Oceans of water are oceans of life, too

[Environmental Outlook] August 20, 1998

Special to the Journal

The title of this article is the subtitle of the National Ocean Conference which was held June 11-12 in Monterey, Calif., in recognition of the fact that the United Nations has declared 1998 the International Year of the Ocean (YOTO 98). President Clinton and Vice President Gore were there to bring needed attention to the plight of the oceans.

Washington state’s special corner of the ocean deserves as much attention as we can give it. Nearly every species of marine fish and wildlife has gone into a decline during the past two decades, yet policies to protect water quality, habitat and sustainable resource harvests have continued to suffer at the hands of meek agencies and politicians.

Even the President’s extension of offshore drilling moratoria had little effect on Washington’s waters, because the state already enacted a permanent ban on drilling in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, despite the administration’s original efforts to give us a temporary moratorium back in 1994.

Perhaps no problem highlights the vulnerability of Washington’s waters more dramatically than the risk of experiencing a catastrophe like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

No failure of policy is more glaring than the fact that oil tankers coming into our waters travel 70 miles through the western Strait of Juan de Fuca to Dungeness Spit, 15 miles east of Port Angeles, without tug escorts. This problem is compounded by the fact that there are no limits on tanker size or speed in these waters and local pilots do not board tankers until Port Angeles.

Oil tanker
The Clinton Administration is considering a requirement that every oil tanker be escorted when it enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Photo by Fred Felleman and Beth Miller

Loss of power or steering could cause a disaster of unimaginable proportions — to the Olympic Peninsula, the San Juans, Whidbey Island and Vancouver Island, as well as to the marine ecosystem of the Straits and Puget Sound itself. Right now, the Clinton/Gore Administration is weighing a decision that could fully address this problem.

The combined traffic bound to ports in Washington and British Columbia make the Strait of Juan de Fuca one of the busiest waterbodies in North America. It’s only getting busier as evidenced by the recent decision of the New World Alliance of shippers to make Seattle their first port of call.

Our combination of tankers, freighters, ferries, cruise ships, Naval vessels and pleasure boats far exceeds the traffic and associated risk of an oil spill in Prince William Sound. Despite the obvious cost of a spill in a region of such high biological and human value, we have far fewer measures in place to prevent a spill, apparently because we have not had as big a catastrophe — yet.

A national survey conducted by SeaWeb (a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts), discovered that the number one concern of the public when it comes to the health of the ocean is the risk of oil spills. That concern is not unfounded.

Immediately following the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 which was intended to reduce the risk of future spills. The Marine Board of the National Academy of Sciences recently reported that most of act’s provisions have not yet been implemented.

Ninety percent of the tanker fleet remains single hulled — the double hull mandate being phased in over 15 years. Areas in need of special protection by tug escorts have not been identified by the Coast Guard, while measures to improve the pollution prevention performance of the single-hull fleet have been determined to be unnecessary by the Coast Guard. The Marine Board also found the Coast Guard’s database on oil spills to be virtually inaccessible to the public and of limited utility to conduct quantitative analysis.

While the Coast Guard and maritime industry would like you to think that they are able to keep high risk vessels from entering our waters, the reality is quite another story.

For example, the ARCO Texas, built in 1973, was twice this year found to be leaking from hull fractures as it came into Port Angeles. In April of 1989, the Exxon Philadelphia, carrying 23 million gallons of Alaskan crude oil, lost power at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and drifted for five hours before a tug came to its aid. On July 19, 1997, the bulk carrier Continental Spirit lost power in the San Juans en route to Vancouver, and nearly ran aground before it was able to drop anchor. On Feb. 3 of this year, the cargo ship Sealand Tacoma broke down off the coast of Vancouver Island and drifted for more than 10 hours in 25-knot winds and 10-foot seas before tugs finally arrived on the scene.

Can our luck possibly hold?

The Coast Guard’s lack of enthusiasm for beefing up our safety system is particularly puzzling given the frequency of these often unreported near-miss events. The Coast Guard is apparently opposed to extending the distance tankers are to be escorted by tugs. It has also suspended a rule making, at the request of the industry, which would have required tankers to have contracts with companies who have salvage and fire fighting capabilities.

In the meantime, the 13th Coast Guard District has lost six vessel inspectors, further reducing their ability to identify vessels which pose a high risk to our waters.

The Coast Guard is working with the industry to formalize an “International Tug of Opportunity System” (ITOS) which will identify tugs (if any) in the vicinity of an incident, but will do nothing to increase the number or capability of tugs or training of crew available to help out. An interesting additional shortcoming of the ITOS is that because it is run by the industry, much of the data is considered proprietary.

The people who run our regions’ tugs are themselves concerned about the current state of affairs. The International Organization of Masters Mates and Pilots represent officers on tugs owned by Crowley Marine Services. They expressed their concerns to President Clinton in 1996 about tugs with tows of their own being dispatched to assist other vessels. They also expressed the need for additional training if their officers are going to be log-boom towers one day and rescue salvors the next.

In the meantime, Crowley has embarked upon an aggressive campaign to build the world’s finest escort tugs in Washington shipyards for use in Alaskan waters. The Inlandboatman’s Union of the Pacific, representing tug crew members, has been trying for years to get the Coast Guard to keep tug companies from cutting back on crew size, thereby increasing the work hours of the remaining crew.

So even if the ITOS system could identify a tug in close proximity to a disabled vessel, which is not likely in the 70-mile, no-escort zone of the western Strait of Juan de Fuca, chances are that it will already be encumbered with a tow, its officers may not be trained in emergency rescue, the few able-bodied seamen available to effect the rescue could be exhausted, and the data characterizing the incident will be classified.

What the Clinton/Gore Administration can do right now for our special corner of the ocean is to require that every oil tanker be escorted when it enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

It is no more than what the tankers were required to do when they left Valdez. The Coast Guard has the authority, but appears to lack the political will to implement a rule. Senator Murray, Congressman Metcalf, Governor Locke, Public Lands Commissioner Belcher, the Makah Tribe, San Juan County, Jefferson County, Clallam County, the Puget Sound Council, Seattle City Council, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, the environmental community and many citizens have made their wishes clear.

It’s now up to the Clinton/Gore administration to demonstrate its ability to include the environment in the balance of trade. If we are the most trade-dependent state in the nation, shouldn’t we have a state-of-the-art maritime safety system?

Transportation Secretary Slater was expected to make an announcement about what to do next this spring. Time’s a wastin’ if the USDOT is going to be able to respond to calls for escorts to be in place this winter. Tankers pose too big a risk to rely on an “opportunity system.” Cargo and passenger vessels may be able to rely on such a system while tankers are escorted throughout the inshore waters of the state.

If you would like to add your voice to the chorus calling for increased tug assistance in the Straits, call toll free 1-877-IM4-TUGS. With your help the Coast Guard can be reminded of its obligation to guard the coast and not the oil industry’s interests. Let this truly be the Year of the Ocean.

Fred Felleman is the Northwest director of Ocean Advocates. Kathy Fletcher is the executive director of People for Puget Sound. Doug Scott is executive director of Friends of the San Juans. Copyright © 1998 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.

~ by fredfelleman on August 20, 1998.

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