Monday, July 14, 2014

How to Report Pollution on Vacation

By Wendy Steffensen, North Sound Baykeeper

Last week my family went on a camping trip to Leavenworth. We enjoyed a train trip, not too many delays, lots of good family time at the local KOA with our six year old, and hiking along the Wenatchee River.

In Leavenworth there’s a waterfront park and trail system beside the Wenatchee River, and on Blackbird Island one can explore a remnant of the town's mill days. On our first day of hiking on Blackbird Island, I noticed a small oil sheen coming from a culvert into the river.   At first notice, the sheen had no obvious source, so I tried to forget about it.  We enjoyed our hike and ate wild cherries along the trail.

On the return trip, I stopped to look at it again. There was still an oil sheen flowing into the river, but now it had been over 2 hours since I first noticed it. If the spill or leak had been truly small, with no discernable source, it would have dissipated by the 2 hour mark. I stopped, examined it more carefully, then struck up a conversation with another hiker by who took an interest; it happened he was a fireman from Kirkland.  The fireman and I couldn't find an obvious source, but I was worried that it would continue to leak and pollute the river unless I took action.

So I called 911 and spent 20 minutes on the phone reporting the oil leak. After getting transferred from 911 to 2 additional places, the Leavenworth Fire Department and park managers arrived at the island. They took it very seriously, which was heartening.   They quickly traced the source of the the leak to a failing electrical transformer just upstream of the culvert.  

My next fear was that the oil contained PCBs - an organic compound that up until the 1970s was used in small concentrations in mineral oil as an insulating medium within electrical equipment.  The Fire Department staff and park managers didn’t know how old the transformer was, or whether it contained PCBs.  I left the scene in their capable hands.  But I did go back the next day, just to check. Happy to report:  no oil sheen.

So, when is an oil sheen "actionable" ?

For me it comes down to source and size. How big is it? A drip from a vehicle, is actionable, realistically, only from the owners perspective (we'll talk about our Don't Drip and Drive campaign later this month). Lots of roadway drips usually are not actionable because the source is long gone. If you see a large slick- ask yourself these questions:  Is there an identifiable source? Is it ongoing? Is it big enough that it could be cleaned up? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you likely have an "actionable" or reportable spill.

If you reside in the City of Bellingham, report spills, leaks and pollution to the Stormwater Hotline (360) 778 7979. 

Outside of the City, the National Response Center at (800) 424 8802) go to 

You can also call us at 733-8307 and we will help you through the process, or call your local Washington State Department of Ecology office Bellingham, its (360) 715 5200. 

Happy investigating!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks! Ah - the Baykeepers Holiday! I was in Leavenworth about 3 weeks ago and saw weeds growing right out of one of the storm drains downtown! When I go again I shall talk to the city and see what they have in mind. Maybe it was an old disconnected one.