Sen. Cantwell pushes for more oil-spill preparedness

By:  Jill Kimball
Source: The Seattle Times

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell on Tuesday called for federal legislation requiring new technology and better preparation by oil companies to prevent and respond to oil spills.

The Washington Democrat said at a news conference in Seattle that she plans to introduce such a bill amid the ongoing BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Currently, oil companies have to file spill-response plans with the federal government, but there are few specific requirements for the scale of a response or how quickly a one should occur.

"We should get a response plan that requires new technology, technology that the industry would be required to help fund," Cantwell said.

Some states have set their own cleanup standards that exceed federal requirements.

After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, the Alaska Legislature required that the state have enough cleanup equipment available to remove up to 300,000 barrels of oil from Prince William Sound in 72 hours. The state also requires that the equipment incorporate leading technology.

Washington state has its own rules mandating that spill-response teams and equipment be in place in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where oil tankers travel to reach refineries in Tacoma, Anacortes, Ferndale and Cherry Point near Blaine in Whatcom County.

Dale Jensen, the state Department of Ecology's spills program manager, said it is especially important that Puget Sound be protected with the best technology, since it is an enclosed body of water with a fragile marine ecosystem.

"We're working with 1980s, in some cases '70s, technology," said Bruce Wishart, policy director for the environmental group People for Puget Sound.

At the University of Washington's new College of the Environment, research that could help clean up Puget Sound after a spill is under way. Lisa Graumlich, the college's dean, said six small underwater drones used by the UW for research in the Sound are in the Gulf of Mexico helping identify and track underwater oil plumes.

However, Graumlich said the drones, called Seagliders, aren't designed to find oil. With additional investment in research and development, she said, the Seagliders could be equipped with hydrocarbon sensors to do a better job finding oil plumes.

The UW already has monitoring systems that examine the quality and movement of water in the Sound. With some tweaking, those technologies could be used to determine how an oil spill would spread through the Sound.