Spills are an unfortunate reality of moving oil on or near water. Try as we might to avoid them, the record shows that they happen in rivers, along coastlines, and in bays and harbors. They happen in remote areas and in the middle of cities. They happen in fog, in storms, and sometimes during fair weather. They happen around the world and they happen in Northwest waters. (Plus, near-misses and almost-spills happen with frightening regularity too.)

In the next few years, the Northwest will decide whether or not to green-light staggering increases in crude oil facilities. These plans would mean more tankers in the Salish Sea serving an expanded tar sands pipeline in British Columbia, along with oil train-to-vessel sites everywhere from the Columbia River to Grays Harbor to Puget Sound. If these projects go ahead, the best analytical assessment of regional spill risk demonstrates that more oil on the water is a near-certainty for region’s future.

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  • Whether we will minimize that risk—by saying no to crude oil expansion—or multiply it—by agreeing to the industry’s plans—remains to be seen. To better understand that risk, it is helpful to examine oil spills in places similar to the Northwest. These are places with established spill response programs, experience with tanker ship traffic, and serious Coast Guards.

    These are the stories of the the danger ahead.

    Saint Lawrence River, New York (June 23, 1976)

    The tank barge NEPCO 140 ran aground in the Saint Lawrence River near Clayton, New York, fouling 80 miles of the river with 300,000 gallons of crude oil. Officials confirmed that the oil killed 226 water birds and 508 other animals, though the actual number was likely much higher. The cleanup took over four months, costs $8.8 million in 1976 (about $36 million in today’s dollars), and even then large amounts of oil were simply left to degrade naturally. The pollution negatively impacted the area’s tourism and recreation industry.

    Brittany, France (March 1978)

    Severe weather damaged the rudder of the Amoco Cadiz oil tanker, which eventually ran aground on the Portsall Rocks off the coast of the coast of Brittany, France. The storm continued to pummel the vessel until it broke apart, spilling its entire cargo of nearly 68 million gallons of crude oil into the English Channel. Oil contaminated 320 kilometers of the Brittany coastline. The cleanup effort employed 7,000 people and cost $250 million in 1978 dollars (close to a billion in 2015 dollars). Millions of dead mollusks, sea urchins, and other species washed ashore, while small crustacean populations disappeared completely from some areas. Roughly 20,000 seabirds died. The seaweed gathering and the shellfish industries suffered from the spill; 9,000 metric tons of oysters were destroyed; and economists estimated that the tourism industry along the Brittany coast lost between $28 million and $60 million.

    San Francisco Bay, California (January 19, 1979)

    Two oil tankers collided in heavy fog near the Golden Gate Bridge at the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The resulting spill from the vessels Oregon Standard and Arizona Standard fouled miles of beaches in the Bay and along the California coast. The 840,000 of crude and heavy fuel oil that escaped the wreckage killed more than 10,000 birds, along with millions more marine creatures. The longer-lasting effect of the oil spill pervaded ecosystem for more than five years, and cleanup efforts ran to more than $1 million in 1971 dollars (roughly $5.8 million in 2015 dollars). The disaster inspired the founding of International Bird Rescue.

    Galveston, Texas (November 1, 1979)

    The tanker Burmah Agate collided with the freighter Mimosa off Galveston, rupturing the tanker’s cargo tanks and causing a series of explosions that killed 33 crew members. Spilled oil caught fire and continued to burn for over two months, even consuming some of the booms placed to contain the spill. Unable to shut off the Mimosa’s engines because of the fire, crews resorted to fouling the propeller to stop it colliding into anything else. Heavy concentrations of oil coated Galveston beaches, where more than 400 people worked to remove oiled sand. Workers left oil in the marshes after they concluded that the cleanup operations would be more damaging than the oil itself. All told, investigators determined that the collisions spilled 2.6 million gallons of crude oil in addition to 7.8 million gallons that was consumed by the fire.

    Claymont, Delaware (September 28, 1985)

    The tanker Grand Eagle ran aground on the Marcus Hook Bar in the Delaware River after losing power to its steering system. The 435,000 of spilled crude oil fouled a 22-mile stretch of the river and surrounding marshland, killing or injuring several hundred birds and endangering the drinking water supply for nearby towns. Hampered by fierce winds that drove the oil between layers of ice, cleanup operations took 39 days and cost more than $1 million in 1985 dollars (about $2.2 million adjusted for inflation).

    Huntington Beach, California (February 7, 1990)

    The tanker American Trader ran over its own anchor, puncturing its cargo tank in two places and spilling 416,598 gallons of Alaskan North Slope crude oil into the water between Santa Catalina Island and Huntington Beach. The spill wiped out a quarter of the local clam population, along with thousands of seabirds, including the federally endangered brown pelican. Lawyers for BP prolonged legal settlements for more than a decade– long enough that some of the original plaintiffs died while the case was still pending. BP eventually paid out $3.8 million to settle natural resource damage claims, and an additional $16 million to compensate for lost tourism revenue. State and local agencies spent at least $35 million in cleanup costs.

    Chesapeake Bay, Virginia (July 1, 1990)

    While in Chesapeake Bay, the container ship Columbus America collided with the container ship Neptune Jade near Norfolk, Virginia during a thunderstorm. The collision damaged or destroyed 25 cargo containers, and dumped a shipment of washing machines into the water. An estimated 30,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil from the Columbus America spilled into the Bay, closing the main channel into Norfolk and some port facilities until the spill could be contained. The $2 million cleanup operation lasted almost a month on the heavily contaminated shores of the Elizabeth River and Norfolk Harbor, during which time the oil killed dozens of seabirds. Officials closed city beaches to swimming. Workers were not able to clean the ecologically-sensitive Lynnhaven Marsh out of fear that cleanup operations might damage the habitat further.

    Moonstone Beach, Rhode Island (January 19, 1996)

    The tug boat towing the tank barge North Cape caught fire, forcing its crew forced to abandon ship, which in turn led to the barge running aground and spilling its 828,000 gallons of home heating oil just off shore of the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge. The oil killed over 2,000 birds, plus millions of lobsters, surf clams, and fish. The Rhode Island Department of Health closed 250 square miles of the offshore commercial fishery in the area of the spill, a region that was not completely reopened for almost six months. More than 600 fisherman and businesses filed claims for lost revenue. One lobsterman reported that four years after the spill his catch was still less than half of what it had been beforehand. The oil prevented at least 3,300 charter boat cruises from operating in the area. In all, officials estimated that cleanup efforts cost $117 million; they assessed $9.5 million in fine.

    Portland, Maine (September 27, 1996)

    The oil tanker Julie N. collided with the Million Dollar Bridge in Portland, tearing a 15-foot hole in the hull and spilling its cargo of 180,00 gallons of home heating oil cargo and its own fuel oil into the harbor. Oil coated 24 acres intertidal marsh in and around the Fore River, soiling at least 1,600 birds and killing untold numbers of lobster and shellfish. The spill temporarily closed the Portland Harbor and forced the cancellation or serious disruption of thousands of recreational fishing trips, charter fishing trips, whale watching and tour boat trips, ferry trips, and general boating trips. Sale prices of Maine lobster plummeted and remained low for months even after the fishery was reopened. The cleanup cost an estimated $443 million.

    Coos Bay, Oregon (February, 4 1999)

    One of the most tragic oil spills in recent Northwest history was the New Carissa, a wood chip carrier that ran aground near Coos Bay on the southern Oregon Coast during a major winter storm. It eventually broke apart after attempts to ignite the fuel to prevent it from spilling failed. An estimate 140,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled into the surf, killing more than 2,800 seabirds. The damage resulted in the cancellation or diminishment of an estimated 29,204 recreational trips, resulting in a loss of as much as $413,000 in local tourism revenue. The courts found that local oyster beds had been extensively harmed, awarding one oyster producer $1.4 million in damages. A court settlement ultimately pegged the cleanup costs at $25 million . Ten years later, a salvage company eventually removed the wreck.

    Galicia, Spain (November 19, 2002)

    In a storm off the coast of Spain, the oil tanker Prestige began to take on water and eventually sank, releasing its entire cargo of more than 20 million gallons of crude oil into the Atlantic Ocean. Oil coated 1,800 miles of beaches in the Galicia region of Spain, killing an estimated 250,000 seabirds along with millions of fish and invertebrates. More than a decade after the spill, reproductive rates among oiled seabird colonies remained at just more than half that of non-oiled colonies. Officials banned off-shore fishing in the region for six-months, leading to losses in the Galician fishing sector of more than 76 million euros. Five years after the spill, a study documented high rates of pulmonary and cardiovascular health problems among those who helped in the cleanup effort. A Spanish court sentenced the captain of the Prestige to nine months in prison, and officials estimated the cost of the spill at $2 billion.

    Delaware River, New Jersey (November 26, 2004)

    The oil tanker Athos I struck a rusty anchor submerged on the bed of the Delaware River near Paulsboro, New Jersey, tearing several large holes in its hull. 265,000 gallons of crude oil poured into the river, fouling approximately 280 miles of shoreline, closing two reactors at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant for 11 days at a cost of more than $33 million and shutting commercial traffic on the Delaware River for more than a week,delaying over 200 vessels. Oil pollution killed or injured tens of thousands of birds, and disrupted almost 42,000 recreational trips. Damage claims paid to affected businesses topped $162.6 million with total costs estimate at $267 million.

    San Francisco Bay (November 7, 2007)

    The container ship Cosco Busan collided with a tower of the Bay Bridge, tearing a hole in the ship’s fuel tanks and spilling 53,569 gallons of intermediate fuel oil into San Francisco Bay. Thousands of birds, including federally endangered brown pelicans, were killed or injured by the oil. Even several months after the spill, Pacific herring eggs from areas where oil had been spilled experienced almost universal die-offs or deformities. Over a million days worth of human use (counting fishing, surfing, and other activities)—valued at almost $19 million— were lost. The total cost of the mishap ran to $73.6 million.

    Mississippi River, Louisiana (July 23, 2008)

    The tank barge DM932 collided with the oil tanker Tintomara, splitting open the cargo compartment of the barge. The barge sank and spilled most of its contents of 212,090 gallons of heavy fuel oil into the Mississippi River in downtown New Orleans. The spill forced the closure of well over 100 miles of the river, stranding around 200 major vessels for several days and costing the Port of New Orleans $275 million a day. Around 2,300 cleanup responders worked to remove oil from hundreds of miles of shoreline, 1,185 vessels, and almost 500 birds. Several municipalities closed their public drinking water intakes. The cleanup cost of the accident was pegged at more than $100 million for cleanup.

    Sabine-Neches Waterway, Texas (January 23, 2010)

    The double-hulled tank ship Eagle Otome collided with a tank barge being pushed by the tug boat Dixie Vengeance in a shipping channel near Port Arthur, Texas. Almost half a million gallons of crude oil spilled from the Eagle Otome’s punctured cargo tanks into the Sabine-Neches waterway between Texas and Louisiana. The Coast Guard closed the waterway—typically travelled by 150 barges and 15 tanker ships every day—entirely for four days, and it was several weeks before shipping operations returned to normal schedules. The Coast Guard also mandated the evacuation of 28 blocks of homes and businesses surrounding the spill because diminished air quality from the high sulfur content in the spilled crude. Officials estimated that costs at $36 million.

    New Orleans (February 22, 2014)

    The tank barge E2MS 303 collided with the tug boat Lindsay Ann Erickson, spilling 31,500 gallons of Bakken crude oil into the Mississippi River near Vacherie, Louisiana. The Coast Guard closed 65 miles of the river to all vessel traffic for several days, stranding 29 vessels. Approximately 150 personnel responded to the spill in a 10-day cleanup operation, though no shoreline cleanup took place other than in the immediate vicinity of the spill. Bakken crude evaporated quickly or was dissolved within the water column, with high levels of toxic benzene vapors reported at the spill site. The total costs are still undetermined.

    James River, Virginia (May 7, 2014)

    A CSX unit train loaded with Bakken crude derailed and caught fire near Lynchburg, Virginia spilling an estimated 25,000 gallons of oil into the James River. Booms placed to contain the spilled oil proved ineffective because of the river’s high flow. The turbulent water also drove some of the oil into the mud on the river bottom. The Virginia Health Department issued an advisory against all recreation activities on the river. Regulators enforced an initial $107,853 fine with additional penalties pending.