Washington coast may get long-sought rescue tug


Friday, March 6, 2009 – Page updated at 10:10 PM
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Activist Fred Felleman fought for years to get a rescue tug.
By Warren Cornwall
Seattle Times environment reporter
More than 20 years ago, environmental activist Fred Felleman conceived of helping protect the region from a devastating oil spill by stationing a powerful tugboat on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Today, it appears that’s about to happen.

After years of off-again, on-again tug service, and rancorous debates over whether a tug was needed and who would pay for it, the state Legislature is on the verge of passing a bill forcing the shipping industry to pay for the tug boat.

“There are a lot of good ideas out there, but it takes political leadership to make them come to fruition. I am deeply grateful to the efforts of our state legislators,” Felleman said Friday, a day after the Senate passed the bill 44-4, and the House passed a nearly identical one 62-35.

The tug is meant to help rescue broken-down ships before they run aground and spill oil. The bill would require large ships bound for Washington ports through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to help pay for the tug, which last year cost $3.6 million.

The oil industry and shipping industry didn’t embrace the legislation, but they haven’t strenuously opposed it either. Environmentalists, tribes and the state Ecology Department, meanwhile, pushed hard for the bill.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, a first-year senator who is the bill’s prime sponsor, said he worked hard to overcome concerns from all sides.

In particular, he said he took to heart oil-industry objections to previous proposals that sought to make them pay the entire cost of the tug. The industry has argued that other parts of the shipping world, which operate large ships with oil-filled fuel tanks, should have to pay a share too.

“I’ve heard this complaint from the oil industry that, ‘We’re not 100 percent of the problem, so why should we pay 100 percent of the cost?’ And that really took hold for me,” Ranker said.

Instead, any large ship headed for a Washington port would need to pay a share of the cost for putting the tug at Neah Bay. That would include cargo ships, large fish-processing ships, oil tankers, cruise ships and barges.

Since 1999, a tugboat has been stationed there intermittently. In that time, it has helped 41 vessels, two of them oil tankers. But funding has always been temporary. For many years the boat was only there during the winter, when coastal weather is most treacherous. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget included funding for one out of the next two years, raising concerns the tug might be removed in summer 2010.

If, as expected, the Senate bill is taken up and approved by the House and it’s signed by the governor, that won’t end the debate. The legislation doesn’t say exactly how different parts of the shipping industry should split the costs. Its left to the industry to decide.

Cargo shippers are already arguing the oil companies should pay the biggest share, because their oil-filled ships could cause more damage if they spill, said Mike Moore, of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.

He said the oil industry is arguing other shippers should bear more of the cost, because they have more ships passing through the strait.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, were ebullient.

During an interview, Naki Stevens, of People for Puget Sound, offered an impromptu rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” she sang. “But I know a change is gonna come.”

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

~ by fredfelleman on March 8, 2009.

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