The tug that could

Talk about an ounce of prevention matching a pound of cure. As of a week ago, the salvage and cleanup costs for the New Carissa oil spill were $16 million and counting. That tally didn't include the $1.3 million the Navy reportedly spent to torpedo the freighter's fast-floating bow section, or whatever it will cost to do whatever will be done with the stern, which is still embedded off Coos Bay, or all the wishful cleanup gestures to come, which will hardly obviate the disaster.

Recall that, as reported in "The Ships Hit the Fan" (3/11), if a rescue tug had been stationed at Neah Bay, it could have gotten to the New Carissa before she broke up and started leaking big-time. (It could of course have gotten to a drifting ship in the Strait of Juan de Fuca much sooner.) Thanks to the (pre-Carissa) inter- vention of Congressman Norm Dicks, a tug is now stationed in the outer strait for two months, at a cost of $700,000. But it's a relatively modest one, the Sea Breeze; the more powerful Sea Victory had steamed off (from its Seattle berth) to wrestle with the Carissa.

Last fall a much more capable and versatile tug chanced to pass through the strait: the US Navy's supertug Sioux, which, besides 7,000-horsepower, agile sideways movement, has a powerful traction as well as towing winch, for dislodging grounded ships. And it even had a low draft—15 to 16 feet—which allayed fears about getting it safely in and out of Neah Bay. The Navy sent the Sioux back to mostly sit idle in San Diego. Instead the US Department of Transportation costed out bringing the Sioux's sister supertug, the Powhattan, here from the East Coast: between $2 million and $3.4 million for six months. Shipping companies insisted that this, like every other rescue-tug and tug-escort proposal, was unaffordable, and the feds as usual deferred.

But the Powhattan may be more af-fordable now. At the big oil-spill conference two weeks ago, Ocean Advocates' Fred Felleman, who lobbied to get the temporary rescue tug on the strait, happened to run into a fellow named Eric King of the firm DonJon Marine in Hillside, New Jersey. DonJon recently released the Powhattan from the Navy (which wants to keep it in service without having to pay for it) and is looking for something to do with it. Thus alerted, DonJon has pitched to Dicks, the state Department of Ecology, and Gov. Locke about stationing it out here. King says $3 million seems a "not unreasonable" estimate for a full year's service. "That's twice the capability with half the cost of anything else," argues Felleman.

But would the Powhattan have been able to pull the New Carissa off the beach and prevent the spill? "I'm not going to say it could or couldn't," says King. "But that's what it's designed to do."

And the money's there

And Felleman has spotted a trove of money that might pay for the Powhattan already sitting in government hands, waiting to be spent. Last month, federal, state, and Makah tribal officials announced a plan to spend $5.2 million (plus interest) in "natural resource restoration" payments from the owners of the Japanese fish processor Tenyo Maru and Chinese freighter Tuo Hai, which collided off Neah Bay in 1991, spilling 100,000 gallons of oil. (The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly—in particular, the agencies say, because this is the first such plan they've done.)

It's a little late now for the seabirds and kelp actually killed by Tenyo Maru oil. So the agencies propose other ways of helping the types of organisms damaged. Some of the measures proposed: trying to reduce kelp-smothering river siltation; producing signs and publications warning boaters to stay away from bird colonies; buying up marbled murrelet habitat; installing mirrors, decoys, and loudspeakers to lure common murres back to the Copalis National Wildlife Refuge; putting pingers on Makah fishing nets to warn off birds. Some of these may be useful, others biological make-work. But one other proposed outlay sounds like a classic boondoggle: contributing a half-million dollars to an "oiled wildlife rehabilitation center" (a major birdbath). While cleaning seabirds after a spill gives nice picture and makes volunteers feel good, it only briefly postpones the birds' death; their scrubbed feathers no longer shed water.

So how 'bout an ounce of prevention? The common wisdom is that restoration funds can't be used to prevent future accidents. But NOAA and the Coast Guard are using them for just that down in the Florida Keys. Payments from a grounded freighter that chewed up a lot of coral reef in 1997 are going to erect navigational beacons from Miami to the Dry Tortugas. "We were able to show that if this will prevent [future] groundings, it will protect similar resources and fulfill the purpose of restoration," says Cheva Heck of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Sounds like a precedent for letting the Tenyo Maru fund a tug in the same waters it trashed eight years ago. The US Fish and Wildlife Service will take comments on how to spend the money until April 1 (at 510 Desmond Dr SE, Suite 102, Lacey, WA 98503, attn. Cindy M. Chaffee. Fax: 360-753-9008. E-mail:

Speedy Carissa

The New Carissa also obliges spill fighters to think differently about another perilous question: just how fast a wrecked ship can drift. Felleman says that in the worst case assumed in assessing local spill risks, a ship would drift at 6 percent of wind speed. But the New Carissa drifted 75 miles in 13 hours on the night of March 2-3 and amazed everyone by reappearing, Freddy Krugerstyle, back on shore. NOAA's log records winds of 39 to 43 miles an hour that evening, falling to 30mph by morning. So the Carissa drifted at about 12 percent of wind speed, 12 times as fast as expected.

Bubba bags a big one:

Picture of the week: The New York Times (3/17) recounts sprawlmeister, secretary masher, big-game hunter, and former Seahawks owner Ken Behring's attempt to import banned, endangered bighorn sheep remains from Central Asia for a "Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals" he's bankrolling at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. It also recounted how Behring apparently killed elephants illegally in Mozambique, then bought a "license" afterward. The Post-Intelligencer also had the story, but missed the picture. Neither paper noted Behring's attempt to give the Smithsonian the pelts of the King County Council and executive, whom he skinned so adroitly when he was here.

Give bikes a break

Of all the dumb ideas, what could be dumber than discouraging ferry commuters and island hoppers from taking bicycles rather than cars? But that's just what Washington State Ferries threatens to do with its latest proposed fare increases. Under this soon-to-be voted scheme, the full round-trip, cross-Sound passenger fare would rise 3 percent, to $3.70. The net surcharge on top of that for a car would rise 4 percent, to $9.30. And the surcharge for a bicycle would rise a whopping 67 percent, from 60 cents to $1. Passenger-only ferries, which currently don't charge for bicycles, would start.

Ray Deardorf, the ferries' planning director, says a citizen/official Tariff Committee originally recommended hiking the bike surcharge to just 70 cents—but state transportation commissioners asked, "Why not raise it to $1 and leave it there for a while, so people don't have to count out change?" Sounds sensible, but this is bogus efficiency, since bike riders' total fare still won't be a round number; they'll still have to fish out change to pay that $3.70 passenger fare.

You could argue that it's both unwise and unfair to charge bicyclists any surcharge. In normal operations, their rigs pack away in odd corners and don't displace any cars from the decks. A flock of bike tourers might take up some car space in summer, especially on the San Juans' runs. (Solution: Limit the surcharge to those runs.) It's cars that overload the ferries and drive the need to spend hundreds of millions on new boats. Each bicyclist who would otherwise drive is freeing up space and taking a load off our taxes (not to mention our roads and air quality). She or he deserves a break. Metro realizes this; it went to considerable expense, and endures frequent small delays, in order to accommodate bikes with its nifty pop-down bus racks. The state goes halfway, by offering regular commuters yearlong bike passes for $20. But that's no help for occasional riders and those thinking of trying to go by bike. Encourage 'em. Let bikes ride free.

The state Transportation Commission will consider the new fare schedule at its March 31 meeting, 10-noon at the Sea-Tac Doubletree Inn.

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