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Getting to the Source of the Puget Sound Oil Spill

Sidebar: Delaware River spill

Editors' update: Since this story went to press, U.S. Coast Guard officials have announced that the oil that spilled into Puget Sound in October matched that from an oil tanker owned by ConocoPhillips. The company denies that its tanker, the Polar Texas, could be the culprit and has filed a lawsuit to force the government to turn over its testing records. ConocoPhillips maintains that if it is found to be responsible, they will "do the right thing," according to the Seattle Times (Dec. 24, 2004).

At 1:15 a.m. on Oct. 14, a call came into the alert center that tracks oil spills in Puget Sound, offshore of Tacoma, Wash. A tugboat captain reported seeing black oil in Dalco Passage, a stretch of water that brushes against two island communities. The alert center scheduled a helicopter to check it out at sunrise, but by the time the helicopter could fly to the scene, it was too late to contain the spill.

Workers mobilized by the Washington Department of Ecology cleaned up beaches in the Dalco Passage of Puget Sound, after an oil spill on Oct. 14. The source of the spill remains unknown. Courtesy of the Washington Department of Ecology.

A thousand gallons ended up in the sound. The oil spread during the 12 hours following the spill, and it eventually washed ashore on 21 miles of beach. By midday, the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Coast Guard mobilized response teams to start cleanup efforts.

"All the recoverable oil has been removed," says Larry Altose, spokesman for the Department of Ecology, "but there may be remnants of oil that are in the ecosystem." Some say that if the response time had been quicker, the oil spill would have been contained in the water and would not have spread to the beaches. Investigators are now working toward identifying the source's spill, while the state and Coast Guard are working toward developing a better response plan.

After the spill, the state sent samples from the oil spill and those collected from suspect sources by the U.S. Coast Guard to a local state laboratory, where they underwent a gas chromatography process to "fingerprint" the oil. Wayne Gronlund, a chemist who manages the Coast Guard laboratory in Groton, Conn., where most Coast Guard samples are sent, says that the Puget Sound oil spill investigators are looking for "biomarkers," which "carry with them a lot of the original chemical structure of the plants that were decomposed to form the oil." The amount of biodegradation and weathering of the hydrocarbons is of concern when comparing spill samples, which generally have been exposed to water and air, to the oil sampled from ships or other sources, he says.

Delaware River spill

As investigators were continuing to trace the oil spilled in Puget Sound in early October, a single-hulled tanker spilled 30,000 gallons of petroleum in the Delaware River on Nov. 26. The oil spill threatens tidal marshlands and inlets, and the thousands of birds that use them. The Delaware River also provides drinking water to millions of people.

The ship, which is registered in Cyprus, dumped its Venezuelan crude oil after a 6-foot hole was gouged out of its side, discovered later by divers investigating the spill. The ship's owner and Citgo, which was expecting the oil delivery at one of its facilities upstream, immediately cooperated in the response effort, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. New Jersey's Acting Governor Richard J. Codey said in a statement on Nov. 29 that cleanup efforts "are on schedule to completely remove the oil from the river within two to three months and to eradicate all residual effects in the area within six months." River traffic also had resumed with some controls, according to the governor's statement.

But a week after the spill, Coast Guard investigators were still trying to locate 473,500 gallons of crude oil that remained unaccounted for, according to the New York Times.


So far, investigators have identified at least six potential sources from ship logs and other evidence. A grand jury subpoenaed information from ConocoPhillips, which owns one of the suspect vessels, according to reports from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times. A spokesperson for the company says that "ConocoPhillips has not been made aware of any findings from the ongoing investigation. We do not believe we are the responsible party based upon our own ongoing internal inquiries and we continue to cooperate fully with the investigation."

"It's very rare that people don't take responsibility" for a spill, says Dave Sawicki, a geologist who is BP's director of crisis management and response for the western United States. With regard to oil spills and cleanup, he says, Washington "more than any other state is so conscious of this — it's really important to the people and the industry," which partly explains the public outcry following the delayed response to the spill.

Relative to a larger Puget Sound oil spill that occurred on Dec. 30, 2003, when 4,800 gallons spilled from a barge loading oil, the Dalco Passage spill was small: It took two weeks to clean it up almost completely, Altose says, compared to three months for the previous year's spill. (Across the nation, the Delaware River is facing at least six months of cleanup for a 30,000-gallon spill that took place on Nov. 26; see sidebar.)

Still, the impact of the Dalco Passage spill was larger than it should have been, which highlights the need for a better and faster response to oil spills, says Kathy Fletcher, executive director of the People for Puget Sound. "Our response system was incapable of handling a tiny spill," she says. "What does that say about our ability to handle something significant?"

With an eye toward making improvements, Gov. Gary Locke and U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Jeffrey Garrett created the Oil Spill Early Action Task Force on Oct. 22. Charged with evaluating the first 12 hours in the Dalco Passage spill, the task force held four meetings in November and December, with plans to release the group's findings this month. Members on the new task force represent citizens and the oil and shipping industries, among others, including Fletcher for the People for Puget Sound and Sawicki for the Western States Petroleum Association.

Fletcher says that the group will probably recommend training volunteers to safely assess spills, following practices in the San Juan Islands to the north, and was considering an independent oversight group like one in Alaska's Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons in 1989. The agencies themselves suggested asking NOAA to model trajectories of oil spills immediately, to alert people whether and where they might come ashore, she says.

Meanwhile, the party responsible for the Dalco Passage spill has yet to step forward, leaving an open-ended investigation as to who will pay for the approximately $2-million cleanup effort in Puget Sound.

Naomi Lubick

Dalco Passage Spill Washington Department of Ecology page

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