A 2004 oil spill triggered change as well as worries

Amy Carey remembers vividly those early morning hours six years ago, when she hopped into a boat with two other Islanders to investigate news of an oil spill off of Maury Island’s rugged shoreline.

As they motored south out of the Quartermaster Marina, she was struck first by the acrid smell of oil and then the sight of the sheen, spreading slowly up from the mouth of Quartermaster Harbor. But what was most upsetting, Carey recalled, was what she didn’t see: Though the spill was already more than 12 hours old, there were no booms in place at the relatively narrow entrance to the bay — a simple measure that could have kept miles of shoreline protected.

“We got on the phone with (the Department of) Ecology and said, ‘Where are you guys?’” recalled Carey, who today heads Preserve Our Islands.

“The lack of an appropriate response was phenomenal. It was so disconcerting.”

Much has happened in the wake of the Oct. 13, 2004, spill — when 1,000 to 7,000 gallons of crude oil poured out of the Polar Texas into Dalco Passage — to improve what was widely considered a wholly inadequate response by the state and federal officials. Indeed, says Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People For Puget Sound, the spill provided a much-needed wake-up call to public officials and even today is thought of as a watershed event in the region.

“If there were any positive impact, it had a huge effect on the Department of Ecology and on the Coast Guard and on the public’s confidence in those two agencies. They made an immediate change in policy,” Fletcher said.

Now, the last chapter has apparently been written: After months of negotiations, ConocoPhillips, which owned the tanker that spilled the oil, has agreed to pay $588,000 to restore several ecologically important sites on Vashon, an effort, under state and federal law, to compensate the public for the harm the spill caused. The settlement follows two other penalties the corporation incurred: In October 2006, it paid $2.3 million to cover the costs of the cleanup operation public agencies undertook after the spill and $540,000 in state penalties.

Still, to those who were at the scene in those frantic hours after the spill occurred, the settlement for the spill’s ecological harm seems paltry in light of the damage it caused. Of the $588,000 the corporation agreed to pay, more than $100,000 goes to the public agencies to cover their legal fees in the settlement, leaving $487,300 for the restoration projects.

“It’s a joke,” said Sue Trevathan, an Islander and Audubon leader who went to the beach at Manzanita on southern Maury Island the day after the spill.

“It was a pretty sad sight,” she recalled. “I couldn’t believe all the oil on the beach.”

“I think it’s a pittance,” said Carey. “You have these giant oil companies that spill 7,000 gallons in the cover of night, and they get a slap on the wrist.”

The spill was enormously controversial not for the amount of oil it spilled — considered small by industry standards — but for the way events unfolded after the spill. The tanker’s crew did not report the evening-hour spill; to this day, both the Polar Texas crew and its corporate owners, ConocoPhillips, deny they were responsible for the spill or even knew that it had occurred.

State officials were not alerted until 1 or so in the morning, when the captain of a passing tugboat reported oil on the water south of Maury Island. But state officials did not respond immediately, because they didn’t have the capacity, they said, to do cleanup work at night.

By morning, however, a thick fog had rolled in, further curtailing cleanup efforts. Because of the failure to quickly hem in the spill, oil spread far and wide. Ultimately, state officials say, the sheen touched 15 miles of shoreline, including much of southern Maury Island, the shores along Quartermaster Harbor and even the west side of the Island along Colvos Passage.

Tom Dean, executive director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust who was in that boat with Amy Carey immediately following the spill, was also dismayed by the slow response. “We were there before any responders were on site,” he recalled.

But the pay-out ConocoPhillips has agreed to, he said, will help King County and the land trust undertake some important restoration work. “It’s a good shot better than nothing,” he said.

Vashon’s nearshore habitat is some of the best in central Puget Sound, where extensive eelgrass beds provide nurseries for forage fish — animals at the basis of an elaborate food chain that ultimately supports salmon and whales. At the same time, Dean and others point out, bulkheads and other bank-hardening efforts have harmed Vashon’s nearshore environment; bulkheads cause beaches to erode over time, lose their gradual shallowness that juvenile salmon need and destroy the habitat for the tiny fish salmon feed on.

The county, working closely with the land trust, has spent millions of dollars on the so-called Maury Island Conservation Initiative, putting privately held swaths of shoreline into public ownership. Now, once they have the ConocoPhillips funds in hand, the county and the land trust will be able to undertake some critical restoration work, including bulkhead removals, Dean said.

One of those projects will likely take place near the Dockton Park just west of the marina and boat launch, where the county now owns the Dockton Natural Area — 490 feet of shoreline and wetland adjacent to a long, aging bulkhead. Dean calls it a “fantastic opportunity to remove a bulkhead.”

“The road actually acts as an armor, so you can safely restore the beach without endangering any property,” he said. “That’s the type of opportunity that is so rare, because usually a bulkhead is in place to protect property.”

The work, if successful, will likely lead to the re-establishment of a salt marsh, critical habitat along Maury’s western shore. But the county says it will assess the beach carefully before embarking on a major engineering project — since that stretch of Dockton is also a site with a lot of history and archeological significance, said Greg Rabourn, the county’s Vashon Basin steward.

“There’s a rich history there; we want to make sure we’re protecting it,” Rabourn said.

“I think it’s very doable,” he said of the project. “But it would be a matter of determining the archeological resources on site and determining if there’s community support.”

Another restoration site is at Piner Point, on the tip of Vashon, a long and lonely stretch of beach that was hit hard by the oil spill and where the county recently purchased six acres. A bulkhead made of creosoted timber holds up the bank where a cabin once stood; the county recently tore down the cabin.

That site, too, Dean said, offers a promising opportunity. “It would be a great thing to get off the beach,” he said of the bulkhead.

It’s not clear, though, if there’s enough money to do both projects and a third one mentioned by the county — native plant restoration at Maury Island Regional Park. Said Rabourn, “I can’t picture that much money funding all three projects.”

Meanwhile, those who pay close attention to the state’s oil-spill response system say that the situation, six years after the Polar Texas mishap, is mixed.

On the one hand, Fletcher said, the state and the federal government made several changes, including establishing partnerships with private companies that can put booms out quickly, even in a fog. The state has also put in place oil-spill response kits on Vashon Island and elsewhere and has trained citizens to act as first-responders.

On the other hand, budget cuts have taken a toll on the Department of Ecology, and she worries that the oil-spill response division is beginning to feel the impact of those cuts. “The Department of Ecology has had to curtail expenditures. That concerns me,” she said.

“Prevention is always difficult to maintain at a high level,” she added. “And every unexpected spill seems to have its own story.”

Trevathan, who walked the beach at Manzanita the day after the spill, says she, too, wonders what the future might hold in the wake of the accident.

“We will not know the long-term or cumulative effects of this spill for many, many years,” she said.

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