Oil-Spill Prevention Is More Vital Than Response Plans

Editorials & Opinion: Thursday, August 27, 1992


TOM Brown’s Seattle Times story, “Lifetime to Alaska” (Aug. 23), describes the importance of the merchant marine industry to Washington and Alaska’s economy.

However, it also points out some of the threats posed to the environment by such business. Brown writes with great understatement of his experience of taking the freighter Westward out Juan de Fuca Strait: traffic all over the place, including many wooden boats that don’t readily show up on radar until close. He compares the entrance to Juan de Fuca to an I-90 on-ramp at rush hour. “Handling a ship more than 2 1/2 times as long as a football field, 105 feet wide and moving at 20 knots can be unpleasant under these circumstances.”

Because of increasing foreign trade there is a growing trend to use Pacific Northwest ports and it is critical that we implement long-term measures to prevent the likelihood of oil spills. Without being too critical of the oil industry’s Marine Spill Response Corporation’s (MSRC) efforts to improve our oil-spill-response capability (The Times, July 24), I would like to highlight an area that needs greater emphasis: prevention.

As citizens fortunate to live in a place where there’s still so much left to protect, we need to take advantage of several new opportunities to reduce our state’s risk of an oil spill.

Seattle Times reporter Eric Nalder’s 1989 excellent review entitled, “Tankers full of trouble,” asked the rhetoric question, “If the tanker system is as safe as the industry and Coast Guard say it is, why in the first eight years of this decade were tankers in the U.S. involved in 468 groundings, 371 collisions, 97 rammings, 55 fires and explosions, and 95 deaths (The Times, Nov. 12, 1989)?

More recently, in the August 1992 issue of the industry trade publication, Pacific Maritime, writer Kerry Walsh, in, “Salvors: The First Line of Oil Spill Defense,” wrote that although the United States has the most stringent oil-spill legislation on record, it is reported to be the country least concerned with spill prevention. The premise of that story is that the shipping industry needs to purchase and strategically station salvage tugs with sufficient capacity to keep a disabled tanker or other large ship from running aground or colliding with another ship.

The utility of salvage tugs as a means of oil spill prevention has also been demonstrated by their ability to put out fires that could have sunk the two tankers that recently collided in Singapore (The Times, July 18). A sizable tractor tug(s) stationed at Neah Bay would have provided the only meaningful response to the Exxon Philadelphia, carrying 22 million gallons (twice the amount spilled in Prince William Sound) when it lost power off Cape Flattery on April 2, 1989.

A 1990 report entitled, “Coping with an Oiled Sea,” by the U.S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment, asserts that we generally can only recover 6 to 8 percent of an oil spill and that this is not likely to improve significantly with existing technology. Environmental impacts continue even after the Coast Guard and other responsible agencies have determined that cleanup is complete.

I am not just referring to the ongoing atrocity in Prince William Sound, but also after the one-year anniversary of the Tenyo Maru spill last month, the Makah Tribal Council is still trying to redeem one of their sacred sites on Cannonball Island from the tarring it received. Even if cleanup equipment worked better, it needs to be stationed closer to the site of potential spills.

The MSRC is stationing their ocean-going skimmers in Astoria and Everett. Unfortunately, these sites appear to be chosen according to where people live and vote, rather than where the marine environment is particularly productive and vulnerable.

No place is this oversight more evident than the Olympic Coast, where the marine resources, not to mention the cultural and historical values of the area, are ranked by the state to be among the most productive and sensitive and will soon be nationally recognized as a Marine Sanctuary. However, regulations on tanker size, speed, or pilotage still do not begin until east of Port Angeles.

Before worrying about where to station skimmers, we should initially be concerned with how to avoid spills in the first place. The case for investing in prevention over response is an easy one to make, but until recently, difficult to act on. Fortunately, there are several opportunities to change this slight to the coast.

Shortly after Sen. Brock Adams was able to assure that oil tankers will be required to have double hulls as part of the Federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, Washington state passed its own oil-spill-prevention legislation . Now, the public must be involved in the implementation of these laws. The Coast Guard is currently receiving public comments through Sept. 8 on a proposed rule that would require two tug escorts for single-hull tankers greater than 5,000 gross tons entering Washington waters, east of Port Angeles .

Washington’s waters have a very strong constituency which deserves better representation. Write to the above addresses or call OAD’s Northwest office in Seattle for more information, 783-6676.

Comments on extending escort requirements to freighters and other ships are also requested. Send comments may be sent to Executive Secretary, Marine Safety Council (G-LRA/3406) (GCD 91-202), U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 2100 Second St., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20593-0001, (202) 267-1477.

Other opportunities for public participation include the Office of Marine Safety’s Regional Marine Safety Committees, which are composed primarily of maritime and oil industry representatives. Contact D. Thomas Wendell, OMS, 711 State Ave. N.E., 2nd Floor, Olympia, WA 98504-2407, (206) 664-9110. Those interested in participating in the development of the state’s oil-dispersant policy should contact Dick Logan, DOE, MS-PV-11, Olympia, WA 98504-8711.

Fred Felleman is a conservation biologist with American Oceans Campaign in Seattle. He currently serves on the Department of Ecology’s Oil Spill Advisory Committee and on subcommittees to the Office of Marine Safety Regional Marine Safety Committees.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

~ by fredfelleman on August 27, 1992.

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