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Oregon Not Prepared For Major Oil Spills

Four years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Halliburton is paying $1.1 billion to residents, local governments and businesses affected by the disaster. 

Here in the Northwest, lessons from the spill still have not sunk in — Oregon’s waters and habitats are up against a massive influx of oil shipments and a potential catastrophe we are not prepared for. On Sept. 3, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Friends of the Columbia Gorge filed a notice of intent to sue the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a need to update and improve oil spill response in the Northwest. 

CBD attorney Jared Margolis points to a section of the outdated Northwest Area Contingency Plan (NWACP) that reads, “Should a catastrophic oil spill occur, it is likely that there will not be adequate response resources in the Northwest Area to manage and clean up the spill,” and he says since that plan was written, the worst case scenario has now gotten worse. 

Margolis writes in the notice of intent to sue that “About 19,000 tank cars of crude oil passed through Oregon last year, a 250 percent increase from the year before.”

The Columbia River is the most affected by oil trains, thanks to a massive increase in oil shipments coming from the Bakken oil fields of Montana and North Dakota heading for export through Oregon and Washington ports, but Lane County also has oil trains coming through. Margolis says there are repercussions even if only one 35,000-gallon oil car ruptures.

According to local attorney Charlie Tebbutt, who sued BP on behalf of CBD to get information on the pollutants released by Deepwater Horizon, “It seems obvious, proper emergency planning should be done before a disaster hits, not after,” and he calls the BP disaster “an example of what not to do.”  Tebbutt adds, “The problem with oil spills, which as we have seen across the country are inevitable, is that all you can do after a spill is damage control. There is no such thing as real clean up.”  

Margolis says Northwest spill plans allow for the use of the chemical dispersant Corexit. He says one thing learned from BP was that mixing toxic dispersants with oil is actually more toxic than a dispersant or oil alone, and the effects of Corexit on threatened and endangered fish such as Columbia River salmon are unknown. 

“The EPA and the Coast Guard are not the bad guys here; they have to respond to these spills,” Margolis says, adding that CBD wants to ensure the plans are updated and that those involved in cleanup know where habitat is and don’t “boom oil right into critical habitat” for species protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

EPA spokesperson Hanady Kader says due to pending litigation the agency couldn’t comment in detail, but it did receive the notice and “is looking at the content and considering possible next steps and how to respond.” She says the agency’s overall goal is to have a plan that responds to spills and that includes meeting the requirements of the ESA.