State prepares for oil spills in Lake Washington

The Washington Department of Ecology has been at the forefront of some significant spill cleanup events recently, from a waste-oil pumping accident at a Navy base that dumped 2000 gallons of waste oil into Hood Canal, to the long-term cleanup effort at Northlake Shipyard, to dealing with the aftermath of the marina fire in Shelter Bay that destroyed seven boats and released an undetermined amount of fuel and contaminants into the bay.

Now, the department, in cooperation with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is preparing for another spill, one that hasn’t happened yet: a major oil spill in Lake Washington.

Although Lake Washington and Lake Union were among our most contaminated waters before major clean-up efforts were undertaken by Metro in the 1960s, today they are a recreational playground for the region’s 3.5 million residents. Ski boats, swimmers, jet skis, sailing dinghies, kayaks… all share and enjoy the expanse of the lakes.

Perhaps because of the heavy recreational use, it’s easy to forget that they remain working waters as well, surrounded and used by local industry. And with an expected surge in road and rail traffic transporting oil from the North Dakota Bakken fields to West Coast ports and refineries, the potential for spills is increasing rapidly. State regulators are considering three new oil terminal projects in Washington state alone.

In response, Ecology and the EPA have formulated a draft Geographic Response Plan (GRP) for Lake Washington and its tributaries, describing the ecologically sensitive areas on the lake to be protected, outlining strategies for protecting them, and detailing staging areas, techniques, and local resources which could be quickly tapped to help in the event of a spill.

“Like the communities around the lake, we value the natural resources the lake offers with its numerous parks and boat launches,” said Dale Jensen, spills program manager. “We hope that a major spill never happens here, but it’s important that we’re prepared for one if we want to protect this valuable resource.”

The Lake Washington plan will join 15 other Geographic and some 30 private response plans, the latter developed for specific sites or incident types in cooperation with private industry—plans, for example, exist to deal with spills from certain commercial vessels anywhere in Washington waters, and at certain industrial operations or refineries.

Lake Washington with Mt. Rainier in the background as seen from Madison Park in Seattle, WA

Lake Washington with Mt. Rainier in the background as seen from Madison Park in Seattle, WA – (Photo by Henry Alva)

Geographic Response Plans are prepared ahead of time by the various agencies which will have to coordinate containment efforts. They provide a playbook for responders which has already considered the geography, hydrology, logistics, and priorities for the spill area, and can save valuable hours getting everyone on the same page and taking action to contain spills.

Incidentally, if you were ever looking for a comprehensive source of information on publicly-available boat launches on Lake Washington (or anywhere else covered by an Ecology GRP), the staging-area pre-plans rival any privately published guidebook for directions, pictures, and amenities, with useful details about cell-phone reception, parking lot pavement condition, and all those other details that most guides fail to mention. And it’s all freely available, and kept accurate and up-to-date by public employees you are already paying!

Both the potential contamination sources and the strategies to deal with them are still being fleshed out. There are a lot of blank pages in the document. But those only serve to remind how many potential spill sites exist along the lake periphery and how many beautiful and delicate areas of shoreline there are to protect.

The strategies can vary from containment at the point or close downstream of a spill to collection of the oil to protection of environmentally-sensitive areas nearby.

The full draft plan can be downloaded here (PDF-FTP link).

Public comments on the plan will be accepted through April 15. You can submit comments via email, to, online at or by mail to the following address:

Washington Department of Ecology
Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response (GRPs)
P.O. Box 47600 Olympia, WA 98504-7600

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