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December 15, 2005

Chevron refuses to take part in spill drill

Washington State legislators are likely to tighten state antipollution law. That's because the state's Department of Ecology was unable to impose penalties when Chevron Shipping Company became the first-ever oil-shipping company to refuse a department request to participate in an oil-spill drill.

The Department of Ecology periodically tests holders of contingency plans that it has approved through announced and unannounced spill drills.

On Dec. 8, says the Department, it asked Chevron to deploy resources in an oil-spill drill on the Columbia River. When Chevron refused, a practice scenario in which a Chevron tanker carrying millions of gallons of diesel was to have run aground west of Astoria, Oregon, never played out.

Anytime oil is spilled into the Columbia River, Washington has an interest because oil can move quickly toward Washington waters and shorelines. This spill scenario was selected to test Chevron's ability to respond to an oil spill in the often treacherous waters at the mouth of the Columbia.

"Chevron transports millions of gallons of oil over Washington's waters each year and oil-spill drills are critical tools to test readiness to respond to a spill. An immediate response is absolutely necessary to minimize environmental damage once oil hits the water," said Jay Manning, director of the Department of Ecology. "Chevron's refusal breaks the previously unbroken line of willing participation in spill drills in Washington. I am extremely concerned."

Dale Jensen, manager of Ecology's spills program said Ecology has ordered Chevron to update its spill-contingency plan. Also, he said Ecology will test Chevron once again sometime during the next 30 days.

Other oil-handlers in Washington that have passed unannounced spill drills in 2005 include: B-P Cherry Point Refinery in Ferndale, Shore Terminal in Tacoma, Tesoro Terminal in Port Angeles, ConocoPhillips-Yellowstone Pipeline in Spokane and Tesoro terminal in Anacortes. The drills tested the facilities' ability to quickly notify authorities and to deploy containment boom.

Jensen said Chevron's spill drill was to test of how well it could coordinate a quick response from its nearest offices in San Ramon, Calif. In addition, the drill was to have tested how well Chevron's representatives would make proper notifications, coordinate a response through spill-response contractors, establish a command post, and test how quickly Chevron could get its own team to the spill site.

All holders of Washington oil-spill contingency plans were notified earlier this year that unannounced drills would be occurring. Ecology has used unannounced oil spill drills for five years to ensure that oil handlers protect Washington waters and, until this incident, no oil handler has refused to participate.

The Seattle Times quotes Chevron spokesman Jeff Moore as saying the dispute was merely a misunderstanding, and that the company feared the drill might be unsafe.

The newspaper quotes Manning and other officials as saying that explanation doesn't jibe with how Chevron actually responded.

"We talked to a variety of people within the company, and we were given a variety of reasons," Manning told the newspaper. "We were given other reasons-- that they were stretched really thin because of the holidays, that they had staff out because people were feeling ill."

Under current state law, Washington can fine a company or revoke its right to operate in the state if oil spill plans are incomplete. However, there are apparently no sanctions it can impose if a company refuses to take part in a drill. It is expected that officials will now ask state legislators to toughen up the law.

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