oil spill
Oil is a major product moving in and out of the Port of Tacoma, which is located at the tip of the Puget Sound’s Commencement Bay. In this blog, we explore how Tacoma hazardous waste disposal companies such as WasteXpress would clean up an oil spill in Commencement Bay, which has been a major Pacific Northwest industrial hub for over a century.

The Port of Tacoma is a regional oil distribution center due to the fact that 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. Given these quantities, you might assume a propensity for oil spills in the Port of Tacoma. Yet only one major oil spill has occurred there.

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. A stroke of luck prevented the oil from mucking up these state waters. The leak occurred during high tide, when the culvert is closed. This prevented most of the six-inch-deep patch of oil from disseminating into the bay.

Understanding how cleanup worked for this 1991 spill can help us predict how local authorities would respond to a future spill. A crew of USOR workers, city employees, private contractors, and non-profit Clean Sound Cooperative worked overnight to remove spilled oil. Time was of the essence, given that the receding tide would pull out oil with it, into the bay. Workers built dikes to hold the oil in the ditch; oil booms were also placed in the bay to catch seeping oil. 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. EPA guidelines also required the company to test for and clean up any groundwater contamination. In the end, this major Tacoma hazardous waste event was far less disastrous than it could have been; that closed 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, and the more negative effects on wildlife, ecosystems, and coastal communities. Water currents, wind, and other environmental factors influence how a spill spreads, and what damage it does. In an average year, there are about 14,000 oil spills in the U.S. Typically, clean up crews use similar techniques as those used in 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, and other mechanical means remove it. Oil and water separators may be used to further isolate oil.

In tropical areas, a different cleanup approach, chemical dispersal, may be used. In this technique, chemical dispersal agents are released; they speed up the oil dispersal process. However, some hazardous waste experts say this process harms local wildlife, including 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. However, 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 also 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 phosphorous 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.

Statistically, oil spills have been on the decline. According to the US Coast Guard, there was a 58% drop in oil spills on American waters between 1989 and 2004. However, that doesn’t mean all environmental impacts have been eliminated. EPA guidelines mandate that oil spills be cleaned up to preserve our shared resources. Ports and government oversight agencies can do a good 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, as in any oil spill, successful clean up will rely on hazardous waste contractors partnering with government agencies.

We are your Northwest leader for identifying, handling, transporting, and disposing of hazardous waste. As always, when providing Tacoma hazardous waste disposal we follow federal guidelines, including the Hazardous Materials Transportation Uniform Safety Act (HMTUSA). With decades of experience in hazardous waste disposal, we offer a range of environmental services, always executed to the letter of regulatory compliance law. Contact us to learn more about how WasteXpress classifies profiles, ships, and labels hazardous waste for transportation and disposal.

[Photo by: Coast Guard, via CC License]