San Juan Island Oil Spill on Earth Day

by Kevin Ranker

On Earth Day [Thursday, April 22, 1999] we had a small, but significant oil spill reach the west side of the San Juan Islands. The source has yet to be identified. First thing Thursday morning, Earth Day, I received a cåall from one of our members, Liz Keeshan. She and her husband walk South Beach in the National Park here on San Juan Island daily. She reported that there had been an oil spill.

Cicely Muldoon, Superintendent of San Juan National Historic Park, and I arrived at about 9 AM to find that indeed there had been a spill. The spill consisted of linear layer bunker fuel, the heavy tarry stuff, mixed into the driftwood and kelp and stretching over three miles on San Juan Island. It has now been confirmed that the spill came aground on the western side of Lopez Island as well and we have had at least one confirmed sea bird death do to oil coverage.

This spill is small and lasting impacts will probably be minimal. The response from Island Oil Spills Association, Department of Ecology and the US Coast Guard was good and the volunteer efforts of our community members again made me proud to live in these islands. I feel very lucky for two reasons.

The first is that this spill was small and it seems to be being handled in a decent manner. The second is that maybe this will serve as a warning that to us all that we are vulnerable to this type of disaster. Although the response was good, and everyone involved, particularly the Island Oil Spills Association, are to be proud of the initiatives taken to protect our coast, our efforts where spread thin and could not have handled a much larger spill.

This could just as well have been a much larger spill because every day we don´t have tugs escorting oil tankers and/or rescue tugs in the Strait of Juan de Fuca is one more day of unacceptable risk for these islands. The Coast Guard, the legislature and Vice President Al Gore have done nothing to get more tugs in these waters because the oil and shipping industry doesn´t want them to.

The San Juan Archipelago and the Northwest Straits are internationally recognized as an exceptional ecosystem. At the same time, we know that our marine fish and wildlife populations are already depleted, and our environment is in precarious health. How many “small” lessons do we have to face before we realize the importance of protecting this place? Tug escorts or a rescue tug in the outer straits may not have made a difference on this spill but this spill is just a tiny taste of what would happen if a tanker ran into trouble with no tug at hand.

That this happened on Earth Day and in a National Park is particularly upsetting. Vice President Al Gore spent Earth Day speechifying in Shenandoah National Park, as a media event touting his work to clean up the air pollution and visibility in the National Parks. Our legislature spent the day putting the nail in the coffin of this session´s tug legislation. The Coast Guard spent the day blissfully, because they´ve already announced that our waters are “safe.” I spent Earth day looking for oil-covered sea birds.

Preventing oil spills is so much cheaper and less heartbreaking than cleaning one up. Isn´t it about time the proper protection is put in place?

Please take the time and call your legislators and the governor and let them know that federal and state governments must require rescue tugs and/or tug escorts for all tankers in the Northwest Straits now. Not after it is too late.

For more information, contact Kevin at (360) 378-2319 or

Kevin Ranker was identified as a member of Friends of the San Juans when this article was written