Yesterday’s devastating oil spill in southern Puget Sound may turn out to be the biggest environmental story of the year. The early damage reports in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Seattle Times, and Tacoma News Tribune are heart wrenching.

Like the death toll in the Middle East and like the melting of the Northwest’s glaciers, the fouling of Vashon and Maury Islands shows us the true costs of oil—which is far higher even than the record-setting $55 a barrel sticker price on today’s world oil market.

Other quick observations:

1. The state Department of Ecology was slow in getting its rapid-response teams on the scene. It can expect a torrent of negative publicity. But I wonder if its slow response has anything to do with the debilitating abuse the department has taken from business interests, including the Competitiveness Council, in the state in recent years. The department’s budget has shown the effects of this concerted attack.

2. Early speculation is that the spilled petroleum is ship fuel, not a product being transported on a tanker. Parts of the shipping industry are holdovers from the bad old days of dirty fuel, dirty engines, and careless practices. The “bunker fuel” they burn is literally the dregs of oil refining: the polluting crud that’s left over after gasoline, diesel, and other products are “cracked” out of crude. In recent years, shipping has finally begun to get the attention it deserves from the press and environmental regulators, both to its air pollution and to the sewage dumped by cruise ships. But it’s still in the days cars were in before catalytic converters.

3. The mammoth danger to Puget Sound and the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, as to all of Cascadia’s coast, is not the spillage of ships’ own fuel. It’s a spill of crude oil or refined petroleum products from a tanker. Such spills multiply the mess hundreds or thousands of times over. Puget Sound is in particular peril because it is flushed by the ocean far more slowly than the rest of our coast. One serious spill in Puget Sound could, like the Exxon Valdez, leave a destructive legacy for a generation or more. As People for Puget Sound notes, “15 billion gallons of oil move across the waters of Puget Sound in ships every year. Our four huge refineries receive tanker-loads of Alaskan oil hundreds of times every year. And cargo ships of all kinds—accounting for thousands of trips in Puget Sound—each carry enough fuel to devastate Puget Sound should a spill occur.” Yet Puget Sound’s rules for tanker safety are far more lenient that those in place in Prince William Sound (since the Valdez disaster)–the origin of most tankers entering Puget Sound. (As People for Puget Sound has been arguing, like a voice in the wilderness, for as long as I can remember.) Perhaps we can leverage this tragedy into the kind of rules that prevent THE BIG ONE.

4. The methods of economic accounting are so perverse that they will tally yesterday’s spill as a plus in the 2004 Gross State Product for Washington. The reason is that all the money spent on cleaning up the spill will show up in the GDP figures, but the ecological losses suffered are off the books.

5. Every single day, Cascadia sends another oil spill into the environment. It’s just invisible. I’m talking about the cloud of carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere from combustion of the region’s daily dose of petroleum products: currently more than 20 million gallons. Over time, this daily oil spill has consequences just as heart wrenching as yesterday’s Vashon Island spill.