The mighty tug protects state waters

Seattle Post Intelligencer
February 3, 2009

Guest Columnist:


While riveted to the CNN coverage of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, I was stung by the irony of Exxon commercials at every break between promises of how things will be different under his leadership. I guess some changes won’t come easily.

It is inspiring to think that our economic recovery could be directed toward critical environmental investments. Trade-dependent port communities throughout Washington are subject to the benefits and risks posed by maritime traffic.

But we can’t limit environmental protections to flush times, as suggested by Port of Seattle’s Charlie Sheldon in the Jan. 15 P-I, for we need to trade responsibly and there’s no good time for a major oil spill. Containership traffic is down temporarily but cruise ships and risky bulk carriers are booming.

March 24 will be the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. While the environment and communities are still recovering, Exxon is the only U.S. oil company still sailing single-hulled tankers on the West Coast. Approximately 40 percent of all tankers calling on Washington are still singled-hulled. Three Valdez-sized spills lie within each tanker entering our waters. One came within just feet of grounding in San Francisco Bay recently.

More than 800 oil tankers and 3,000 oil barges entered state waters in 2006, feeding Washington’s five refineries’ annual thirst for 9 billion gallons of crude, roughly double their original capacity. While tanker companies have made substantial progress in spill prevention and response, far less equipment is in place to respond to ever-growing cargo and cruise ships that made 4,000 round trips through Strait of Juan de Fuca in 2006.

In 1999 the wood chip bulk carrier New Carissa spilled 70,000 gallons off Coos Bay, Ore. Its remains were finally removed from the coast this year at a cost exceeding $140 million. In 2007 the containership Cosco Busan spilled 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel in San Francisco Bay, costing more than $90 million. With relatively small spills costing $2,000/gallon, the maritime and insurance industries should support spill prevention and response investments.

The response tug in Neah Bay fills the largest gap in our state’s oil spill program, protecting the vast wealth of cultural and marine ecological resources found along the Olympic Coast where the state’s largest spills have occurred. The tug has responded to 41 ships in need of assistance since 1999 with public funding that will run out next year.

In addition to towing, a properly equipped tug also could help fight fires, rescue people and is needed to improve coastal oil spill response and salvage capability. A contract with such a tug provider could help commercial vessels meet state and federal requirements concurrently.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell advocated for a permanent, industry-funded tug for years and saw to it that the Coast Guard finally issued its salvage and firefighting rule. While its lack of rigor was yet another Bush administration gift to the oil industry, it allows for state tug requirements.

HB1409, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, and SB5344, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Ranker, require commercial shippers, not taxpayers, to fund the tug.

Oil industry officials have said they are willing to pay their part, knowing that they could raise the price at the pump less than 1 cent to cover the de minimis costs. When Crowley Maritime built exceptional tugs for the oil industry in Prince William Sound, they used Seattle engineers, Anacortes shipyards and Ballard outfitters. Washington’s tug also will be provisioned in Port Angeles and stationed at the Makah Marina.

In time, a Neah Bay tug provider would be able to finance the initial cost of a new multi-mission tug approaching the capabilities of Crowley’s Washington-built “PRT’s” — backed by the long-term contracts regulations afford. It would better protect the environment and crew and employ the best tug makers in the world versus using the old tugs deployed to date.

Ex-Coast Guard lobbyists for cargo shippers continue to threaten ports and longshoremen with purported trade impacts despite the tug’s minimal relative costs. If all ships of more than 300 gross tons entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca funded the tug equally per transit, it would cost cargo ships less than they pay in fees and taxes for some containers that fund dredging in other parts of the country.

Rather than fight over the tug, we should work together to alter the Harbor Maintenance Tax for border ports where it, not the tug, can affect the balance of trade with Canada.

Fred Felleman is the Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth. A hearing for SB5344 will be held at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday Feb 11th before the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee.

~ by fredfelleman on February 3, 2009.

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