Motor Oil Spill Contaminates Washington River, Coating Birds And Endangering Wildlife

CREDIT: AP Photo/Washington Dept. of Ecology

In this aerial photo taken Monday, March 2, 2015, and provided by the Washington Dept. of Ecology, oil from a spill floats on top of the Yakima River near Prosser, Wash.

More than 1,000 gallons of used motor oil leaked into a river and irrigation canals in Washington state this weekend, oiling at least 50 birds and contaminating an area that’s rich in wildlife, according to state officials.

About 1,500 gallons of used motor oil, which can contain toxins and heavy metals, leaked from an aboveground storage tank into Washington’s Sulphur Creek and Yakima River Sunday. Cleanup crews are trying to recover and contain the spilled oil by laying down booms and using vacuums.

An oil sheen has been spotted about 20 miles away from the site of the spill, Joye Redfield-Wilder, a spokesperson for the Department of Ecology, told ThinkProgress. But the Department of Ecology says that most of the oil has remained in a seven-mile section of Sulphur Creek, and that the creek is boomed at the spot where it enters the Yakima River in an attempt to prevent any more oil from entering the river.

The spill, which occurred in Yakima County, Washington, happened in a region that according to Washington’s Department of Ecology is “home to hundreds of species of fish and wildlife,” including river otters, beavers, fish, muskrats, as well as wintering and migrating birds.

Redfield-Wilder said that the Department of Ecology is working to assess the impact the spill is having on wildlife in the area, including the 50 oiled birds. She said it may be hard to get to the oiled birds because they tend to hide in the reeds and in nooks and crannies in the land, but that the Department had experts on hand to begin examining them. She also said that it’s crucial to have the oil cleaned up in the next few weeks, because that’s when the irrigation canals that the oil spilled into will be filled with water for crops. Full cleanup of the spill could take multiple weeks, however.

Officials are still looking into what caused the aboveground storage tank to fail. The tanks are fairly common on properties that are owned by people who use oil to heat their homes, or on farms that store used motor oil from tractors and other farm equipment, Redfield-Wilder said. Aboveground storage tanks are regulated by the Fire Marshall in Washington, she said, but some of these tanks may be so old that they were constructed before regulations were put in place. She said it’s important that landowners be aware of the tanks, especially if they’re old, and that they know that the used oil can be drained from the tanks and recycled.

In the 17 years Redfield-Wilder has been at the Department of Ecology, she said she’d never experienced an aboveground storage tank spill that had made its way into state waterways. Aboveground storage tanks aren’t the only spills that concern her, however — she also said she was worried about incidents with oil trains, which could spill crude oil into the region’s rivers. It’s something that others in Washington are also worried about, as more and more trains come through their state. By 2020, according to the state’s Department of Ecology, the number of oil trains coming through Washington state every week could triple, from 19 oil trains to 57.

“This is a large spill, however we have oil trains that are coming more and more through our communities and along our inland waters,” she said. “So in more rural areas it’s going to be tougher to respond. This was an aboveground storage tank but an oil train is going to be carrying crude oil which is a lot heavier.”