Dire strait

Not even Al Gore can get shippers to accept tug protection against oil spills. Here come the storms—and one last hope.

THE MAKAH WHALERS awaiting clearance to set out in their canoe aren't the only ones anxiously watching the weather turn ugly on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. When the winds and waves rise, so does the risk of a major oil spill on the strait; through an anomaly of federal law, it receives none of the escort-tug protection required on Puget Sound and (along with a permanent rescue tug) Alaska's Prince William Sound. This fall, however, while the world's eyes were fixed on the Makahs and anti-whaling protesters, another skirmish with much greater environmental implications has played out along that same littoral. And until two weeks ago, after nearly a decade of political wrangling, it looked as though tugs would finally be dispatched to protect the strait from oily calamity.

On a September visit to Seattle, Vice President Al Gore vowed (as quoted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) that the search for a solution "will be completed before the rough seas of winter drive up the risk factors again." That same day, US Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater publicly directed Associate Deputy Secretary John Horsley to find a speedy "win-win" solution to the impasse between state regulators and local environmental groups, who want tug protection, and oil and shipping companies, who've balked at paying for it.

Now the seas are rising, while hopes for spill safeguards sink. Those hopes first rose in August, when Slater brought leaders of the oil- and cargo-shipping industries and state Department of Ecology to Washington, DC, and brokered an agreement to work on getting an emergency rescue tug stationed at Neah Bay—ground zero for spill as well as whaling issues. But when they got back to Seattle, the shippers proposed instead beefing up their "International Tug of Opportunity System" (ITOS)—a high-tech SOS scheme to alert the nearest working tugs when a ship's in trouble. Environmental advocates call ITOS woefully inadequate, since it can't guarantee tugs will be nearby, capable, and able to drop whatever else they're towing to come to the rescue. To the advocates' chagrin, the Coast Guard has approved a two-year ITOS trial and deferred taking other measures.

The state assented to the shippers' idea—if ITOS could be "enhanced" with extra tugs as needed to match the muscle and response time of a dedicated rescue boat. And it offered to pay half the $2 million cost, with the oil and cargo shippers each footing a quarter.

Meanwhile, another prospect appeared—a bargain scheme to station an actual rescue vessel at Neah Bay, fast: The feds could dispatch the Encounter Bay, an impounded pot-smuggling ship now parked for dockside training at the Seattle Maritime Academy. (See "Wonder Boat," SW, 9/17.)

And then, two weeks ago, the shippers failed to deliver the ITOS enhancement plan that was supposed to be forthcoming. "We tried," says Daniel Riley, Northwest manager of the Western States Petroleum Association, "but we found too many logistical, contractual, and liability issues." And the US Maritime Administration, which owns the Encounter Bay, delivered a thumbs-down report on the feasibility of dispatching it to Neah Bay. Making it shipshape would cost too much ("Drug vessels are not known for being well-maintained"), legal complications would ensue, and it's not designed for the job.

FRED FELLEMAN OF Ocean Advocates, who first proposed the Encounter Bay, finds this critique unconvincing. He notes that the Maritime Administration exists "to promote the maritime industry," which doesn't like the proposal, and that it relied too heavily on data from the Coast Guard, which likes ITOS.

So the Encounter Bay looks stuck at the dock. And after weeks of tortuous negotiations, enhanced ITOS looks dead in the water: "To have to scramble at the end of that time is very frustrating," sighs Joe Stohr, DOE's oil-spill-prevention program manager. Nevertheless, Stohr says, "I'm confident the tanker companies would support a rescue tug if the cargo companies would agree." Maybe, maybe not; the oil and cargo companies seem to play good cop/bad cop in fending off unwelcome tug rules.

Still, the state and feds are hammering out how they'll cooperate on a long-term anti-spill scheme. But with a late start and protracted risk-assessment, rule-making, and public-comment processes ahead, don't look for the results on the water next year. "Can we do it in 2000?" asks DOT's Horsley. "I would hope so." Why not sooner, via an emergency rule, as the advocates urge? "Our legal counsel says there's not sufficient emergency to warrant that."

But Horsley throws new hope on the troubled waters. Just as the local boosters are giving up on seeing any rescue tug on the strait this season, he discloses that "we're considering measures for this winter" that likely "would involve a rescue tug." But with the state tapped out and shippers digging in their heels, where would the money come from? A federal bail-out of the stymied local effort, Horsley suggests. "We're looking at the budget process," he says. The Transportation Department's funding comes before the House this week. "At that point, we may be able to take a look."

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