Slow burns and fast

IT WAS DɊ VU all over again last month, when another dock full of boats got sent to Davey Jones' barbecue because a city fireboat couldn't get from Elliott Bay to Lake Union, where the fire erupted, in much less than an hour. For decades, city and fire officials danced a slow-motion version of the FBI/White House tango in the run-up to Sept. 11. You put your right foot forward, and you step aside; strike a haughty pose and look away.

Boat owners and other lake rats have called for fire protection on Lake Union almost since the last fireboat was taken off the lake—during the Depression. In 1993, one sued the city after losing his live-aboard to one of a string of fires that, like this past year's, should have been easily quenched. Seattle's solons and top brass insisted they had fire protection on the lake. The Seattle Police Harbor Patrol officers who were supposed to provide it knew better and said so: Their patrol boats and puny pumps were painfully inadequate.

The police did get a fire pump—as opposed to a bilge bailer—for one patrol boat, runaway blazes abated, and City Hall coasted until this year, when the conflagrations (three fires in the last 13 months) and clamor grew too great. Necessity proposes; politics disposes. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt supposedly said, "All right, you've convinced me. Now put some pressure on me."

The response—stationing the vintage fireboat Alki at Fishermen's Terminal—is a doubtful stopgap. The Alki is too big to get around the most vulnerable docks and will still be too far from them. The Harbor Patrol's Gas Works dock is right in the middle but too small. The fire department now wants to station the Chief Seattle and a new "attack boat" at a combo police/fire dock on Lake Union and put a new, bigger fireboat and another attack boat on Elliott Bay. But that's not cheap.

Meanwhile, another stopgap is in place. See how long it lasts.


Punting on fireboats, shirking terrorist warnings—what makes politicians (and don't think FBI brass aren't politicians) ignore clear and looming dangers? Bureaucratic circumstances—budget crunches, agency rivalries, stooges at the top—always play in, but beyond that, the people who govern us are just like us: lazy and distracted. They fight the last war, go for easy wins, put out fires instead of planning ahead, react to urgent issues rather than confronting big ones. Focused, ardent constituencies—pro-choice and right-to-life stalwarts, Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Pharma—who dispense their votes and dollars according to a single issue—trump universal interests like slowing catastrophic climate change. Besides, this administration calculates (they must be calculating—they can't be this dim) that the full effects of global warming, Social Security depletion, and runaway deficits won't hit till its term's end.

Sort out the empirical disputes and hysteria, and environmental issues boil down to the collision between short-term special interests and long-term general interest. The Karl Rove administration hews so tightly to the former, it makes those poll-reading Clintonites seem like millennial visionaries. It's perfectly capable of doing the right thing—protecting the Everglades, buying back some off-shore oil leases—when that serves the right short-term interest, such as brother Jeb Bush's re-election bid as governor of Florida. But Jeb's not running for steward of Planet Earth, so screw the rest of the world.

Against such reckless expediency, many greens and some scientists propose the "precautionary principle." I once thought this was an appealing truism that could as well be expressed in familiar homilies: Look before you leap. Better safe than sorry. A stitch in time saves nine. But it may be gaining substance, as well as currency. The Precautionary Principle in the 20th Century: Late Lessons From Early Warnings, an intriguing new international collection of essays, explores 14 chronicles of disaster foretold, from overfishing and PCBs to mad cow disease. It doesn't include global warming—but its publisher, Earthscan, is in Britain, where that problem's taken seriously. Dubya would call it all "second-guessing." See


Scott Marlow writes after the last column, on the federal court decision upholding BP/ARCO's expanded, herring-threatening Cherry Point oil dock: "I'm mad. Is there anything I can do to influence the appeal process? Do I write to the Port? The EPA? Army Corps of Engineers?" You can write the Corps and state Department of Ecology, and BP, though it's a little late. The case is in judicial appeal, and trying to influence federal judges isn't advisable.

But there are literally limitless opportunities to pitch in on the same issues in other venues and to petition those and other agencies. Many green groups (and other advocacy groups) regularly post and e-mail news, alarms, and calls to action and would love to get you on their lists. They'll eventually ask you for money, but that's also pitching in. When you see a group working an issue that interests you, you might search out its Web site. Two of those suing to stop the oil dock expansion are the North Cascades Audubon Society ( and Ocean Advocates, which doesn't have a Web site but is tied to the Orca Conservancy ( The Orca Recovery Campaign offers a handy list (www.saveorcawhales. org) of "10 Things You Can Do" to save the imperiled local killer whales, which means also saving salmon and herring—the whole marine food chain.

Eric Scigliano's environment column appears every other week.

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