Making Waterways Safe For Trade Growth

Editorials & Opinion: Friday, June 20, 1997

Fred Felleman, Kathy Fletcher

Special To The Times

EVERY day, we read about the importance of trade to our economy, which has become painfully evident as highways fill with trucks moving cargo, while commuters attempt to get to work on time. A less-obvious consequence of our trade policies is the fact that Juan de Fuca Strait is already one of the busiest waterways in North America, with tankers, barges and cargo ships having made over 20,000 round trips to ports in Washington or British Columbia in 1996. And trade projections show a steady climb beyond our robust population growth.

Existing ports continue to expand while new port activities spring up around the Sound, from Olympia to Cherry Point and Vancouver, B.C. Meanwhile, container ships have eclipsed tankers as the largest ships calling on our ports – many have the capacity to carry up to 2 million gallons of bunker fuel, not to mention any number of hazardous materials as cargo.

Oil tanker traffic is also on the rise. Puget Sound refineries have continued to expand their capacity beyond our local consumption levels. This increase is occurring even as Alaska’s North Slope reserves dwindle, requiring Puget Sound refineries to start importing crude oil on questionably maintained and operated foreign tankers.

How important is the safe management of this increased maritime traffic? Even the president has called for an evaluation of the maritime safety system protecting Washington’s waters in association with lifting the ban on the export of Alaska North Slope crude oil. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks pushed to significantly improve the level of tug assistance along the Strait and coast, while the Coast Guard supported the industry’s “Tug of Opportunity System” (TOS), which is redundant to their own Vessel Traffic System (VTS) radar.

By making use of satellites, the TOS extends the range over which we can track tugs. But the degree to which the TOS can improve on the time it takes to make an immediate response will have more to do with the training and contractual agreements they are able to work out between ship and tug owners than new equipment. While the TOS is an essential part of the solution, it leaves the protection of our waters too much to chance.

President Clinton required the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to evaluate the TOS and to recommend any additional measures that may be necessary to accommodate the growth in traffic promoted by national and regional policies. The USDOT has already found the TOS to be most lacking in the very areas that the state, Washington tribes and the environmental community have been most concerned about: the Olympic coast and outer Strait of Juan de Fuca. They have since contracted their own Volpe Center to conduct a risk assessment of Washington’s waters, which has reaffirmed the problem, but has yet to offer any solutions.

Not to anyone’s surprise – or relief – the experts panels convened by the Volpe Center found that oil spill response equipment is the least effective off the coast and in the outer Strait, where the biological sensitivity is the greatest. They also determined that an oil spill is most likely to occur off the Olympic coast or west side of Vancouver Island, and that collisions were the incidents most likely to cause these oil spills.

This last finding is particularly important given that the TOS is designed primarily to respond to drift groundings, which afford much more time for response than collisions. The group also defined the need to improve salvage capabilities (fire fighting, patching, ship stabilization) off the coast, where conventional spill-response equipment is of limited use. One of the Volpe experts published a paper in 1993 that found that extending tug escorts throughout Prince William Sound reduced the likelihood of collisions by 57 percent and groundings by 75 percent, with a net economic benefit of over $11 million. Sen. Murray and Rep. Dicks asked the Coast Guard to examine extending escorts along the entire Strait last October. This was not discussed by the experts, despite the fact that the Coast Guard is waiting for the completion of this study to decide whether to implement a provision of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA ’90) that could extend the existing escort system without additional legislation.

We are fortunate in Washington state to have some of the best tugs in the country, but they are not being put to their fullest use. Today, tankers coming into our ports travel over 60 miles along Juan de Fuca Strait before picking up a pilot or tug escort at Port Angeles. In addition, the traffic lanes and NOAA’s ill-defined Area To Be Avoided (ATBA) bring ships within two miles of the state’s largest seabird colony on Tatoosh Island in an area known for its bad weather and traffic congestion. Extending tug escorts out the Strait or stationing one at the new Makah Marina, strategically located at Neah Bay, would provide meaningful ways to supplement the TOS where it’s weakest – in the outer Strait and off the coast.

While the increasing cost of spilling oil has brought about various ingenious industry initiatives, it is ultimately the public’s will, as represented by our elected officials, that determines the level of acceptable risk. We cannot just wait another 20 years until aging oil tankers are replaced with double-hull vessels or when developing countries bring their vessels, flying “flags of convenience,” to acceptable levels of safety. We know how to make shipping systems safer, and our state and federal governments have the right to require the maritime industry to mitigate the increasing risk of spills that comes with increased trade.

Despite their experience with the difficulties in responding to ships in distress off the coast – accidents that have resulted in the largest oil spills in the state as well as loss of life – the Coast Guard has repeatedly ignored calls for added safety measures west of Port Angeles. They were also responsible for the U.S. Justice Department joining with INTERTANKO, which represents foreign tanker owners, in a lawsuit against the state of Washington’s oil spill prevention programs – potentially exposing Washington’s rich waters to minimal international safety standards.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater has an opportunity to show that this administration can do better. It is time for our elected officials to address the ability of our marine and terrestrial transportation infrastructure to support our rate of growth before we drown in our own success.

The extension of tug escorts along the entire Strait would increase the ability of the TOS to provide capable and timely response to ships in distress as well as demonstrate the ability of both tankers and cargo ship owners to be part of the solution.

Public workshops to comment on the draft of the Volpe Center’s report will be held Tuesday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 5:30-9:30 p.m. at the Best Western Executive Inn, 200 Taylor Ave N., in Seattle.

Fred Felleman is the Northwest director of Ocean Advocates. Kathy Fletcher is the executive director of People for Puget Sound.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

~ by fredfelleman on June 20, 1997.

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