ConocoPhillips To Pay $540,000 Fine For 2004 Oil Spill

The owner of the Polar Texas -- the oil tanker that spilled more than 1,000 gallons of crude oil into Puget Sound's Dalco Passage on Oct. 13, 2004 -- will pay in full a $540,000 fine levied by the Washington state Department of Ecology (Ecology).

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 ship -- which has since been decommissioned -- belonged to Polar Tankers Inc., a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co.

"The mystery of a large spill with a mute and unknown responsible party drew intense attention and scrutiny," said Ecology Deputy Director Polly Zehm on Oct. 13. "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."

Ecology and the U.S. Coast Guard have determined that the oil came from the Polar Texas because 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 a Tacoma refinery. There were no other ships in the vicinity carrying crude oil at the time of the spill.

Ecology's civil penalty cites the companies the maximum amount 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 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.

Penalty proceeds will be deposited in Ecology's vessel response account, which helps pay state costs for responding to oil spills from maritime ships. This account also supports stationing a rescue tug at Neah Bay during the winter.

The cleanup exceeded $2.2 million in costs, paid from a federal oil-spill contingency fund. Ecology and other state agencies spent $483,000, which was reimbursed by federal fund. The U.S. Department of Justice is pursuing cost recovery from Polar Tankers under the federal Oil Pollution Act.

The Polar Texas released the oil while departing Commencement Bay on the evening of Oct. 13. 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, state officials said. Tankers fill empty cargo tanks with water to maintain stability. The operation requires care to ensure that residual oil in the on-board tanks or pipelines does not slip out while water is drawn in.

"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 Ecology'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.

For more information, contact Ecology at http://www.ecy.wa.gov.

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