Is San Juan County prepared for a big spill?

After the Aleutian Isle sank on the Westside of San Juan Island, causing diesel to spread along the sensitive habitat, community members wondered, what if it had been a tanker, filled with heavy oils that sink rather than evaporate like diesel? Such an event is not improbable and it would be catastrophic to the San Juans.

“Oil spills are low probability, high impact,” said Fred Felleman, seven-year Seattle Port Commissioner, environmental consultant and photographer. “They don’t happen often, but when they do, they ruin your decade.”

Felleman owns property on the west side of San Juan Island and could smell diesel from his home after the Aleutian Isle sank. Felleman has been concerned about oil spills in the Salish Sea for years after working to respond to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Two pods of killer whales were severely impacted in that spill, and will likely never recover.

“Ever since Valdez my motivation has been to never let it happen here,” Felleman said, adding, “The whales are my motivation.”

Felleman has taken to keeping a close eye on ships passing through the Salish Sea ever since. Watching ships overtake and pass each other in some of the Salish Seas’ narrow passages makes him nervous.

“They need to slow down and stay in the middle of the strait,” Felleman said.

As Canada works to expand the Trans-Mountain pipeline, potentially increasing tanker traffic through the Salish Sea as much as seven-fold, according to Felleman, the low odds of a major spill grow exponentially.

“I am extremely concerned. It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when,” said Deborah Giles P.h.D., science and research director of Wild Orca.

Whether a catastrophic spill is from human error or engine failure or a result of weather and currents, the likelihood of a major spill is going up as vessel traffic increases. Giles is not the only one concerned.

“The volume nature and proximity of vessel traffic in and around the San Juans, combined with narrow shipping lanes and challenging winter weather mean that the islands, and all the Salish Sea, are at risk of a major spill,” said Brendan Cowan, director of San Juan County Department of Emergency Management. “Given the geography of the islands, the nature of currents and sensitive habitats that abound, everyone should be concerned about oil spills of all kinds. There is no response that would prevent a major spill from having major impacts to the islands. Preventing spills should always be the top priority.”

San Juan County and the Salish Sea dodged a bullet with the Aleutian Isle. While a sheen of diesel covered the miles of the Southern Resident Killer Whales favored hunting grounds along the Westside of San Juan Island, the orcas spent much of that time further out in the straight, even offshore in Canadian waters. There was one exception shortly after the accident, the critically endangered resident whales began traveling up the westside, coming within miles of the diesel. Fortunately for some inexplicable reason, they turned around.

Giles explained that orcas do not smell or sense oil in the water. There has been no biological evolutionary reason for them to do so. As a result, these animals will swim right through even heavy oils, as was seen during the Valdez spill.

“Those whales have been paying a toll ever since,” Felleman said.

To deter the whales from the site of the Aleutian Isle and the diesel, six boats organized by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wildlife biologist Brad Handson, created a plan to use oikomi pipes. Jeff Foster was also instrumental in what has been called the deterrent plan, according to Giles. Foster has had a successful experience using oikomi pipes to deter orcas in the past. The boats included Wild Orca’s boat, as well as Hanson and Foster’s boats, two boats from the Whale Museum, and one from the Sea Doc Society.

The history of these pipes is dark. Oikomi’s were created to herd marine mammals in Japan for capture and slaughter.

Today, by banging the pipes in a non-patterned manner, a loud curtain of sound is created to drive the whales away from the spill. After meeting up, and assessing their vessels and equipment, the group practiced three on-the-water drills.

“Brad acted like a whale, we did not know how he was going to behave, and it was our job to keep him away from the area,” Giles explained.

The rest of the boats worked to keep Hanson away from the area. In case the sound was not effective, the drivers practiced movements as well.

“It was pretty dynamic. I was really impressed by everyone’s boating experience and professionalism,” Giles said. “I feel like it all came together very quickly.”

To clarify, this deterrent would not be used unless absolutely necessary. The noise does not have term harmful effects. The clanging of pipes is an irritant that changes the endangered whales’ behavior and impacts their foraging ability.

To prepare for a future spill, Giles said she hopes the group will continue to practice drills on an annual basis.

Marine mammals would not be the only creatures impacted by a larger spill. Jess Newley, Friends of the San Juans’ Community Science and Education Manager, dives near Dead Man’s Bay frequently. She has been surveying forage fish, around the County Park and up the Westside. Weeks prior to the accident, Newley said she recorded huge schools of juvenile herring and juvenile chum salmon. Researchers have discovered oil detrimentally impacts the development of herring and salmon. Newley also pointed out that a kelp forest is located where the boat sank. Kelp beds are considered by scientists as one of the world’s most productive and dynamic ecosystems, providing food and shelter for diverse sea creatures.

Once it was safe to dive in the area, Newley returned to look around. Fortunately, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. The large schools of juvenile herring and chum surrounded her, just as before.

“I hope coming out of this, we are more prepared, and have a baseline so we know what to compare it to,” Newley said. “Under the surface of the water, we don’t easily see what’s there.”

Creating a baseline is just one of the many things that could be done to prepare and prevent a spill. The United States Coast Guard was on the scene in a relatively short time, according to Felleman. Bringing salvage equipment, and air monitoring, however, took much longer.

Having salvage equipment including a vac truck and a dive chamber on-island would cut the response time down potentially by days.

The San Juan County Council wrote a letter to the Department of Ecology’s Sonja Larson in 2012 as well as Washington congressional members requesting that San Juan County be designated as a staging area in the event of a spill.

“San Juan County Identified as a Staging Area The Oil Spill Contingency Plan Rule must require the appropriate geographic distribution of spill response equipment and personnel. Neither Ecology nor the US Coast Guard has provided San Juan County with assurances that the appropriate spill response equipment and personnel can be on-site in the event of a major spill in Haro Strait in the four and six-hour planning standard time frames,” the letter stated.

Ten years later and the Aleutian Isle accident shows San Juan County remains vulnerable.

As Canada works to increase their oil exports, it also integrated a marine mammal tracking system with its vessel tracking system, according to Felleman. Automatically knowing if whales are near a spill could make a huge difference. Washington State Sen. Maria Cantwell is one of several congressional leaders who introduced the United States Coast Guard Authorization Act, reauthorizing the Coast Guard for Fiscal Years 2022 and 2023. Felleman suggested adding language for a similarly integrated data tracking system into the reauthorizing act could also make a huge difference in spill response stateside, allowing deterrent boats to be deployed within minutes or hours of a spill, rather than days.

While Cowan said he does not see a need for additional resources for his department to respond to a major spill, he would like to see additional staff and vessels for Islands Oil Spill Association.

“IOSA has been working to build an organization that can expand from one to two paid full-time staff, and the organization is actively looking at what its specific needs are for vessels going forward. Both areas will take significant long-term planning and robust sustainable funding beyond the current budget to address,” Cowan said.

Giles brought up the importance of having an organization that trains islanders to be familiar with handling oiled wildlife and setting booms.

“There is a certain measure of danger being around an oil spill, either by fumes, the hazardous material,” Giles said. “We need to secure the ability for islanders to be involved, have the gear, and have paid people to coordinate the training. We would be the first people to respond, and we need to be able to respond as fast as possible.”

Giles also added that companies should pay some kind of fee for moving their products through these waters.

“We [San Juan County] do not have the funding from the oil companies and others. And we would bare the cost of an accident. The wildlife, the Salish Sea, would bare the cost of that,” she said.

Contributed photo by Darryl Swenson
Crew work to life the Aleutian Isle