Plugging The Leaks In Oil-Spill Prevention

Editorials & Opinion: Thursday, September 14, 1995

Fred Felleman

IN 1991, the Washington Legislature passed prudent safety regulations and set up an independent oil-spill-prevention agency, the Office of Marine Safety (OMS). This occurred in the wake of the Exxon Valdez and significant oil spills off the Olympic Coast.

Less than five years and several spills and near-misses later, the Republican-led state House, bowing to industry pressure, gutted the Office of Marine Safety, the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, and all boards and commissions providing public oversight of the maritime industry.

This trend is paralleled at national and international levels. Both houses of Congress passed bills lifting the ban on the export of Alaska North Slope crude, increasing foreign tankers plying Washington’s waters. The international tanker association that charters these questionable ships, Intertanko, has filed a lawsuit challenging Washington state’s right to exceed the minimum spill-prevention standards set by federal and international agencies.

The legality of the Legislature’s merger of the OMS into the Department of Ecology (DOE) is being questioned in a lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental and good-government groups. Rep. Karen Schmidt (R-Bainbridge Is.), was so determined to gut the OMS that she attached a provision to the transportation budget when she was unable to pass the bill through the normal legislative process. Any administrative savings achieved by placing OMS into the already

overburdened and less-vigilant DOE would be far outweighed by the increased risk of an oil spill.

Washington’s two senators, Slade Gorton (R) and Patty Murray (D), both opposed a bill to eliminate the export ban on Alaska crude oil, something the Clinton White House supported. But Sen. Murray successfully amended the bill. Her amendment requires the oil industry to pay for a rescue tug with emergency towing, fire-fighting and initial oil spill response capabilities to protect the Olympic Coast Sanctuary and the accident-prone waters at the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait. Congressman Norm Dicks (D-Bremerton) has urged support for the tug in conference committee discussions this month.

In this day of doing more with less, it is difficult to justify the essential redundancies that make shipping safer. Just as back-up steering, navigation and propulsion systems make sense, so do double hulls, two people on watch, and strong state and federal oversight. But when a system failure occurs on a tanker, be it human or mechanical, the most important source of assistance is a capable towing vessel. A well-positioned tug boat can prevent an oil spill by keeping a disabled ship from grounding or colliding. This is particularly important off the Olympic Coast, where response capabilities are weak and resource values are high.

However, the industry’s resistance to public oversight and the lack of professional distance between the regulators and their “clients” is troubling. That appears to be the case with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) defending the industry it is charged to oversee.

The latest example is an unsolicited letter from Coast Guard Commander L. Keirn to congressional committee staff working on Sen. Murray’s amendment to the Alaska oil-export bill. Commander Keirn asserts that a rescue tug would have limited utility in the Strait of Juan de Fuca by making the erroneous observation that it is, “approximately 75 miles wide at the western end and 40 miles at the eastern end.” A nautical chart reveals that the strait is actually 15 miles at its western end and 25 miles at its eastern end.

Cargo forecasts generated for the Washington Public Ports Association (WPPA) predict a doubling of container movements in the next 15 years and increases in foreign tankers. However, the ports continue to downplay the safety risks from expanding traffic while the WPPA lobbies against spill-prevention laws.

Port of Seattle Commissioners responded to my concerns in a (8/25/95) letter: “Frankly, Washington’s waters are not congested, and the Port does not view the number of ships calling in the harbor as enough to cause concern. We recognize your concern about safety and are confident that the U.S. Coast Guard’s aggressive approach to vessel safety and navigation protects our waters.”

In contrast, Sen. Murray put forward in her amendment to the Alaska oil-export bill what the OMS-led Tug Boat Task Force recommended after two years of extensive research and discussion. Stationing a rescue tug and trained crew at the entrance to the Strait to assist ships in this biologically and culturally rich region – where the shipping lanes come within 1.5 miles of rocks and there are no pilots, speed limits, weather restrictions, or tanker size limits – would fill a critical gap in our state’s protection of its marine environment.

Sen. Murray has since pointed out that there needs to be several modifications made to the amendment during the conference committee to adequately mitigate the impact of lifting the export ban. The final bill should:

— Require all tankers (U.S. and foreign) to underwrite the rescue tug’s cost since lifting the export ban will expedite the arrival of foreign tankers to Washington’s waters.

— Reduce the response time for the tug from six to four hours to ensure it can assist a disabled vessel before an accident.

— Define the capabilities of the tug so that it can serve its function without jeopardizing its crew.

— Extend the implementation date from September 1995 to May 1996 to allow these capabilities to be defined.

— In the interim, immediately station in Neah Bay the supply vessel “Encounter Bay,” which is being surplussed by the Army Reserve, to safeguard this cherished but vulnerable part of our state.

If enacted, this provision will stand as one on the most significant improvements to maritime safety of this decade. Unfortunately, the bill is being actively opposed by the maritime industry. The public must counter well-funded industry lobbyists by letting their elected officials know they care about efforts to prevent oil spills such as the rescue tug and public oversight of the industry. Otherwise, we may have to suffer similar ecological, economic and social disruption in Puget Sound to learn from Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

Fred Felleman is president of Conservation Consultants, Inc., and a marine photographer. He is a board members of the Washington Environmental Council.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

~ by fredfelleman on September 14, 1995.

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