New rule leaves Washington State vulnerable to threat of tar sands

December 18, 2019

State remains unprepared for risks that tar sands crude oil poses to shared waters, local communities, and Southern Resident orcas

Lacey, WA — Today, the Washington Department of Ecology formally adopted updates to the rule governing how companies transporting oil through the state must be prepared to respond to a spill. Although the rule update marks some protection improvements, it fails to establish more stringent requirements to address the unique risks that tar sands oil poses to Washington communities, commercial and treaty fishing, and the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. 

Tar sands crude oil from Canada can submerge and sink when spilled, making oil spill response operations far more difficult. This oil currently moves through Washington via vessel, train, and pipeline. Spills of these oils in other states, such as on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, have had catastrophic results leading to years-long response efforts and limited recovery of sunken oils.

Recognizing these heightened risks, legislation passed in 2018 directed Ecology to update rules to enhance our protections for non-floating oils. However, the rule Ecology has adopted through this process fails to establish standards to require more rapid response for companies transporting these high-risk oils to respond to spills before they submerge and sink.

“Washington communities deserve commonsense protections against the unique devastation of an oil spill. For years, Washington has been unprepared to address the risks posed by the tar sands crude oil already moving through our state, and this rule does not go far enough to establish the safeguards we need,” said Anna Doty, Director of Stand Up To Oil campaign.

“The growing public opposition to tar sands in Washington state — from tribal lawsuits to activists shutting down pipeline shipments — comes from the recognition that there are no adequate response requirements to clean up a spill of this heavy oil before it sinks. Plans to expand the amount of tar sands being shipped shipped through Washington state and its waters — including the Trans Mountain Pipeline and oil tanker expansion in Canada — is an ecological disaster waiting to happen. Ecology’s new rules clearly show that our state continues to have no plan sufficient to deal with it,” said Matt Krogh, Extreme Oil Director at

“As if the risk of conventional oil spills isn’t bad enough, imagine the devastation of a non-floating oil spill into the Salish Sea or salmon-bearing rivers. Even one spill would cause irreparable harm to wildlife — from seabirds to Dungeness crab, endangered salmon to orca, and everything in between. People work hard to protect and restore these waters. That work shouldn’t be undermined just because Washington doesn’t have a sufficient plan to respond to dangerous oil spills, especially when Puget Sound recovery is already behind 2020 goals on nearly every metric,” said Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources. 

“Our Southern Resident orcas and our marine-dependent economy can’t afford to be unprepared for a non-floating oil spill,” said Stephanie Buffum, Executive Director of the Friends of the San Juans.

“As a person who worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I am gravely concerned that we are at risk of a similar spill in Puget Sound. The contingency plans proposed by Washington State Department of Ecology do not go nearly far enough to respond to a potentially catastrophic oil spill of this sort. We owe it to our endangered Chinook salmon, Southern Resident orcas and the Puget Sound ecosystem as a whole to do better,” said Chris Rilling, Executive Director of Puget Soundkeeper.

“The Department of Ecology’s failure to establish tougher rules for tar sands oil is an affront to our coastal communities and fishing families. Tar sands oil poses major risks to the wildlife and fisheries that sustain Tribal communities, boost the economy, and create thousands of jobs. We must be vigilant about the threat of tar sands oil, dilbit and other petroleum products to our waters. Unfortunately, Ecology’s rule does not do nearly enough,” said Verner Wilson III, Senior Oceans Campaigner at Friends of the Earth US.


Washington State requires companies transporting oil by pipeline, rail, or marine vessel to maintain an approved spill response plan including access to equipment, trained responders, drills, use of dispersants, wildlife rescue, and more. The requirements in these plans are established by the Department of Ecology (Ecology), and by law, Ecology must update these requirements every five years. The 2018 Improving Oil Transportation Safety Act directed Ecology to update these requirements with specific attention to the risks of oils that may submerge or sink, such as diluted bitumen from Canada’s tar sands region. 

Washington refineries already receive tar sands crude oil (also known as diluted bitumen, or dilbit) which is known to submerge and sink when spilled. Once sunk, traditional oil spill recovery techniques are ineffective. Spills of such oils pose a unique threat to Washington’s increasingly vulnerable marine ecosystem, including the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. It is imperative that tar sands crude oils be contained and recovered before they sink. 

Communities across Washington are at risk from the existing transport of tar sands crude oil and the state is unprepared to respond. Currently, tar sands are transported by rail through Eastern Washington and along the Columbia River to terminals including Port Westward, which has recently approved shipments of tar sands by rail. In Tacoma, the Par Pacific (formerly US Oil) refinery receives weekly shipments of dilbit by barge across Puget Sound from the existing Trans Mountain pipeline terminal in Burnaby, BC. And in Skagit and Whatcom Counties, the Puget Sound Pipeline supplies Washington’s four northern refineries with dilbit. Concerns about these threats were reflected in the over 14,000 public comments submitted to Ecology calling for stronger protections and faster response times in the updated oil spill contingency plan for the Puget Sound Pipeline in early 2019, and with thousands of additional public comments to Ecology during the rule update process in fall of 2019. 

Furthermore, the proposed expansion of the Canadian Trans Mountain Pipeline would exacerbate these existing risks, and has heightened public concern about the limitations of responding to a tar sands oil spill, especially once it sinks. If constructed, the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would vastly increase crude oil export tanker traffic from Vancouver, BC, through critical orca habitat in the Haro Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. 

The proposed update appropriately acknowledges that a wide variety of oils could potentially sink based on their characteristics and environmental factors. However, the rule adopted by Ecology does not distinguish the unique characteristics of dilbit, which demand more stringent equipment and response time requirements than other oils in order to protect Washington’s waters and all those dependent on them. 

Read more: Department of Ecology Rulemaking Background


Media contacts:
In US: Anna Doty, Director, Stand Up To Oil campaign,, 206-631-2605
In Canada: Sven Biggs, Climate & Energy Campaigner,,, 778-882-8354