Legislation makes Strait’s oil-spill boat permanent

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/402821_tug09.html

Shippers to pay tug’s tab

Last updated March 8, 2009 9:06 p.m. PT

By ROBERT MCCLURE
P-I REPORTER

For more than two decades, environmentalists and their allies have pushed for a tugboat to be stationed at a pivotal point along Washington’s coast to rescue ships in danger of running aground and spilling oil. Now, it looks like they are finally about to win that fight.

The Washington Senate and House of Representatives last week both passed nearly identical pieces of legislation (HB1409 and SB5344) requiring oil tankers, cargo ships and other vessels entering Washington waters through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to pay for a tug to be assigned permanently to Neah Bay, near the state’s extreme northwestern tip. Minor differences in the bills are expected to be worked out, and Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to sign the legislation.

Passage is expected to roughly coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill March 24. That spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound is credited with vastly improving oil-spill safety measures nationwide — although risks remain, and scientists say the risk of a major oil spill is the single greatest short-term threat to the survival of Washington’s imperiled orcas.

Even before the Exxon catastrophe, Seattle environmental activist Fred Felleman was proposing the stationing of a tug to aid vessels in distress. And he’s worked the issue at the state and federal level ever since.

“There’s a great sense of relief that we were able to learn the lessons of Prince William Sound without having to suffer the impacts of a catastrophic spill first,” Felleman said. “Even though it took 20 years, it’s still better than having to learn by the school of hard knocks.”

Since 1999, the state has paid to temporarily station a tug at Neah Bay during the stormy winter months. But environmentalists, the Makah Indian Tribe and others pushed for a year-round tug, saying accidents happen in all kinds of weather. They also wanted a permanent funding source.

The Legislature responded by telling shippers they will have to pay the cost of the tug, currently about $3.5 million a year, and that they have until December to work out among themselves how to split the costs, and must fork over money starting in July 2010.

Several factors made 2009 the year to finally pass the measure, advocates said:

# The economic downturn. Legislators wrestling with the budget devil were happy to unload $3.5 million a year in costs.

# The state Department of Ecology vigorously backed the bill.

# In a little-noticed development Dec. 31, the Coast Guard adopted a salvage and firefighting regulation ordered by Congress in the wake of the Exxon spill regarding oil-spill preparedness. The rule said explicitly for the first time that the federal agency would not try to pre-empt state actions requiring oil-spill protections more strict than those required at the federal level.

“The steamship operators began to run out of excuses,” said Chad Bowechop, manager of the Makah Tribe’s Office of Marine Affairs.

Michael Moore, who represents cargo shippers as the local representative of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, has long maintained the tug is not necessary. Other tugs can be mobilized if there’s a problem, he said.

“I didn’t think (a tug) was the best way to spend the next several million dollars of marine-safety money,” Moore said. “But politically, I think the state has become committed to having the tug there.”

For years, the oil industry has said it was willing to fork out part of the cost of a tug — but that it shouldn’t be the only one to pay, since cargo ships also carry hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel. Of the 41 ships the Neah Bay tug has been called out to aid since 1999, only two were oil tankers, and one of those was decommissioned. Oil companies have been beefing up safety measures for their tankers.

One factor in the legislation’s success this year was the emergence on the legislative scene of freshman Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, who made the tug a campaign issue and pushed hard for the legislation. The House sponsor is Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim. Both legislators’ districts are in and around major shipping lanes.

Ranker said he didn’t want to specify what different segments of the shipping industry should pay for the tug because he thinks the Legislature should not micromanage the industry. The legislation gives the industry Dec. 1 to arrive at a decision.

“If they can’t, the Legislature will do it for them, and probably none of them will be happy,” Ranker said.

P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or robertmcclure@seattlepi.com. Read his blog on the environment at datelineearth.com.

© 1998-2009 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

~ by fredfelleman on March 9, 2009.

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