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Workshop focuses on protecting Padilla Bay during oil spill

August 23, 2018
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Josiah Gregory, 8, of Mount Vernon plays Tuesday in Padilla Bay while officials at the nearby National Estuarine Research Reserve discuss how to respond in the event of an oil spill in the area.

PADILLA BAY — Huddled over maps showing important habitat and public beaches in Padilla Bay, representatives from various agencies discussed Tuesday where and how to place oil containment booms in the event of a spill.

Using the scenario of 20,000 gallons of crude oil spilled at the nearby Andeavor Anacortes Refinery, participants in the planning exercise tried to determine where booms, which are buoy-like and can absorb oil from water, should be placed first.

The consensus was that the priority should be protecting rare salt marsh habitats along shorelines and in sloughs connected with the bay.

“I would say the salt marsh in Freshwater Slough should be the first priority because it’s the largest one we have and it might even survive sea level rise,” said Suzanne Shull, a data mapping specialist with the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Because the shallow bay is an expanse of exposed mudflats during low tide, a challenge is whether boats will be able to deploy the booms. Exercise participants said some booms may have to be deployed from land or by helicopter rather than by boat.

The group also agreed boats should avoid the bay’s 8,000 acres of eelgrass beds, which are one of the largest in the United States and the focus of ongoing research.

Because of that eelgrass, Padilla Bay is intertwined with the region’s salmon, orcas and birds, and is one of 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves.

The bay is also adjacent to two of five oil refineries in the state, and those responsible for protecting the water, wildlife and communities in the area in the event of a spill want to be prepared.

The oil spill response workshop Tuesday included representatives from both refineries at March Point, state and federal officials, representatives of area tribes and scientists from the Padilla Bay reserve.

The goals were to use local knowledge to help with updates and work out kinks in the existing response plans before a spill occurs, as well as to discuss the role reserve staff could play during a response.

“The goal of this is to tease out some of the real issues we may face in an event,” said Conor Keeney of the Andeavor Anacortes Refinery.

The group found that while there are several plans for directing emergency response in the event of an oil spill in the area, those plans could use updates.

Oil spill response is guided by the Northwest Area Contingency Plan, a Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency document, and Geographic Response Plans developed by the state Department of Ecology.

The Northwest Area Contingency Plan is updated each year.

Ecology’s Sonja Larson said geographic response plans are updated intermittently, with the plan covering Padilla Bay last being updated in 2011.

Some at the workshop proposed that channels of water that remain during low tide in the bay could be used to trap and collect oil before it spreads.

“I think that’s a great thing to explore with a contractor out there ... we could easily mark down which channels are accessible with skimming boats,” Keeney said.

Jude Apple, research coordinator at the reserve, said because scientists use the channels regularly for research, they could provide GPS coordinates for the locations of the channels.

Apple also said of major interest to the scientists is whether they are collecting the best data about eelgrass for a comparison if a spill occurs.

The lessons from the workshop and discussions about improving oil spill response could also be used in neighboring bays, such as Fidalgo and Samish, Apple said.

“This has been a really valuable exercise,” he said.

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