A new emergency federal rule could set the stage for the departure of two of the Pacific Northwest's largest oil-spill-response vessels and five Navy skimmers to battle the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But Washington state officials say federal rules do not trump state laws and that they won't approve the shift of the two large response vessels — one stationed at the mouth of the Columbia River, the other in Port Angeles — without additional efforts to compensate for their loss. The tensions between state and federal officials over movements of skimming equipment reflect a tough question posed by the nation's largest oil spill: How much risk should be assumed by other states to help the Gulf Coast region cope with the expanding slicks of BP crude?
"We want to do everything we can to help our fellow Americans down there, but we also have to maintain a core level of readiness," said Curt Hart, a state Department of Ecology official. "We estimate a major spill here could cost our economy $10 billion and affect more than 165,000 jobs." The new federal rule, which took effect earlier this week, aims to get more cleanup equipment to the Gulf by lowering Coast Guard and EPA requirements for cleanup equipment elsewhere. Washington state law requires the oil industry be able to respond to a worst-case scenario that in some areas could involve a spill of millions of gallons of oil or refined fuels. The new federal rule requires the industry to maintain enough equipment to respond to a much more modest — but more likely — spill of 2,100 gallons.
Federal, state and industry officials have discussed backup plans in the event the two largest vessels, 205-foot-long ships outfitted with skimmers, be moved from the Northwest to the Gulf. The two vessels — Oregon Responder based in Astoria, Ore., and the W.C. Parks Responder based in Port Angeles — are key to responding to tanker spills in rough coastal waters. Washington officials would not approve their departure without additional tugs being stationed on the Columbia River and at Port Angeles, as well as special prevention measures such as pumping fuel only in daylight hours or assigning more staff to supervise fuel transfers. Those two vessels are maintained by the Marine Spill Response Corp. (MSRC), a national nonprofit created in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. MSRC spokeswoman Judith Roos said there are no immediate plans to send the vessels south and she doesn't anticipate they will leave the Northwest. Both nationally and in the Northwest, MSRC ranks as a major responder to oil spills. Its inventory includes 15 big vessels known as Responders that are outfitted with skimmers and other equipment. So far, 12 of them, including two from California, are either working in the Gulf or on their way, according to Roos. The Responder-class vessels have been some of the most effective vessels in skimming the Gulf of Mexico oil, said Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, spills coordinator for the Department of Ecology.
In the Gulf, an armada of more than 550 skimmers is at work trying to clean up the worst spill in the nation's history. More cleanup equipment is needed. In a June 10 memo, the Coast Guard acknowledges the increased risk that could result from moving more equipment from other states. But it cites "urgent resource needs" that require the "maximum availability of response equipment." The Coast Guard memo also concedes that states' requirements "may appear to prevent additional resources from flowing to the Gulf of Mexico." The memo calls for Coast Guard officials to report state officials "unwilling" to go along with the federal rule so that there can be "engagement at the state executive level." Plenty of equipment, as well as personnel, has already been sent from Washington, Alaska and other states to help battle the Gulf spill. In recent weeks, federal, state and industry officials have been discussing sending more resources. Gov. Chris Gregoire has been briefed on these meetings, Pilkey-Jarvis said.
Washington state officials also have been negotiating with the Navy about the movement of their skimming vessels to the Gulf. So far, two of a fleet of nine Navy vessels stationed in the Northwest have departed for the Gulf and five more are scheduled to head south, according to Tina Eichenour, a spokeswoman for the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command in the Gulf. Sean Hughes, a Navy Region Northwest public-affairs officer, said he could not confirm that the other five would be sent. He said any decisions would be reached in collaboration with the state. Pilkey-Jarvis said officials were concerned about how long the vessels would be in the Gulf, but she said there was an upside: Crews will gain real-world experience fighting oil spills.