POINT OF VIEW: Legislation would help avert oil spill disasters

By Mike Doherty

Clallam County Commissioner, retired

Today marks the 30-year anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster (11 million gallons) — a spill that devastated local fishing and tourism economies, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in economic harm to the nearby communities dependent on commercial fishing.

Just four years earlier, in December 1985, a major Arco oil spill (238,000 gallons) occurred in the Port Angeles Harbor. After KONP broadcast the news, I took our son, then 7, down to the Port Angeles Harbor with trash bags in hand. We joined others to rescue seagulls covered in Alaskan crude oil, which were then taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center.

For our son, that memory influenced his later career choice in environmental economics. For me, as a Clallam County commissioner during the analysis of the Northern Tier oil port and pipeline project — testifying before federal and state legislative committees and the National Energy Board of Canada — and as a member of the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, it solidified my commitment to improve oil transshipment safety.

I subsequently represented the city of Port Angeles and Clallam County during and after the Arco Anchorage spill.

These are just two examples that underscore today’s threat, which is manifold.

The new Canadian proposal to vastly expand the Trans Mountain pipeline (formerly Kinder Morgan) would trigger a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic carrying tar sands oil through the Salish Sea and Strait of Juan de Fuca.

We’ve witnessed an uptick in the movement of crude oil on underregulated tank barges, and the federal government has proposed drilling off the Washington coast. There’s increased hazard when oil cargo or fuel is transferred from one vessel to another, a common practice. Worse yet, much of our spill response apparatus cannot combat spills of sinking tar sands oil from Canada.

One big oil spill would deal a blow to our lucrative fishing, recreation and tourism industries and the coastal communities that rely upon them. Washington coastal industries generate almost 84,000 jobs and $5.2 billion annually. Spill damage could also violate the treaty fishing rights of federally recognized tribes.

And who can forget the plight of the orca? After the death of three orcas last year, the Southern Resident orca population has reached a 35-year low. With just 75 Southern Resident orcas left, one major spill could mean the end for these iconic giants. The Exxon Valdez spill killed 22 Chugach orcas; 30 years later, these orcas are now functionally extinct.

Fortunately, Olympia lawmakers can act now to reduce the risks of large oil spills.

House Bill 1578 would extend proven safeguards to all vessels carrying crude by establishing zone-based tug escort requirements for oil-laden tank vessels.

Furthermore, the bill would enhance state oil spill prevention, requiring the evaluation of an emergency response towing vessel to protect the San Juan Islands. These towing vessels are a critical tool already used at Neah Bay, where the rescue tug has been called out 67 times since 1999 to prevent spills from vessels in distress.

It’s not a question of “if,” but “when” the next major oil spill will occur. We can’t keep gambling with our marine resources, jobs, and quality of life. Washington state legislators need to send HB 1578 to Gov. Inslee’s desk.


Mike Doherty is a retired five-term Clallam County Commissioner. He served on the Washington State Oil Spill Advisory Committee for over ten years, visited numerous spill sites including Valdez, Alaska and San Francisco (Cosco Busan) and participated in drafting the Washington State Comprehensive Oil Spill Plan.

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