Rescue tug funding bill should be passed

Published March 13, 2009 -The Olympia

Twenty years ago this month, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Prince William Sound in Alaska, spilling an estimated 10.8 million gallons of crude oil that spread to 11,000 square miles of ocean. It was one of the most devastating man-made environmental disasters ever to occur at sea.

Exxon still operates single-hull tankers on the West Coast, putting our shorelines and pristine marine environment in jeopardy.

State and federal lawmakers are working to pass legislation to permanently station a rescue tug boat at Neah Bay to help prevent oil spills in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It’s a solid proposal that deserves the support of state residents.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is urging passage of state legislation patterned after her bill at the national level that would make the tug permanent and pay for it through assessments levied against the maritime industry.

“It’s impossible to imagine the state of Washington without its pristine coastlines and spectacular ocean views,” Cantwell said. “Maritime activities and facilities in Seattle alone support more than 190,000 jobs in the region and generate $857 million in revenue for the state. But no matter how lightly we tread, we always put our waterways at risk.”

She said that every year, 15 billion gallons of oil navigate through Puget Sound. She noted that over the past decade, the rescue tug has “saved 41 vessels and prevented countless spills.”

Yet funding for the tug has been tenuous at best. At times, the tug was within months of losing its funding.

Initially, the tug only operated in the winter months. But it shifted to a year-round operation when statistics showed that most vessels in trouble had steering and power issues unrelated to the weather.

The amount of oil-tanker traffic plying Washington waters is mind boggling.

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, said in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer column, “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.”

Today, the Neah Bay response tug’s annual operating cost — $3.6 million — is funded by Washington state’s Department of Ecology and depends on appropriations by the state Legislature — a Legislature that faces an $8 billion budget deficit.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Bellingham, sponsor of the Senate bill, said the goal is to shift the costs from the taxpayers to the maritime industry that puts state waters and coastlines at risk. His bill would put the financial burden on tankers, tugs, barges, cargo ships, cruise liners and a handful of seafood processors that exceed 300 tons.

Cantwell has introduced similar legislation at the federal level, but it has languished for years.

The truth is, Ranker and Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, sponsor of the House bill, have a better chance of passing legislation at the state level than Cantwell has in the U.S. Senate.

Thus, the focus is on Senate Bill 5344 and House Bill 1409.

The amended Senate bill, which was passed by that chamber 44-4, makes it clear that the maritime industry has an obligation to pay for at least one year-round rescue tug at Neah Bay. Like the House bill, which was passed 62-35, it requires Jay Manning, director of Ecology, to initiate discussions with his counterpart in British Columbia to explore options for sharing the costs of tug rescue services.

The much-needed legislation is best described by David Dicks, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, as “AAA for vessels.”

The Senate bill requires the maritime industry to put together a plan — perhaps a maritime cooperative — by Dec. 1, and have the year-round rescue tug operational by July 1, 2010.

A rescue tug paid for by the maritime industry makes sense and should be a priority for the 2009 Legislature.

~ by fredfelleman on March 13, 2009.

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