More Must Be Done To Protect Our Coast

Editorials & Opinion: Friday, July 29, 1994

Fred Felleman

THE recent dedication of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary was the welcome result of years of arduous work. The sanctuary is the first in the Pacific Northwest and one of only 14 nationally. Yet it took strong state participation and congressional intervention to ensure the ban on oil drilling, ending Naval bombing of Sea Lion Rock and adequate funding for research and educational activities.

That does not mean the Olympic coast is immune to damage. Protecting this region from spills of oil and hazardous waste is still a major gap in the defense of the coastline.

Three days ago, environmentalists held their breaths as a Chinese grain ship collided with an oil barge 30 miles off the mouth of the Columbia River. The incident occurred at 2:30 a.m., causing the dispatch of rescue vessels and tugs and a full spill-response effort. No oil was reported spilled from the double-hulled barge, “Cascade,” with 2.4 million gallons of oil aboard, yet the threat of a major spill sometime in the future remains.

Our coast has a significant history of oil spills. The state’s coastal clean-up standards are among the least stringent in the nation, yet no vessel’s contingency plan is currently capable of meeting them. The Coast Guard’s Area Plan simply acknowledges the logistical difficulties of responding to an oil spill in this area.

Four days after the Olympic sanctuary dedication, the Emergency Towing Task Force made its final report to the Office of Marine Safety (OMS). The report recommended that a tug boat be stationed in Neah Bay to fill a major gap in the state’s oil spill prevention and response programs. The presence of this tug would not only provide oil spill response capabilities for the high seas, but should afford contributing industries “prevention credits” toward complying with their contingency plan requirements.

We have had only one tanker spill – the ARCO Anchorage grounded coming into Port Angeles in 1988 – yet we have learned it does not take a tanker to make a mess of the coast. The area that would be served by the response tug has been the site of four of Washington’s worst oil spills:

— In March 1965, the United Transport barge lost its tow and grounded near Moclips, spilling 1.2 million gallons of diesel and gasoline;

— January 1972, the unmanned troopship General M.C. Meiggs became disconnected from its tow and grounded, spilling 2.3 million gallons of Navy Special fuel oil 10 miles South of Cape Flattery;

— In December 1988, the barge Nestucca separated from its tow, spilling 231,000 gallons off Grays Harbor;

— July 1991, the Chinese bulk carrier, Tuo Hai, collided with the fish processor, Tenyo Maru, spilling 500,000 gallons off Cape Flattery.

Three of these four spills were due to the loss of a tow. The tug and barge trade is the fastest growing sector of maritime traffic in this state and one of the least regulated.

Clearly, Washington has much to benefit from expanded maritime trade and there have been many efforts made to strengthen our ties to the Far East in the wake of APEC. As a maritime commissioner and environmentalist, I support such efforts. But we must be equally committed to accommodating the increased traffic associated with such initiatives.

Most people are aware of one or two potentially disastrous incidents. Fewer know about the “near misses” that rarely make the news. Since being appointed as the environmental representative to the Washington State Maritime Commission, I have become acutely aware of the frequency of these near-catastrophes.

For example, on Sunday afternoon, July 10, the 600 foot (32,000 dead weight ton) carrier Verbier left Vancouver, B.C., with a load of sulfur and up to 758,066 gallons of diesel fuel. The ship’s departure was delayed for 10 days by the Canadian Coast Guard because of 39 safety deficiencies. At 8:30 p.m., the ship’s engine failed and the ship drifted south in dense fog and calm seas, 2.5 miles south of Vancouver Island near the Race Rocks ecological reserve.

A tug boat from Port Angeles was called. The Edith Lovejoy (1100 hp) arrived about an hour and a half later, but was under-powered and began losing ground against the current. Another call was made to the tug boat Joseph T (2250 hp), which began to assist the Verbier at 3:35 Monday morning. However, 90 minutes en route to Port Angeles, the tow line broke. It took another hour and a half in the dense fog to reconnect the line.

A third tug was required to get this catastrophe-waiting-to-happen out of the shipping lane. The Claudia arrived at 9 a.m., more than 12 hours later, to push the bulk ship into Port Angeles. The Verbier was a classic high-risk vessel – an old bulk carrier, flying under a flag of convenience. Fortunately, the weather was calm.

An emergency response tug stationed in Neah Bay could have provided appropriate assistance within three and a half hours of notification. Some opponents to the dedicated tug prefer a system relying on “tugs of opportunity.” The Verbier scenario highlights the flaw in such a system. It is analogous to having fishermen trained to assist in oil spill recovery efforts. It has merits as a supplementary plan, but not as a first line of defense.

If the Neah Bay tug boat cost $3.5 million a year to operate and all vessels paid a uniform transit fee, it would cost a mere $200 per transit. Given the nationally recognized resources at stake, the federal oil pollution fund should help underwrite at least half the tug. The remaining portion should be assessed based on the risk posed by participating vessels. This would pose a small, positive economic incentive for operators to charter higher quality vessels.

The Emergency Towing Task Force agrees that funding should be based on the risk each vessel poses to the environment. Bulk carriers such as the Verbier have been identified internationally as being among the highest likelihood of causing an accident. The tanker industry pays 5 cents a barrel to the federal oil spill fund and another 5 cents a barrel to the state fund.

Other classes of vessels do not contribute to the state’s under-funded oil spill prevention efforts, despite posing some of the highest risk to our waters. Bulk carriers such as the Verbier and the Chinese grain carrier Tien Tan Hai comprised 55 percent of vessel entries into Washington waters in 1993 (4,466 transits). Of the bulk carriers screened by OMS, 59 percent received a high risk score.

However, their association has effectively lobbied against repeated efforts of the Legislature to charge them a transit fee. The Task Force report and these two recent events should make it relatively easy for our elected decision-makers to find a way to fund this badly needed AAA of the high seas this year.

Fred Felleman of Seattle is an environmental consultant and photographer who serves on the Emergency Towing Task Force, the Board of the Washington Environmental Council and the Washington State Maritime Commission.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

~ by fredfelleman on July 29, 1994.

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