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The Nestucca: How a devastating event shaped today’s oil spill responses

In 1988, an oil spill from the barge Nestucca resulted in one of the largest, most damaging environmental incidents in the history of Washington. But the knowledge gained from the spill also led to dramatic change in oil spill regulations, prevention methods, and response tactics that have maximized environmental protection. Here is the Nestucca story with narrative from former Director of Ecology, Christine Gregoire, current Spills Program Manager, Dale Jensen.

In December 1988, the tug Ocean Service was towing the 300-foot Nestucca down the coast, loaded with nearly three million gallons of bunker oil from Cherry Point in Northwest Washington. Bunker oil is thick oil that’s more like tar. The two vessels were on their way to Aberdeen, and eventually Portland, Oregon.

Two days before Christmas, as the two vessels approached the Grays Harbor bar, the towline snapped and the Nestucca began drifting toward land. The tug should have been equipped with an “insurance wire” that deploys if the main wire disconnects, but it did not have one. 

The tug did have a runaway barge mechanism but only the captain had been trained in how to use it. With no other alternatives to catch the drifting barge, the captain opted for the last resort, to pull the tug up next to the Nestucca, and transfer crewmembers over to attach an emergency line. – Christine Gregoire

As the tug approached, the rough seas forced the two to collide. At the time, there was no indication of any damage to either vessel. However, the Nestucca had suffered a six feet by 18 inch gash — a hole about the size of a picnic bench. The rudder of the tug had also been damaged, and maneuverability had been severely compromised. The tug tried to approach again and two crewmembers were able to board the barge, but the rough conditions prevented them from establishing an emergency line. Finally, the captain believed he didn’t have any choice but to advance the runaway barge mechanism despite the lack of training. Together, the captain, the cook, and another crewmember were able to use it successfully. 

Since the rudder was so badly damaged, the two vessels couldn’t maneuver. The crew called for help and another tug — the Janet R — arrived. The approaching crew noticed a spill had occurred. They called the Coast Guard who then contacted Ecology. As the oil began to spread, officials called in more and more resources to tackle what eventually developed into an oil spill of tremendous size.

Gregoire boarded a helicopter to oversee what was happening from the air. She and the rest of the team were told an important decision had to be made.

Either take the vessel into Grays Harbor, or take the vessel out to sea. As I looked at the vessel, I thought it was absolutely foreboding at how big it was. The experts in the room said, ‘if you take it into Grays Harbor, the environmental damage that will be done there will be unbelievable and they’re not equipped to deal with it. They do not have the ability to deal with it losing oil at any pace at all. On the other hand, pushing it out to sea, the oil will disperse with the currents. That amount of environmental damage there will be much less.’ So you can see why the Coast Guard and the Department of Ecology made the decision to push it out to sea rather than into Grays Harbor. Of course, what happened was that solution did not turn out in any way, shape, or form as I was advised it would. – Christine Gregoire

The type of oil was a kind that did not disperse, and the current did not run in the directions they were expected to, but still, the belief was that it had dispersed. However, the oil was actually underneath the surface of the water and could not be detected by the air. The first time responders discovered it had traveled anywhere was when it appeared in secluded places on Washington shorelines 100 miles north. Responders were able to “fingerprint” the oil through chemical analysis and confirm that the oil reached beaches all the way from the Oregon Coast to Vancouver Island and into Puget Sound via Admiralty Inlet. On New Year’s Eve, it was detected heading into British Columbia. Over the month of January, it would sporadically hit the shoreline and ultimately, all 310 miles of Vancouver Island had spots where the oil came ashore.

Department of Ecology beach cleanup of oil-soaked sand resulting from the Nestucca oil spill, January 1989.

I called the minster of Environment, Richard Dalen, and I profusely apologized. I gave him every transparent detail of what happened that I was aware of, what the decision was, why it was made, and that never did anyone believe it would come ashore or reach British Columbia. I asked if we could meet immediately to talk about things rather than talk through the media. He said he’d be happy to do that and it was a terrific relationship, we became good friends after that. It was then during that meeting that we had a briefing, some of the spills members from Washington state, the Coast Guard, and folks from British Columbia as well.  He and I came to the conclusion that this never had to happen. This was absolutely preventable, and on our watch, we could not allow that to happen again.  – Christine Gregoire

In total, more than 230,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled from the Nestucca. Oil covered over 110 miles of Washington’s coastal beaches. The spill harmed the shores of the Quinault Indian Nation and the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Nation in Canada, as well as Olympic National Park and multiple wildlife refuges. Although cleanup efforts rescued and rehabilitated 13,000 oiled birds, only about 1,000 survived and officials estimated the spill killed upwards of 55,000 birds. Multiple Canadian fisheries closed during this time as well. By the end of January, oil was still washing ashore in mainland British Columbia.

Volunteers and Ecology staff participating in wildlife rescue efforts resulting from the 1988 Nestucca oil spill.

What happened back then was a wakeup to every legislative body, to everyone that works in spill prevention and response, and to everybody up and down the coast. Because of this spill we were able to pass some laws. We passed a law in Washington state requiring double hull. –Christine Gregoire

The litigation involving that effort went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Washington lost. However, the effort got the attention of legislative bodies which provided financial and human resources to spill prevention efforts.  As for the cause of the incident, investigators later determined it was completely preventable. The tow wire had not been properly maintained, leading it to corrode and snap. Regular maintenance and inspections would have identified the problem, but they were not performed. A federal judge affirmed that the responsible party’s negligence had caused the incident. 

Responders work on the oiled deck of the Nestucca.

If I look back at what I felt at Nestucca and Valdez, I said to myself, complacency here is the culprit. It took over. Everything was taken for granted, and it resulted in these two preventable, absolutely tragic events happening. Things are much more complex today than they were back in the dark ages of the Nestucca spill or the Exxon Valdez spill, but we can be smarter than that. We have technology and other resources at our fingertips that can make sure we can prevent and make sure we can respond in a way that will avoid the worst of a disaster. I look at the trajectory of what’s happening with spills, and we need to get it to zero. We can do better.  No small spill and no big spill should happen today. – Christine Gregoire


Former Ecology Director Christine Gregoire gives her account of the Nestucca spill at the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force annual meeting, October 2019.

"The lessons learned from the Nestucca cleanup resulted in permanent changes to oil transportation regulations, improved spill response methods, and new international agreements for future oil spill responses. 30 years later, those international partnerships are still firmly in place and technology has made spill response even more effective. But sadly spills still happen, lessons are learned, improvements are made, and our spill prevention, preparedness, and response work becomes more effective.  Washington state has one of the lowest spill volume in the nation because of our strong policies, and partnerships.  We have a legislative goal of zero spills, and until there are no more spills, our work is never done." – Dale Jensen


For more information on Washington’s Spill Prevention Preparedness and Response Program, visit our website.

Christine Gregoire’s complete comments are available online with registration. 

Throughout 2020, we’re marking our agency’s 50th anniversary with stories on how Washington state’s commitment to environmental protection has developed, and the results that commitment has achieved.