Neah Bay rescue tug a stopgap

Tuesday » March 27 » 2007

Jack Knox
Victoria Times Colonist

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

On a day in which we ponder the loss of the Queen of the North, here’s another marine-safety story to consider, this time right on our doorstep: Just as the sun was coming up last Wednesday, the bulk carrier Meridian Navigator lost power in the shipping lanes way out in Juan de Fuca Strait, south of Sooke.
Coming from Vancouver, the 200-metre ship was on the Canadian side of the strait — the outbound lane for vessels heading to the open Pacific — but soon began to drift toward American waters. So Transport Canada called U.S. authorities in Seattle, and it was agreed that the Canadians would order the ship to accept help from the rescue tug Gladiator, based in Neah Bay, Wash.
Not much choice about where to turn for assistance. Only the Americans keep a dedicated tug on standby to race to the aid of ships in distress. Critics argue that when it comes to protecting Vancouver Island from shipping disasters, we depend on the goodwill of our neighbours, who spend $1.4 million US to keep the rescue tug around each winter. (In return, Victoria sends them raw sewage.)
As it turned out, the Meridian Navigator got going again around 11 a.m., continued its voyage unassisted. But it was comforting to have the Gladiator bobbing nearby.
Juan de Fuca Strait is busy, the narrow part of the funnel for vessels coming from Vancouver and Puget Sound — by some estimates our respective countries’ busiest and third-busiest port complexes. About 7,000 tankers and cargo carriers pass through the strait each year. Canada and the U.S. work together in guiding shipping through the waterway, communication stations in both countries passing vessels to one another in the manner of air-traffic-controllers. Our oil-spill response teams have reciprocal agreements, too.
But only the Americans have a rescue tug on standby. One has been stationed at Neah Bay each winter since 1999, has been called to the aid of disabled ships 33 times since then. The Gladiator is contracted by Washington’s Department of Ecology, which funds the service through a state car-transfer fee — meaning the protection of Vancouver Island’s shoreline is subsidized by American motorists. Canada relies on “tugs of convenience” to aid vessels in distress, but Seattle’s Fred Felleman, of the environmental group Ocean Advocates, says it can be hard to find an available tug in the western end of the strait.
The state tug contract is seen as a stopgap until a more comprehensive set of rules is passed at the federal level. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, last year proposed a bill that would, among other things, require a year-round rescue tug at Neah Bay, station oil-spill response gear along the entire strait and increase the liability cap for whoever causes a spill. Since Cantwell has just been named head of the U.S. Senate subcommittee overseeing the coast guard, the odds of such legislation passing have gone up.
Still, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported last week that the U.S. Coast Guard has backed away from a proposal to make oil tankers have a just-in-case agreement with a salvage company in place before entering the strait. That rule was supposed to have kicked in last month, but, having been opposed by shipping and oil interests, has now been delayed until 2009.
Felleman notes that commercial vessels aren’t required to carry a pilot to guide them through local waters until halfway down the strait.
“Putting a tug in Neah Bay fills a gap in the safety net,” Felleman says. He argues for a year-round rescue tug, and wants any ship of more than 300 tonnes to file a disaster-response agreement with Neah Bay before entering the strait. Costly? Sure. But think of the price of a spill.
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007

Copyright © 2007 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.

~ by fredfelleman on March 27, 2007.

3 Responses to “Neah Bay rescue tug a stopgap”

  1. […] Love Fred Felleman’s blog, for keeping up on oil spill prevention issues. Fred blogs a story from Victoria, about what happened last week when the Canadians asked the US to send out the support tug from Neah Bay. Just another reminder that comes summer, we will be without this tug unless the legislature acts in the next week or so. Thanks Fred!  Link here… […]

  2. Understood. That is why the public needs to support HB 1488 in the State legislature and to write Senator Cantwell urging her to reintroduce S. 2440 to make the Neah Bay tug year round. We also need to let our elected officials know that Neah Bay should not become a retirement home for old tugs. Ships are getting bigger and storms more severe thereby increasing the demands for a modern high horsepower and maneuverable tug.


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