Major Oil Spills

A variety of commercial vessels–some as large as 1,300 feet long–travel through the waters near the San Juan Islands every year.  Shipping vessels include laden oil tankers.  Altogether, these ships carry more than a million gallons of oil. The San Juan Islands and the Salish Sea have never had a major spill from one of these tankers, some of them crossing international waters between the United States and Canada. The 2014 Vessel Traffic Risk Assessment modeled vessel traffic in and around the Salish Sea with three proposed maritime terminal development projects (Gateway terminal, Trans Mountain/Kinder-Morgan pipeline expansion, Delta Port). The study estimated a 189% increase in potential oil spill losses for the San Juan Islands (Dorp et al. 2014). How a major accident like the Exxon Valdez (11 million gallon losses) or Deepwater Horizon (210 million gallon losses) oil spill would affect these waters and how separate jurisdictions would respond to an oil spill of this magnitude are still unknown.

oils spill contained

IOSA contains oil from sinking boat. (photo by IOSA)

The SJ-LIO is making significant progress in addressing this uncertainty by funding efforts that both address oil spill prevention and preparedness. The SJ-LIO first coordinated with regional marine managers at an oil spill prevention workshop held at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs in November 2012. The group worked on strategies and plans to better coordinate the resources and efforts of local, state and federal (U.S. and Canadian) organizations responsible for oil spill prevention and readiness. Many of the 2014/2015 Action Agenda near-term actions were conceptualized and formulated from this workshop. The SJ-LIO continues to work with the PSP Oil Spill Work Group to formulate and implement appropriate measures.

The Islands Oil Spill Association (IOSA) is a local, non-profit organization that provides oil spill response and prevention throughout San Juan County.  IOSA can assemble vessels and equipment that can contain and clean up oil and debris from leaking or sinking vessels around the San Juan Islands. IOSA has helped to formulate near term actions (NTA) and is an owner one of a 2014/15 Action Agenda NTA. In addition, the SJ-LIO helped to facilitate the removal and disposal of derelict vessels through the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Local Derelict Vessel Prevention Program.  Working on local efforts to fund both of these programs, along with wider coordination of local and international marine managers, has helped to address some of the overall uncertainty of a major oil spill in the San Juan Islands and Salish Sea.

Strategies and Near-term Actions

The SJ-LIO has built upon existing strategies of prevention and protection against a major oil spill in the San Juan Islands. These near-term actions represent an opportunity for many groups to work together to bring about larger, positive action. Actions adopted in the latest 2014/2015 Action Agenda are listed below, with owners responsible for these actions in brackets.

  • Coordinate actions and prepare to respond to major oil spills by updating the Trans-boundary Inter-local Agreement, implement a Marine Specimen Bank, and maintain IOSA local oil spill readiness and response programs (San Juan County Council, San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, Islands Oil Spill Association).
  • Integrate and define response parameters to increased vessel traffic and potential spills by completing a Sensitive Sea Area Study, monitor the results of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 and the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2012, and working to identify San Juan County as an oil spill staging area (Friends of the San Juans, San Juan County Council (Trans-boundary agreement)).
  • Implement the Marine Stewardship Area Monitoring Plan to identify indicator species to track in relation to oil spills (San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, UW Friday Harbor Labs, Salmon Recovery San Juan Lead Entity).
  • Expand and maintain Derelict Vessel Compliance Program (San Juan County, PSP)


Implementation Committee Meeting:

Bimonthly first Thursdays, 11:00 am -1:00 pm, 7/1, 9/2, 11/4
See San Juan County website Agenda Center for agendas and meeting links

Accountability Oversight Committee Meetings:

Schedule pending

Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve, 10441 Bayview Edison Road, Mount Vernon



San Juan County Oil Spill Risk Consequences Assessment and Emergency Response Towing Vessel Cost Evaluation, March 2019