The late Sen. Warren Magnuson was deeply concerned with protecting Washington's marine life from oil spills. His concern is even more vital...

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The late Sen. Warren Magnuson was deeply concerned with protecting Washington’s marine life from oil spills. His concern is even more vital today. The threat of oil spills was a major reason the National Marine Fisheries Service just listed our resident orca as an endangered species.

In a 1977 Senate speech, Magnuson said: “The waters of Puget Sound, and the attendant resources, are indeed a major national environmental treasure. Puget Sound ought to be strictly protected; its resources ought not to be threatened. Since tanker accidents are directly related to the amount of tanker traffic, there should not be an expansion of traffic over what now presently exists.”

Congress listened to Magnuson, amending the Marine Mammal Protection Act by prohibiting federal permits that would expand refinery dock capacities to handle crude oil beyond that required for Washington state’s needs. His amendment stopped a proposed supertanker port at Cherry Point.

However, in the intervening years, federal agencies failed to carry out their congressional mandate. This lack of enforcement was successfully challenged in 2005: The Army Corps of Engineers and BP recently lost a lawsuit stemming from the oil company’s request to double its refinery dock at Cherry Point without first preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) or considering the Magnuson amendment’s implications.

While final details of the federal Court of Appeals decision are being worked out, BP — expecting to win even when it loses — has twice in the past month attempted to persuade Congress to repeal Magnuson’s oil-spill protections.

Restricting tanker traffic is but one way to reduce the risk of oil spills. Magnuson took a series of other steps, too. He established the Coast Guard’s vessel-traffic radar system, and restricted supertankers from plying our waters. Washington state’s relatively good spill record is testimony to the effectiveness of two of those three actions that are part of Magnuson’s legacy.

Since Washington has already assumed more than its share of tanker traffic, before Alaska’s Sen. Ted Stevens pushes Washington state to assume even more oil-tanker traffic, he should work for improved safety here, extending comparable spill protection to Washington waters as was afforded to Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Learn more

Ocean Advocates is co-sponsoring a free oil-spill forum Monday at 7 p.m. at The Mountaineers, 300 3rd Ave. W., Seattle.

In Prince William Sound, highly maneuverable, 10,000-horsepower tugs escort every tanker from oil terminal to the open ocean. Two tugs escort each tanker the first half of the trip. A single escort goes along the second half. It is supplemented by two more 10,000-horsepower tugs — equipped to fight fires and respond to oil spills — stationed at locations in Alaska equivalent to Neah Bay and Port Angeles. Furthermore, no tankers transit the sound when wind speeds exceed 45 knots or waves exceed 15 feet.

In contrast, there are no tug escorts for fully loaded tankers entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca for 70 miles until Sequim. And oil companies have been working to get the state to drop its escort requirement for double-hull tankers. Washington’s taxpayer-supported tug at Neah Bay operates only seasonally, is not equipped to fight fires or respond to oils spills, and has half the horsepower and lacks the maneuvering capabilities of the tugs in Prince William Sound.

As the Selendang Ayu grounding in the Aleutian Islands last year showed, the absence of rescue tugs in high-traffic areas means an oil-spill disaster is inevitable.

During this time of explosive trade growth and increased arrivals of foreign tankers that make Washington waters among the most risky in the nation, there have been major undertakings to roll back or delay regulatory efforts requiring state tanker inspections, salvage tugs and enhanced spill response.

While BP’s lobbyists and their allies in Congress attempt to gut the Magnuson amendment, Congress should be reminded that Washington’s waters deserve protection comparable to that given Prince William Sound.

We are thankful for Sen. Maria Cantwell’s leadership in introducing tanker-safety legislation, and for our delegation’s courage in challenging BP’s lobbying campaign. That, along with the fact that seven orca calves have been born over the past year, are encouraging signs that Magnuson’s legacy is still alive. Now if we can just avoid a major spill.

Fred Felleman ( is Northwest director of Ocean Advocates, which, with ReSources, North Cascades Audubon and Bellingham commercial fisherman Dan Crawford, filed the lawsuit over expansion of BP’s refining dock at Cherry Point.