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Wash. sees risk in sending oil spill ships to Gulf

SEATTLE — Two of the Pacific Northwest’s largest oil-spill response vessels may be called to help clean up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

But Washington officials said they won’t approve the shift until they get assurances of enough resources to respond in the event of a major oil spill in the state.

A new emergency federal rule, which took effect earlier this week, aims to get more equipment to the Gulf by lowering requirements for cleanup equipment elsewhere, The Seattle Times reported.

“We want to do everything we can to help our fellow Americans down there, but we also have to maintain a core level of readiness,” said Curt Hart, a state Department of Ecology spokesman, told the newspaper. “We estimate a major spill here could cost our economy $10 billion and affect more than 165,000 jobs.”

Washington state law requires the oil industry to respond to a worst-case scenario that could involve spills anywhere from 10,000 gallons to 36 million gallons.

The new federal rule requires the industry to maintain enough equipment to respond to a spill of 2,100 gallons.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said Friday she plans to talk to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to ensure there won’t be a shortfall of cleanup equipment in Washington state.

“I’m very concerned,” said Murray, speaking in Seattle at a news conference previously arranged to talk about lessons from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

The Washington Democrat reiterated her support for a drilling ban off the West Coast, and promoted a bill she is co-sponsoring to raise the cap from $75 million to $10 billion on the amount responsible parties must pay for economic damages from oil spills.

Appearing Friday with Murray were Richard Tarabochia, 60, and his son Ryan Tarabochia, 29, Seattle-based commercial fishermen who said their livelihoods were destroyed by the oil spill in Alaska more than 20 years ago.

“We lost our business, our livelihood up there,” said Richard Tarabochia, a third-generation fisherman who is no longer in the business. “Things went to heck in a hurry.”

Tarabochia said he has only been compensated for about 10 percent of his losses, despite repeated assurances from ExxonMobil Corp. at the time that he would be “made whole.”

“We’re not quite whole yet,” he said Friday.

“Fishing was no longer viable for our family” after the Exxon Valdez spill,” said Ryan Tarabochia. “It’s sad to see the same thing is happening again.”

In the Gulf of Mexico, the Coast Guard is using more than 550 skimming vessels to collect oil in the worst offshore spill in U.S. history.

The U.S. Navy is providing 22 additional shallow-water skimmers, 35 tow boats and three harbor buster skimmers normally stationed around the country.

Tina Eichenour, a spokeswoman for the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command in the Gulf, told The Times that two of nine Navy vessels stationed in the Northwest have left for the Gulf and five more are scheduled to head south.

Equipment and personnel from Washington, Alaska and other states have already been sent to the Gulf.

Ecology’s Hart said the Coast Guard has not yet requested the Northwest’s two largest vessels, 205-foot-long ships equipped with skimmers. Those vessels are part a mix of equipment maintained by the national nonprofit Marine Spill Response Corp. that could be sent to the Gulf, he said.

The vessels are based in Astoria, Ore., and Port Angeles, Wash., and are key to responding to tanker spills in rough coastal waters.

State officials said they would not approve their departure without additional tugs stationed on the Columbia River and at Port Angeles, as well as other prevention measures.