Don’t Trade Away Marine Environment

Editorials & Opinion: Monday, December 06, 1999

Fred Felleman

Special To The Times

Get involved

On Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Coast Guard will hold two public meetings at the Federal Building Auditorium, 915 Second Ave., on the results of the cost/benefit analysis they conducted evaluating the need for tug escorts and/or dedicated rescue tugs in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and adjacent waters. A copy of the proposal will be available at

NOW that the WTO delegates have departed and the clouds of tear gas have lifted, it is time for Washington residents to turn their attention to another preventable environmental consequence of expanding trade – oil spills. Ships carry 95 percent of all foreign trade, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater is forecasting a 200-300 percent increase in trade volume through our nation’s ports over the next 10-15 years. The combined traffic bound to Washington’s ports and Vancouver, B.C., makes the Strait of Juan de Fuca the busiest water body in North America.

Washington’s waters are exposed to a much higher risk of a spill than Prince William Sound, due to our greater volume and diversity of vessel traffic, but are afforded far less protection. A single large oil spill would wreak havoc on any of Washington’s world-class waterways, from the wild Olympic Coast to the serene San Juan Islands or the populous Puget Sound. The fact that the Exxon Valdez spill left an indelible mark on the millennium justifies the level of attention a recent series of maritime mishaps have elicited.

However, it is particularly ironic to be given assurances by this administration’s trade representatives that they will be upholding our interests behind the closed doors of the WTO when they will be attempting to eviscerate our state’s powers to protect our environment from oil spills. Tomorrow, the U.S. solicitor general, at the behest of the U.S. Coast Guard, will be before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners’ (Intertanko) claims that Washington’s oil-spill-prevention laws are preempted by federal and international laws.

Washington state and environmental intervenors Ocean Advocates, Washington Environmental Council and the Natural Resources Defense Council have been able to uphold the state’s rights before the federal District Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

While matters of law are debated, promotion of trade intensifies. That is why Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, and Vice President Al Gore’s pledge of over $1 million to station a rescue tug in Neah Bay this winter is so important. Gore’s initial commitment of $250,000 was matched by Gov. Gary Locke’s call for the use of $100,000 of emergency state funds. Those actions were taken when Gore arrived in Seattle in mid-October, coinciding with two foreign tankers disabled in Washington’s waters. Earlier this year, two foreign tankers arrived without even the appropriate nautical charts.

While the industry tries to take credit for the success of their responses to these incidents, the public can no longer afford to rely on luck as a response tool. The Coast Guard’s recent optimistic evaluation of the “tug of opportunity system” found that it reduces the likelihood of a major spill at the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait (where there are no tug escorts or pilots) by only 9 percent. Most of the existing tugs are not big enough to assist ships in winter storms and are not able to fight fires or respond to oil spills. We have legitimate reason to insist on a better level of insurance coverage for Washington’s increasingly threatened waters and wildlife.

The collapse of the state’s herring, salmon, bottom fish and orca populations are neon signs that the very fabric of Puget Sound is unraveling. Despite this, not a single new double-hull oil tanker has been put into service on the West Coast in the 10 years since the Oil Pollution Act was passed. Meanwhile, the frequency of foreign tankers calling on our waters has increased considerably due to the depletion of Alaska’s oil reserves and the explosions that crippled the Equilon refinery in Anacortes and the Bellingham pipeline.

In addition, ARCO, soon-to-be BP/Amoco, is pushing to expand its dock and refinery capacity at Cherry Point which will result in a 30 percent increase in tanker traffic in Rosario Strait.

On Dec. 1, Ocean Advocates and the Blue Water Network filed suit against the Coast Guard for their failure to reduce the likelihood of spills from the aging single-hull oil tanker fleet by requiring leak-detection devices or identifying additional areas where tankers would be required to have tug escorts.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that our existing capabilities are not sufficient is the fact that after spending over $50 million, the New Carissa will remain stuck on Oregon’s beaches for this entire winter. A Coast Guard report about the New Carissa incident called for improved salvage capability along the nation’s coasts.

Finally, timing may be on the ocean’s side. The Navy put one of its 226-foot, 7,000-horsepower multi-mission tugs, the Narragansett, up for charter to the private sector this month. The tug requires only 16 feet of water depth, enabling it to use the strategically located port of Neah Bay.

Last spring, Dicks was able to get the Navy to charter a less-capable private tug for two months, which assisted two vessels in distress during the short time it was dispatched. A more-rigorous trial period over this winter would make a significant contribution to the cost-benefit analysis that is currently under way to finalize the state and Coast Guard’s protracted review of maritime safety in Washington’s waters.

The credibility of that study needs to be enhanced, given the fact that the Coast Guard, after failing to implement much of the Oil Pollution Act, is now going to court to keep Washington state from protecting its waters and citizens from oil spills.

The fact that we have had a recent rash of foreign tanker incidents underscores the importance of increasing our level of tug protection now and will make for particularly poignant examples of the risks posed by poorly operated foreign tankers represented by Intertanko. The fact that there has never been a Supreme Court more supportive of preserving states’ rights bodes well for Washington state’s ability to protect its greatest liquid asset while promoting trade.

Fred Felleman is the Northwest director of Ocean Advocates. He can be reached at

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

~ by fredfelleman on December 6, 1999.

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