Keep rescue tug in port of Neah Bay

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The oil and shipping industries have long challenged the idea of stationing a tug in the strategically located port of Neah Bay capable of assisting the numerous and diverse array of ships passing through some of the nation’s most exposed and productive marine environments.

Their fear, like that of the Coast Guard, was that the cost was going to come out of their pockets. So, they have attempted to downplay the tug’s value while promoting an alternative idea based on the chance that a tug might be in the vicinity to respond to a ship in distress in this remote corner of the state.

Having championed the tug idea since helping to establish the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in 1989, I am familiar with the industry’s opposition to extending the protections the late Sen. Warren Magnuson afforded Puget Sound to the more trafficked waters of the western Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic coast, where the state’s largest oil spills have occurred.

Recent events underscore our continued risk exposure. Over the past three years, six barges have snapped their tow wires in Washington waters, including an oil barge laden with 1.4 million gallons on Dec. 27 off Grays Harbor, and BP’s new chartered tankers have come into our waters with broken rudders, tow bits and anchors.

The rescue tug concept was initiated by the state’s congressional delegation, led by Rep. Norm Dicks, and the Makah Tribe in 1999, the same year the New Carrissa broke up on the Oregon coast because of lack of emergency towing services. The Navy funded it for two months, having had a poor oil spill record. Although they have improved their operations at fuel transfer locations, twice in the past three years Navy submarines have separated oil barges from their tows off Cape Flattery where there is no response capability.

In 2000, state and federal funds, including some of the Makah Tribe’s allocation from the Tenyo Maru oil spill damages, kept the tug in Neah Bay over the winter. Since then the state has pieced together a variety of public funding of about $1.5 million annually; that’s kept the tug on station for 200 of the worst weather days of the year. During that time the tug has proved itself by responding to 30 vessels in need of help.

However, the state’s last year of funding runs out halfway through the next biennium. Fortunately, both the Legislature and Sen. Maria Cantwell have proposed long-term solutions. Here’s how they can complement each other.

Cantwell, the new chairwoman of the Coast Guard subcommittee, introduced S. 2440, requiring all vessels and facilities that file response plans with the Coast Guard to have a year-round contract with a tug in Neah Bay at a cost of less than $10,000 per year. The state and the public should urge passage of her bill this session.

Implementing regulations takes time to pass so we also need to support the Legislature’s HB 1488 and SB 5553, which would create an oil transfer fee that will assure funding of the tug as well as solvency for the state’s spill program. Both approaches are fees on the industry, but unlike with the federal regulation, the state would be subject to fluctuations in tug pricing and availability.

It is critical that both approaches specify the tug’s capabilities, for ships continue to get larger and storms more severe, a combination that easily can eclipse the capabilities of the tugs the state has contracted because of their cost constraints.

Fred Felleman of Seattle is a marine environmental consultant and photographer.

~ by fredfelleman on January 30, 2007.

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