Year-round Neah Bay tug bill passes – but funding still an issue

OLYMPIA – Legislation to fund a year-round rescue tugboat at Neah Bay – a longtime goal of environmentalists and the Makah tribe – is headed for a conference committee to be honed before it is sent to Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Second Substitute House Bill 1488 unanimously passed the state Senate on Thursday after passing the House by a 66-29 vote on March 13.

SSHB1488 authorizes use of the state’s oil spill prevention account to fund a tugboat stationed at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca year-round.

But there is concern – which still needs to be resolved – that there may not be enough money to pay for year-round coverage.

The bill also calls for money to fund a contingency tugboat program as well as efforts to remove leaking derelict vessels from the state’s waterways.

A state-funded rescue tugboat to assist ships in distress in the Strait and along the Pacific Coast is now stationed at Neah Bay, at the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula, only during the winter storm season.

The tugs began in 1999 to avert potential spills of fuel or cargo by preventing disabled ships from drifting onto rocks.

At least 6,000 tankers and cargo ships travel through the Strait each year.

Since the program’s inception, the winter tugboats have aided 30 disabled vessels.

SSHB1488 was co-sponsored by Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, along with Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, and 21 other lawmakers.

Van De Wege, Kessler and Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, represent the state Legislature’s 24th District, which includes Clallam and Jefferson counties and a third of Grays Harbor County.

Van De Wege said years ago oil companies established an “oil spill response fund” that will be used to fund the tugboat, instead of the general fund, at least until legislators can get a year-round fund established.

“The issue is whether there’s enough money in that fund, since it was supposed to be for cleaning up oil spills, not preventing them,” Van De Wege said.

“There are some concerns there’s not enough money to fund it.”

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