By Jack Knox, Times ColonistMarch 17, 2009Be the first to post a comment

Just in time for the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster comes this scary little reminder from our own backyard:

Last Monday, as it was about to enter Juan de Fuca Strait en route to Vancouver, the 541-foot grain ship Vijitra Naree got into trouble, had to shut down its main propulsion engine, began drifting toward Duntze Rock in two-metre swells.

Not keen on a cargo ship poking a hole in its hull, Washington state authorities sent the rescue tug Hunter chugging out from its base at Neah Bay.

It was the 42nd time in 10 years that the tug has churned to the aid of a crippled ship — the 42nd time that we Canadians have piggybacked on Washington taxpayers who have been shouldering the entire cost of preventing shipwrecks in the strait.

But if all goes as planned in the state house at Olympia today, the $3.6 million US annual cost of keeping the tug at Neah Bay will soon shift to the ships themselves — but only the ones bound for American ports. Canada will still get a free enviro-ride.

Not that spilled fuel respects borders. In 1988, when an oil barge sank off Grays Harbor, Wash., 250 kilometres from Vancouver Island, beaches were fouled from Sooke to Nootka Sound. In July 1991, when the Japanese fishing vessel Tenyo Maru sank near the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait after colliding with the Chinese freighter Tuo Hai, oil drifted as far south as Oregon.

The Tenyo Maru went down with roughly 1.7 million litres of fuel on board. That’s slightly less than the fuel capacity of the Vijitra Naree.

Other cargo ships carry four times as much.

The oil tankers that pass through the strait each day might carry 150 million litres — four times as much crude as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez when it ground into Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

The fact that the Vijitra Naree was drifting toward Duntze Rock set off Fred Felleman’s radar. “I consider it the Bligh Reef of Washington,” the Seattle-based environmental consultant said yesterday. Most of us might be blasé about the thousands of ships that slip past our front porch each year — tankers hauling Alaska crude to Cherry Point, Asia-bound coal carriers from Roberts Bank, tugs pulling barges of Vancouver Island gravel all the way to California — but Felleman is keenly aware of the potential for disaster to strike in the strait, which is why he has been leading the charge for tighter shipping regulations for the best part of two decades.

Which is also why he’s happy to see state legislators pushing a bill that would transfer the cost of the rescue tug to the shipping industry as of July 2010.

State funding has always been a year-to-year thing — “it’s basically been an annual bake sale” — so the bill will bring certainty.

It will still not, however, bring equality.

The cost to the industry has been estimated at $300 to $600 each time a ship sails through the strait.

But since Washington has no jurisdiction over vessels sailing to and from Canada, the fee would only apply to ships using U.S. ports. That’s despite the fact that the strait is basically a two-lane international highway — inbound vessels use the American side, outbound use the Canadian. Where Washington pays to keeps that rescue tug at Neah Bay, Canada relies on “tugs of convenience” to aid disabled vessels — the only problem being that such tugs are rarely found at the western end of the strait.

The bill being debated in Olympia carries a clause calling on the state to ask B.C. to “share the marine response assets required under this act.” In other words, they’re saying they’re tired of giving us a free ride and it’s time for Canadians to share the responsibility.

As it is, when it comes to protecting the shores of Vancouver Island from the next Exxon Valdez, we should all be singing God Bless America.

© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist

~ by fredfelleman on March 25, 2009.

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