Marine Log

October 14, 2006

Polar Tankers to pay $540,000 fine

The owner of the Polar Texas --which spilled more than 1,000 gallons of crude oil into Puget Sound's Dalco Passage on Oct. 13, 2004-- is to pay a $540,000 fine levied by the Washington State Department of Ecology.

The ship--now decommissioned--belonged to Polar Tankers, Inc., a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co.

The $540,000 fine is the largest fine Ecology has ever issued for a spill in marine waters, and is the maximum possible penalty under state law.

The spill was initially a "mystery spill." However, the Department of Ecology and the U.S. Coast Guard determined that the oil came from the Polar Texas because the oil on the water--Alaska North Slope crude oil--matched oil aboard the vessel. The Polar Texas had just delivered the same kind of oil to a Tacoma refinery. There were no other ships in the vicinity carrying crude oil at the time of the spill.

The civil penalty levied by the Department of Ecology is for five violations:

  • Negligence in illegally spilling oil to state waters ($260,000).
  • Failing to clean up the spill ($130,000).
  • Failing to follow ConocoPhillips' state-approved oil spill contingency plan ($130,000).
  • Failing to notify state and federal response agencies about the spill ($10,000).
  • Strict liability for discharging oil to state waters ($10,000).

The lack of response made it necessary for the Department of Ecology and the Coast Guard to conduct an exhaustive investigation to identify the source.

Investigators tracked and sampled all shipping in and out of the area in the days prior to the spill, including vessels that had departed for ports overseas.

The cleanup exceeded $2.2 million in costs, paid from the federal oil-spill contingency fund. Washington State agencies spent $483,000, which was reimbursed by federal funds.

The U.S. Department of Justice is pursuing cost recovery from Polar Tankers under the federal Oil Pollution Act.

According to the Department of Ecology, the Polar Texas released the oil while departing Commencement Bay on the evening of Oct. 13, 2004.

It appears--based on the best available information--that oil flowed out when the ship took on ballast water as it sailed through Dalco Passage, just outside the bay, says the department.

"The captain and crew have the responsibility to be aware of what's happening to oil on board the vessel," said Dale Jensen, who manages the department's spill prevention, preparedness and response program. "Vessel operators should not consider ballasting or any other operation as routine, not when oil can contact water outside the ship."

The spill in Dalco Passage went unreported until early the next morning when the captain of a passing tugboat reported oil on the water south of Vashon and Maury Islands.

The Polar Texas did not report or assist in the clean up of the spill. State and federal law requires the party responsible for a spill to report it promptly and take financial responsibility for the cleanup.

The spill occurred in Dalco Passage between Tacoma and Vashon Island and spread patches of oily sheen as far south as the Tacoma Narrows and as far north as Eagle Harbor. The sheen touched 15 miles of shore along Colvos Passage, the Narrows and Quartermaster Harbor and left a filmy coating along six miles of southern Vashon and Maury islands.

At its peak, the spill response involved 286 people, 10 oil-skimming vessels, 24,000 feet of boom, three helicopters and additional boats and equipment. Crews recovered an estimated 59 tons of oily debris from shoreline cleanup and 6,842 gallons of oily water from skimming operations.

"The cleanup was thorough and effective, considering the oil was on the water many hours before it was reported," said Jensen. "Nevertheless, oil spills have continuing impacts on our state waters because oil dissipates quickly and adds to toxic background pollution."

"The mystery of a large spill with a mute and unknown responsible party drew intense attention and scrutiny," said Ecology Deputy Director Polly Zehm. "We welcome this long-awaited step from ConocoPhillips, and we fully expect Polar Tankers to do what's required of all ships and fleets on Washington's waters. Every shipping company is required to employ the care and attention needed to prevent spills. If a spill occurs, every company is required to detect it, immediately report it, and clean it up."

Negotiations continue, meanwhile, on a state-federal-tribal damage assessment that is separate from the penalty. Funds from this assessment would be placed in a fund that supports restoration projects that compensate Washington citizens for damage to the public's environmental resources.

"We fully expect the companies to compensate the citizens of Washington for the damages that this spill caused to our state's natural resources," Zehm said. "ConocoPhillips and Polar Tankers have taken full responsibility for the penalty, so we see no reason to delay the rest of this package."