Marine treasures need spill protection


Thursday, December 26, 2002


The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s special report “Our Troubled Sound” (Nov. 18-22) documents cause for public concern. There is also reason to be thankful this holiday season — large oil spills have been relatively infrequent in our waters.

Here’s why:

# The late Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., took numerous steps to offset the increased potential of a major spill.

# The increasing costs of oil spills “encouraged” the industry to find ways to reduce their likelihood.

# International, federal and state regulators incrementally improved transportation safety after each major oil spill.

# State legislators continue to fund the rescue tug in Neah Bay, protecting some of our nation’s most spectacular marine real estate along the Olympic Coast.

# Dumb luck has prevented many incidents from becoming calamities.

In the ’70s, as our refineries began to receive oil by tankers rather than pipeline, Magnuson responded by creating a vessel traffic radar system, limiting the expansion of oil refineries and the size of tankers on our waters. Nevertheless, major oil spills still happen, as recent events remind us.

The 26-year-old Bahamian-flagged Prestige has tarred hundreds of miles of Spain’s coastline. This prompted the European Union to ban single-hulled tankers over 15 years of age that carry the heavy oil used to power most freighters. It also caused Canadian Environment Minister David Anderson to call for the ban of ships sailing under flags of convenience.

The risk of oil spills is particularly great in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, one of the busiest waterways in North America. More than 15 billion gallons of oil is transported as cargo and fuel by more than 10,000 ships that enter and leave the Strait each year. Tankers and oil barges comprise approximately 40 percent of this traffic and carry 86 percent of the oil.

Yet the protection of tug escorts, pilots and tanker size restrictions apply only to the eastern half of the Strait.

Given the concerns raised in Europe about older tankers, Ocean Advocates analyzed the age of tankers calling on Washington waters from 2000 to 2002. Data indicates the U.S. fleet is much older than the foreign tankers on our waters. There were 41 U.S. tankers in 2002 with an average age of 19.5 years, ranging from 0 (built this year) to 44 years. Only 22 percent of these ships were less than 16 years old. In contrast, the 77 foreign tankers calling on our waters averaged 11.4 years, ranging from 0 to 24 years of age. Seventy percent of these tankers were less than 16 years of age.

Clearly, not all foreign tankers are rust buckets nor are all tankers more than 15 years old in need of retirement, but heightened vigilance is needed.

Ships like the 44-year-old U.S. tanker Fredericksburg underscore our vulnerability. Despite having had more than 50 incidents, oil spills or inspection deficiencies, the Fredericksburg is still allowed to carry refined products between Washington refineries and Portland until June 2005.

The problem of aging tankers is compounded by the severity of winds and waves and the lack of our oil spill response capability. This problem is especially acute off the Olympic Coast, which ironically includes our nationally recognized marine sanctuary. This region is most at risk from oil barges, which are still allowed to travel within two miles of Cape Flattery, despite impending modifications to the voluntary “area to be avoided.”

The state has yet to establish an emergency response system for the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca as directed by the Legislature in 1991. The Neah Bay rescue tug could be a significant part of this system if it were better equipped for oil spill response and salvage. Unfortunately, the Department of Ecology has yet to require the oil and shipping industries to support the tug as part of their otherwise inadequate oil spill response arsenal.

The tenure of the tug’s public funding is jeopardized by the state budget deficit and an industry-oriented and security-focused Coast Guard that decides how to spend the additional $1.6 million oil spill prevention funds appropriated by Congress at the behest of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Despite the Coast Guard’s historic opposition to the tug, most maritime experts recognize that improving our region’s salvage capacity can make substantive contributions to security. Gov. Gary Locke included funding for one more winter’s coverage in his budget in case the Coast Guard fails to act.

The Neah Bay tug has already been called out twice this season and 20 times since 1999. Remarkably, the Coast Guard did not record the two incidents this year in its monthly summary reports and failed to even notify the state about one of them.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found oil spills to be the largest threat to the Olympic Sanctuary and to the survival of our orcas, yet they do not participate in the ongoing public development of the state’s oil spill regulations.

We will be truly thankful if we can continue to protect these national treasures by getting through another stormy winter without a major oil spill.

Fred Felleman is on the board of Ocean Advocates and is a member of the Orca Conservancy.

© 1998-2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

~ by fredfelleman on December 26, 2002.

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