Year-round Neah Bay rescue tug nears approval

3/8/09 Peninsula Daily News

By Tom Callis
Peninsula Daily News

After years of effort, state legislation requiring the maritime industry to fund a year-round rescue tugboat at Neah Bay is close to becoming a reality.

House Bill 1409 — introduced by Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim — passed the state House of Representatives in a 62-35 vote on Thursday, and Senate Bill 5344 — introduced by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island — passed the state Senate in a 44-4 vote on Thursday.

Each now goes to the other house for consideration.

The bills are essentially identical, and only one needs to pass both houses in the state Legislature and be signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire to become law.

“This is huge for our district,” Van De Wege said.

“It protects our coastline. It is something that industry, big oil should be expected to pay.”

Both bills require the maritime industry to fund a tugboat at Neah Bay on the Makah reservation to assist distressed vessels entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca — which is the gateway to every port in Puget Sound and Vancouver, British Columbia — and have caused a clash between economic priorities and environmental and tribal interests in the state Legislature.

Mike Moore, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, said some of the language in the two bills is too vague.

He pointed to the Senate bill which, while not requiring the tugboat to carry any equipment to respond to oil spills or a hull breach, does say that the rescue tugboat needs to be capable of responding to those situations.

“No one can define whatever that means,” he said. “That is very general and unspecific. How do you comply with that statute?”

Frank Holmes, Western States Petroleum Association northwest region manager, cited economic concerns, but said the group would work with the state.

“Of course it will increase costs all around,” he said.

“If that’s the state’s decision, we will work to accomplish that . . . We’re at least at the point where we’re not opposing.”

A state-funded rescue tugboat has been at Neah Bay since 1999, but securing that funding — which is about $3.65 million a year — has been a battle in the state Legislature since.

It would be up to marine industries to determine whether that tug stays or another tug with the same capabilities is used.

Since 1999, the tugboat has assisted 41 vessels, nine of which were disabled, “preventing hundreds of thousands, if not millions of gallons of oil from being spilled,” said state Department of Ecology spokesman Curt Hart.

The Makah tribe, citing the need to preserve its treaty-protected resources from oil spills, has worked diligently in the state Legislature supporting these two bills.

“I would say this is an absolutely big win for the tribe,” said Chad Bowechop, Makah marine affairs manager.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of response.”

Previous attempts to get the marine industries to pay for a tugboat haven’t come this close to being successful.

Van De Wege introduced a bill in 2007 that would have imposed a tax of 1 cent per barrel of crude oil received at a marine terminal in the state and a 4 cents per barrel oil spill administration tax to fund the tugboat — but it failed due to opposition from the oil industry.

“Most of the legislation that dies never gets anywhere close to getting this far,” Van De Wege said.

With the state facing a projected budget shortfall of $8.2 billion from last month through July 2011, any attempts to secure long-term state funding for the tugboat would have likely been unsuccessful, he said.

Under the two bills, the state would continue to fund the tugboat through July 2010. Afterward, a tugboat will be paid for by every oil, cargo and cruise vessel that enters state waters.

Super tug

Both pieces of legislation initially required the maritime industry to fund a “super tug” that would be equipped to respond to oil spills and vessel fires, but that language in the bills was taken out after representatives from the oil and cargo industries protested.

Crowley, which operates the current state-funded tugboat at Neah Bay, estimated building such a tugboat would cost between $20-$25 million. The company operates several “super tugs” in Prince William Sound, Alaska after the Exxon Valdez dumped nearly 11 million gallons of oil there in 1989.

Moore, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, said the association opposed the proposed “super tug” because the cost of funding it would have been a deterrent for vessels heading to ports in the state.

“Anything that adds to the cost increases the chance of diversion,” he said.

Bowechop said the Makah was supportive of a “super tug” because of the reservation’s isolation.

Although the Marine Spill Response Corporation and National Response Corporation each have a vessel and equipment at Neah Bay to respond to an oil spill, Bowechop said a major spill would require additional equipment to be transported to the area.

“The additional response coverage would assure the tribal council would have the ability to immediately respond,” he said.

Both the marine spill response and national response corporations are contracted by maritime companies to respond to oil spills that they cause, as part of their state-required oil response contingency plan, said Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, Ecology preparedness section manager.

The marine spill response group, which includes mostly oil companies as its clients, has five oil-spill response vessels in Port Angeles, she said.

Pilkey-Jarvis estimated it would take those vessels 3.5 hours to respond to a spill near Neah Bay in good weather.

She said the companies that contract with the marine spill response group are in compliance with state regulations enacted in 2006 that set specific timetables for responding to an oil spill.

Those regulations say that within two hours, 1,000 feet of boom to contain the oil has to be deployed, and by six hours, oil removal has to begin.

The companies that contract with the national response group through the Washington Stater Maritime Cooperative, which includes mostly cargo companies as its clients, are not in compliance with those rules — although their response plans are still under review, and no official determination has been made by Ecology, Pilkey-Jarvis said.

The national response group has additional equipment for oil cleanup in Astoria, Ore., but that is too far away from Neah Bay to meet Ecology’s requirement of being able to recover and store oil within six hours, she said.

Industry decisions

Moore also took issue with the bills leaving it up to the maritime industries to determine how the costs of funding a tugboat will be distributed.

Van De Wege said it’s not the role of government to make that determination.

“I truly believe that it’s not the job of government to oversee industry like that,” he said.

“Industry can figure it out on their own.”

Van De Wege said if the industries don’t come to a consensus by July 2010, the ships won’t be allowed in state waters.

Moore said that the cargo industry and the oil industry do disagree on how the costs should be distributed.

He said cargo wants vessels that can cause the largest oil spill, such as oil tankers, to pay more than others — a position that he said the oil industry isn’t taking.

“[The state] is lining up big oil against everyone else,” he said.

Holmes said the oil industry has not taken a position on how the costs would be distributed.


Reporter Tom Callis can be reached at 360-417-3532 or at

~ by fredfelleman on March 8, 2009.

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