Oil is a major product moving throughout the Port of Tacoma, located at the tip of the Puget Sound’s Commencement Bay.
As oil continues to be produced throughout the area, there’s always the risk of needing oil spill cleanup services. Oil spills take time for the US Coast Guard and other services to address, sometimes resulting in further damage to wildlife, nearby beaches, as well as present health risks for the community.
WasteXpress understands the environmental impact of oil spills and the importance of a timely response as it will ensure limited wildlife damage and eliminate health concerns to neighboring residents.
In this blog, we breakdown the history surrounding oil spills throughout the Pacific Northwest, focusing on the 1980s up until the early 2000s. We also discuss how Tacoma hazardous waste disposal companies, such as WasteXpress, would clean up an oil spill in Commencement Bay, which has been a major industrial hub in the PNW for over a century.
History of Oil Spills in the Pacific Northwest
The Port of Tacoma is a regional oil distribution center. The U.S. Oil and Refining (USOR) owns an 11-acre oil refinery facility on the waterfront there. Oil tankers from Alaska and elsewhere around the globe can float up to USOR’s deep-water dock on the Blair Waterway to have their load pumped directly into refinery storage tanks. USOR also maintains multiple pipelines to distribute their fuel products. The USOR facility’s daily refining capacity currently stands at 39,000 barrels. The refinery maintains storage facilities for a million barrels of crude oil and another million barrels of refined oil products.
The Department of Ecology first proposed establishing a comprehensive oil spill prevention and response program in Washington State after a 1975 legislative proposal was prompted following ongoing major oil spills. There was also concern that the brand new Alaskan pipeline would significantly increase oil tanker traffic in the Puget Sound. Although the Alaskan pipeline spurred major refining activity in Washington, the proposed environmental protection program never moved forward due to lack of funding.
The oil spills continued throughout the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s and early 1990s before an innovative spill prevention and response program was finally put into place by the Legislature in the state of Washington.
Some noteworthy oil spills that helped move forward this response include:
- The 1985 ARCO Anchorage tanker spill, which released 239,000 gallons of crude oil into marine waters at Port Angeles.
- The 1988 Nestucca barge spill, which released 231,000 gallons of fuel oil into waters along the coast of Grays Harbor.
- The disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which released 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.
- The 1991 Texaco refinery spill at Anacortes, which released 130,000 gallons of crude oil, of which 40,000 gallons went into Fidalgo Bay.
- The 1991 spill at the U.S. Oil refinery in Tacoma regarding 600,000 gallons of crude oil, most of which was stopped from entering state waters.
1991 Tacoma U.S. Refinery Oil Spill
In 1991, 600,000 gallons of crude oil leaked out of an underground USOR pipe near Tacoma’s Lincoln Avenue. The Alaskan crude oil bubbled up to the ground surface and flowed to an open culvert that normally connects the Blair Waterway and Commencement Bay.
This random stroke of luck prevented the oil from mucking up these state waters. The leak occurred during high tide, when the culvert is closed, which prevented most of the six-inch-deep patch of oil from disseminating into the bay and creating further issues.
How to Properly Respond to Oil Spills
The response to the 1991 Tacoma oil spill helped professionals better understand how local authorities would approach oil spills in the future. A crew of USOR workers, city employees, private contractors, and nonprofits from Clean Sound Cooperative worked overnight to remove the spilled oil. Time was of the essence, as it is with most oil spills, but the receding tide would have pulled out the oil and dispersed it into the bay if the workers did not react quickly. Workers built dikes and used oil booms to catch any of the oil that seeped into the bay.
USOR crews pumped oil out of the ditch and into railroad tankers. Meanwhile, oil-skimming boats were waiting to remove any oil that escaped into the bay. These were the early stages of clean up. Additionally, USOR had to test for and remove oil-saturated soil. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) guidelines required the company to test for and clean up any groundwater contamination. In the end, the closing of the culvert prevented hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil from rushing into Commencement Bay.
When oil spills onto water, it spreads out into a thin surface sheen. The more time that elapses between spill and cleanup, the farther the oil can spread, resulting in more negative effects on wildlife, ecosystems, and coastal communities. Water currents, wind, and other environmental factors can influence how a spill spreads and can also access the damage.
In an average year, there are about 14,000 oil spills in the U.S. Typically, cleanup crews use similar techniques during the 1991 Tacoma spill: containment, removal of oil, and recovery of nearby ecosystems, including helping oil-coated animals. Barriers, booms, skimmers, and sorbent materials capture the oil, while other mechanical means remove it. Oil and water separators may also be used to further isolate oil.
The Pros & Cons of Chemical Dispersion
In tropical areas, a different cleanup approach called chemical dispersion may be used. Through this technique, chemical dispersion agents are released, speeding up the oil dispersal process.
However, some hazardous waste experts say this process harms local wildlife. This includes coral reefs, perhaps even more than crude oil would. Indeed, the normal biological breakdown of oil is what eventually occurs on many coastal zones affected by oil spills.
Over time, sun, surf, and normal weather patterns incorporate the oil back into the environment, but it may take decades for this to happen. For instance, 18 years after the infamous Exxon Valdez spill, some oil had yet to biodegrade.
Scientists are exploring how certain microbes could be released to “eat up” the oil and fuel that is spilled in the world’s waterways each year. Fertilizers such as nitrogen and phosphorus are sometimes spread over coastlines that have been coated with oil. These substances encourage the growth of microorganisms that help break down the oil into C02 and fatty acids among other substances.
Properly Dispose of Oil & Hazardous Chemicals with WasteXpress
We referenced some of the most noteworthy oil spills of the area, but statistically oil spills have been on the decline. However, that doesn’t mean all environmental impacts have been eliminated, especially after the recent Hurricane Ida.
The EPA’s guidelines mandate that oil spills be cleaned up to preserve our shared resources. Ports and government oversight agencies can do a great deal to prevent spills, but it’s inevitable that accidents will happen.
In the hypothetical case of an oil spill at the Port of Tacoma, successful clean up will rely on hazardous waste contractors partnering with government agencies.
Here at WasteXpress, we’re the Pacific Northwest’s leader for properly identifying, handling, transporting, and disposing of hazardous waste. We follow local and federal guidelines, including the Hazardous Materials Transportation Uniform Safety Act (HMTUSA). With over 30 years of experience in chemical waste disposal and oil spill cleanup service, our reliable environmental services are always executed to the letter of regulatory compliance law.