We can do more to avert Puget Sound oil spills

I’ve been boating in Washington for years, and have been lucky to spend more time on the water than a lot of people.

Our Bay Patrol Program at Citizens for a Healthy Bay conducts more than 100 patrols a year of the Port of Tacoma, Commencement Bay and South Puget Sound.

On these patrols, we get an opportunity to see the water in every imaginable condition, giving us a first-hand sense of the quantity and diversity of life in the Salish Sea. It’s a resource that can’t be replaced.

But like so many natural systems, it hangs in a delicate balance.

A major oil spill in these waters would be a catastrophe for which we must be prepared, and put sincere effort into preventing.

We can’t roll back the clock to a time before the risk of spills existed. But living in an industrialized society doesn’t mean we’re free to be irresponsible.

The state is fairly ready for a traditional oil spill; we have containment equipment staged and ready to go in strategic locations, a clear response plan for each jurisdiction and sufficient numbers of well-trained responders available.

What we’re less prepared for are new types of transport as well as new oil products, some of which don’t float.

Ultimately, the best spill response is to prevent one in the first place. Unfortunately, we’re trying to do more with less.

From Seattle northward, our state has just three vessel and oil-transfer inspectors keeping track of all the oil coming through our region. Meanwhile, Vancouver and Bellingham still don’t have funding for dedicated inspectors.

That puts pressure on the three inspectors responsible for Tacoma southward to cover more ground more quickly.

Living in this region, you see what a major part the water plays in our lives. Consider just one piece of the puzzle: fishing.

Nearly every marina in the area has a bait-and-tackle shop. Anyone who’s been down to the shore when the bite is hot knows that people here will fish off any dock they can get on.

Boat fishing is big business, too. The size of the recreational fleet off Point Defiance on a good day can blow your mind.

In addition to the obvious environmental effects, a large spill would disrupt recreation, and all the commerce it spawns. When you consider the value of commercial fishing in Puget Sound, you start to get a sense of the enormous cost our region would incur from a major spill.

Right now, we have a chance to put better protections in place to prevent and respond to a disaster. The state is considering the Oil Spill Prevention Act.

Preventing spills is complex and requires money, systematic risk management and hazard mitigation. We also need well-trained personnel who understand the danger, and we need properly maintained and inspected marine equipment.

If something doesn’t pass inspection, or is overdue to be looked at, we can’t just hope for the best. The Oil Spill Prevention Act gives us a chance to modernize and fund current programs to better protect our city and region.

People who live and work around the water understand the weight of their actions. Our livelihoods depend on the health of the Sound. We can’t wait until after a disaster to implement the protective measures this place deserves.

Capt. Sam Kulla of Tacoma is bay patrol manager for Citizens for a Healthy Bay. Reach him by email at skulla@healthybay.org