Oil spill clean up in Liberty Bay sparks state Ecology investigation

POULSBO — The Washington State Department of Ecology is investigating the clean-up practices of the Port of Poulsbo, following a small oil spill last week.

Two days after a small diesel oil spill from a boat on June 22, the port reported to the Department of Ecology its employees used the chemical dispersant FM 186-2 to remove oil from the surface of the water.

It is illegal to use any form of dispersant in the Puget Sound, said senior spill responder of the Department of Ecology Dick Walker. Dispersants are only legal on the outer coast of Washington state. Before they are used, permission is required from the Coast Guard and the Department of Ecology.

"Dispersing oil is not a good practice," spokesman for the state Department of Ecology Larry Altose said. "It causes the oil to sink into the marine life and does more harm than good."

The Port of Poulsbo removed the dispersant from its inventory as soon as the Department of Ecology told the port to do so, Port Manager Kirk Stickels said. The port has used the dispersant for more than four years.

"I was under the impression that it was safe to use," Stickels said.

Dispersants such as FM 186-2, which is produced by Gig Harbor-based company Environmental Chemical Solutions, breaks up oil on the water's surface, like soap breaks up grease, and drags it underwater. Dispersants cause oil to mix in with the water, eliminating the chances to remove the oil from the water.

Before using the dispersant, port employees attempted to soak up the oil using absorbent polypropylene pads, Stickels said. When that failed, FM 186-2 was sprayed on the spill.

Instead of using the dispersant, allowing the oil to evaporate would have been a better alternative to spraying more chemicals in the water, Walker said.

The oil spill was approximately an acre in diameter and would take a week or two for the majority of it to evaporate.

About a pint of dispersant was used for the spill, Stickels said. Because the product is expensive, the port dilutes the chemical to save on costs.

Dispersant is illegal to use in areas such as Liberty Bay because there it not enough flushing, or water flow. A lack of sufficient flushing creates stagnant water, which causes everything in the water to stay in that habitat.

Liberty Bay is also shallow, which can increase the dangers of chemicals even more, Walker said.

The damages from the latest oil spill and clean up has not been determined and Walker said it probably did not do much harm to the environment. If the port had properly reported the incident, it would have increased the chances of lessening damages.

"It was too late to do anything about the spill by the end of that day," Walker said. "Now all we can do is educate people and prevent this in the future."

The chemical dispersant FM 186-2 is used in gas stations and other businesses that show potential environmental risks, Robert Philpott, CEO of Environmental Chemical Solutions, said. The dispersant renders other chemicals inflammable and reduces the vapors given off from things such as gas and oil, he said.

The Department of Ecology provided the port a trailer full of clean-up equipment in 2006 specifically for environmental hazards such as oil spills, Altos said. With this trailer, the port has everything it needs to respond to emergencies without using any unnecessary chemicals.

"(The port) already has what it needs, now it's time to give them a refresher on proper emergency response," Altos said. "Especially on dispersant and that it should not be used, period."

There are fines for almost every incident that is not handled properly, but Walker said the port has fully cooperated in this case and it is too early to tell what the port faces in terms of penalties, if any.

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