year-old consolidated lawsuit by the conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper, which said the Corps violated the Clean Water Act by unmonitored, unpermitted oil discharges from the eight hydroelectric dams.

The settlement reflects the recent tack of the EPA regulating the environmental impacts of energy. The agency has recently come up with regulations of mountaintop removal for coal and fracking for oil and gas.

As part of the settlement, the Corps admits no wrongdoing, but will pay $143,000 and the consolidated cases were dismissed.

When contacted by The Associated Press, the Corps’ Northwest and national offices requested questions via email Monday and did not immediately comment on the settlement.

The settlement will allow oversight of the dams by the EPA. The agency had the authority to regulate the dams’ pollution before the settlement, but it could not compel the corps to file for a pollution permit. The Corps will also be forced to switch to a biodegradable lubricant for its dam machinery if an internal study finds that it’s financially feasible.

The Corps isn’t just a polluter, however. It’s also a regulator of pollution under the Clean Water Act. The act grants the Corps the authority to issue permits for the discharge of materials excavated from or put into U.S. waterways.

“Under the letter of the law, they have been engaged in unpermitted discharge for years,” said Melissa Powers, an environmental law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. “They should have long ago said, ‘This is how much we’re discharging. Here are the environmental impacts.’ “

Monday’s settlement will force the Corps’ hand. To discharge pollutants into waterways, the polluters must obtain permission from state and federal governments. Before the settlement, the EPA knew about the unpermitted discharges from the dams, but the Corps said in letters to state agencies that it is not accountable to the EPA.

The Corps argued in the same letters that disclosing the mechanical workings of the dam as part of an oil-discharge summary could compromise the dams’ security.

In July 2013, Columbia Riverkeeper sued and demanded to know what the Corps was sending into the water and how much of it was going in.

“When you’re not regulated under a permit, you don’t have to say what the impact (of pollution) on water was,” Powers said.

Nationally, the settlement could force all unpermitted dams to obtain National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits from the EPA.

Daniel Estrin, an environmental law professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, New York, said the settlement will make it impossible for the Corps to say that all of its pollutant-discharging dams don’t require discharge permits.

“The Corps’ acknowledgement of the need for permits in this settlement will make it difficult for other owners to successfully deny that permits are required in the face of citizen suits like the one brought (here),” Estrin said.

The eight dams affected by the settlement are the Bonneville, the John Day, The Dalles and McNary in Oregon and the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite in Washington state.

Environmentalists will be closely watching the type of permit issued by the EPA, Powers said. A “site-specific” permit would likely include limits that the Corps would have to meet on the amount of oil discharged.

If the EPA instead issues a general permit, environmentalists would be less sanguine about its prospects, Powers said. General permits are less effective in compelling change because they are issued without specific metrics that must be met, she said.

In 2009, the EPA found a host of toxins in fish on the Columbia River, including polychlorinated biphenyl, a potentially carcinogenic synthetic that was banned for production in the U.S. in 1979.

The eight dams use turbines that have shafts and hubs filled with oil or other lubricants. The oil leaks to the surface, along with oil from drainage sumps, transformers and wickets that control water flow.

Vancouver City Council Votes 5-2 To Oppose Northwest’s Largest Oil Terminal

Hundreds turned out for a Vancouver City Council hearing on a resolution opposing the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal, proposed for the Port of Vancouver. | credit: Cassandra Profita
Hundreds turned out for a Vancouver City Council hearing on a resolution opposing the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal, proposed for the Port of Vancouver. | credit: Cassandra Profita

By Cassandra Profita, OPB

Monday night had turned to Tuesday morning by the time the Vancouver City Council voted to pass a non-binding resolution opposing what would be the Northwest’s largest oil-by-rail shipping facility.

The vote was 5-2 with Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilor Bill Turlay dissenting. It followed six hours of testimony from residents, most of them opposed to the Port of Vancouver’s planned facility that would transfer North Dakota crude oil from trains to ships bound for West Coast refineries.

It was after 1 am when City Councilor Bart Hansen made a motion to pass the resolution, which expresses deep concern about rail safety, oil spills and explosions and urges Washington Gov. Jay Inslee not to approve the Tesoro Savage oil terminal.

The council debated whether or not to take the vote in the wee hours of the morning. Turlay said he wasn’t ready to take action. Leavitt said he wanted to make some changes to resolution before voting.

“I’ve been told nothing good happens after midnight,” Leavitt joked in pushing to delay the vote. “I know there are ways to improve the resolution. I hope we can get to a unanimous vote. Certainly, I’m not supportive of it as it is now.”

But other councilors pushed ahead. Councilor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said two-thirds of the testimony and comments she’s heard are from people opposed to the project.

“When I look at all the different e-mails that have come back, the voice says that for this community, this doesn’t work for us.”

Big Crowd Dwindles

By the time the board voted a crowd that had started out in the hundreds had dwindled to a few dozen.

More than 170 people signed up to testify at the hearing. At 11 p.m., more than four hours after the hearing began, the council voted to extend the meeting even later to take additional testimony. By 1 am, the council had heard from 101 people.

Even before the resolution was formally taken up, a majority of the city council had voiced opposition to the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal.

The hearing addressed two resolutions on the terminal, but most residents came to talk about the one that opposes the project as a whole. That resolution asks the Port of Vancouver to cancel its lease with Tesoro-Savage and urges state agencies and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee not to approve the project. It also supports new laws and regulations to improve crude oil transportation safety.

The council unanimously approved a resolution that calls for the city to play a bigger role in the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council review process.The council is in the midst of completing an environmental review of the project and is tasked with making a recommendation to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say. That resolution supports the city’s intervening in that process by presenting evidence to the state council, making arguments and appealing a decision to approve the oil terminal.

Most who testified Monday night voiced support for both resolutions and opposition to the oil terminal, although there were many who spoke on behalf of project backers Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies.

Emotional Testimony

The resolutions drew some emotional testimony from both sides.

Don Orange, owner of Hoesly Eco-Automotive of Vancouver, told the council that he’s angry about the prospect of “thousands of pounds of filth” coming into his neighborhood and hurting his business.

“You can call this a terminal. To me, it’s a toilet,” he said. “It’s coming in here on a freight train and we’re flushing it off into ships. This small businessman thinks it stinks.”

On the other side, Port Commissioner Jerry Oliver expressed sadness that the council would consider opposing the project he thinks will benefit the country as a whole by distributing more domestically produced oil to U.S. refineries.

“It makes me sad, not so much that you’re turning your back on the Port of Vancouver, but that you have so little faith in our ability as a community to make this happen,” Oliver said.

Safety And Business Concerns Raised

The Tesoro Savage oil terminal would transport up to 380,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The oil would come from North Dakota’s Bakken fields by trains, be transferred to vessels on the Columbia River and then shipped to West Coast refineries. It’s the largest oil terminal project among the several proposed in the Northwest.

While project supporters noted that the city council doesn’t have the authority to stop the project, opponents of the project said it’s important that the city council let the governor know where it stands.

“It’s difficult to imagine the governor supporting this project if the city of Vancouver opposes it,” said Clark County resident Don Steinke after presenting the council with a box of 2,000 signatures in support of the resolutions.

Vancouver resident Carol Rose says she’s worried about safety in her community if the proposed project is built.

“It’s a tremendous amount of oil, and it’s a danger,” she says. “I’ve lived here for 40 years. I don’t want to have to move because of this.”

Many project opponents voiced concern about the risk of oil train derailments and explosions like the one that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last year.

Project supporters defended the safety record of Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. Earlier this year, Tesoro committed to using newer rail cars that meet higher safety standards.

Many who testified in support of the project were employees of Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. They told the council that they appreciate the jobs and economic development the oil terminal would bring to the area and vouched for the companies’ track records in treating their employees well.

Jared Larrabee, general manager for Tesoro, said the resolution opposing the project is premature because the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council hasn’t completed its environmental review.

“The resolution is making a predetermination without having all of the facts, in our view,” he said. “The resolution contains several inaccuracies and assertions that haven’t been validated by the forthcoming Environmental Impact Statement.”

He and other Tesoro representatives supported the resolution that would support the city intervening in the state’s environmental review process. But they urged the council to delay its vote opposing the project or to reconsider it altogether.

Todd Coleman, director of Port of Vancouver, criticized the city’s resolution and said it would damage the port’s ability to do business.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he told the board. “You can’t have a thriving port and all the things that come with that success and then attempt to choose between cargo. A vote for this resolution is a vote against this community’s ability to attract private sector business.”

More oil spills ahead for Puget Sound?

Ingrid TaylarThe Puget Sound — prettier without an oily sheen.
Ingrid TaylarThe Puget Sound — prettier without an oily sheen.
By John Upton, Grist
The Puget Sound — prettier without an oily sheen.

It looks like Puget Sound – which isn’t actually a noise but a sprawling and ecologically rich estuary in Washington state – is about to get a whole lot oilier.

An ugly trifecta of fossil fuel export projects proposed around the sound would substantially boost shipping traffic, and a new report funded by the EPA and produced by academic scientists for a state agency warns that can be expected to bring oil spills with it.

If the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal is built at Cherry Point, Wash., and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline into Vancouver is expanded, and Vancouver’s Deltaport is expanded, the report warns that the frequency of ship groundings and collisions could rise by 18 percent. Regionally, the risks of a large oil spill could rise by about two-thirds, the researchers found. Here’s more from the AP:

“The problem area is the Haro Strait area and the approach to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where spill volumes could more than triple due to the potential new mix and volume of traffic,” said Todd Hass with the Puget Sound Partnership, the agency is charged with protecting the waterway.

Under a proposal by Kinder Morgan Canada, up to 34 tankers a month would be loaded with oil at a Vancouver-area terminal, up from about five tankers a month now. Those tankers would generally travel through the Haro Strait west of San Juan Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The report concludes that the risks could be reduced through improved vessel traffic management, more vessel inspections, reduced speed limits for ships, and more tug escorts. And the report points out that those measures could help reduce oil spill dangers regardless of whether the dangerous fossil fuel projects move forward.

Seeping Alberta Oil Sands Spill Covers 40 Hectares, Still Leaking

Source: ICTMN

As debate rages south of the 49th Parallel over developments such as the Keystone XL pipeline, bitumen from four underground oil spills is quietly seeping into wetlands and soils in the oil sands in northern Alberta—and has been for at least three months, if not longer.

Bitumen leakage now totals at least 1.2 million liters—about 8,024 barrels, or 317,000 gallons, the Alberta Energy Regulator, a provincial agency, said in an August 16 update. And despite claims by the operator, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, that the spills are contained and being remediated, recent provincial statements indicate that that is not the case.

“It’s ongoing. The spill is still ongoing,” said Cara Tobin, a spokesperson for the provincial agency Alberta Energy Regulator, to the website DesmogCanada.com on August 6. “There is still bitumen coming up from the ground.”

The spills at Canadian Natural Resources’ Primrose facility first came to light in mid-July, but they had been ongoing for weeks, and one may even date back to last winter, the Toronto Star reported on July 19. The operations lie on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, which is also an active weapons-testing site for the Canadian military and thus restricted to public access.

Documents brought to light by the Star show that 26,000 barrels of bitumen combined with surface water had been removed between May, when cleanup began, and mid-July, when the spills came to light via a television station. More than 4,500 barrels were straight bitumen, the Star reported. The latest update nearly doubles that number.

“Everybody [at the company and in government] is freaking out about this,” said a whistle-blowing government scientist to the newspaper back in July. “We don’t understand what happened. Nobody really understands how to stop it from leaking, or if they do they haven’t put the measures into place.”

The company issued a statement on July 31 saying that it was remediating the spills.

“Each location been secured, clean up, recovery and reclamation activities are well underway,” the company said. “The bitumen emulsion does not pose a risk to health or human safety.”

Nearby Cold Lake First Nation, whose residents are Dene, was of a completely different mind.

“We are extremely alarmed with the environmental damage from the blow out that occurred at Cold Lake Weapons Range as this is in the federally recognized traditional territory of Cold Lake First Nations and close to CLFN Indian Reserve 149C,” said Cold Lake First Nation Chief Bernice Martial in a statement on August 7. “We contacted Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) to express CLFN’s concerns and we are now demanding answers and want factual information on the contamination of four recent surface releases of bitumen emulsion from oil wells.”

Canadian Natural Resources did admit that “unfortunately some animal fatalities have occurred including 16 birds, 7 small mammals and 38 amphibians. Two beavers, two birds and two muskrats are currently being cared for prior to being returned to their natural environment.”

Critics of the process being used to extract the bitumen suspect that the leaks stem from a method of “steaming” the ground in a process not unlike fracking (hydraulic fracturing of rock that loosens oil and gas deposits in shale). Steaming entails injecting highly pressurized water into the sands to melt the bitumen so that it can be pumped to the surface. Canadian Natural Resources said that its process is not the cause—the company does not use enough pressure to cause that type of leakage, a spokesman told the Star, and blames instead improperly capped wells from other companies’ defunct operations.

The Dene are demanding not only answers but inclusion in the evaluation and cleanup process as well.

“Our community needs to be respectfully involved in the remediation of this environmental disaster as our health and safety hangs in the balance,” Martial said. “We live, hunt, fish in the area and need to know the damage that has been done to our land, water and wildlife.”


Read more at https://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/08/18/seeping-alberta-oil-sands-spill-covers-40-hectares-still-leaking-150934