The national Marine Fisheries Service has recognized that our 88 resident orcas — including Luna in Nootka Sound and two new calves — are threatened with extinction...

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The National Marine Fisheries Service has recognized that our 88 resident orcas — including Luna in Nootka Sound and two new calves — are threatened with extinction. Their small population, unique genetics, foraging behaviors and linguistic distinctions justify such protection. However, “threatened” is an understatement: A single major spill could render them extinct.

The growth of Pacific Rim trade has made the Strait of Juan de Fuca the busiest commercial sea lane in North America. Overall trade volumes are expected to double in the next 10 years. As corporate mergers in oil and shipping companies continue, spill-response contractors are following suit, downsizing capacity while risks increase.

Instead of demanding that the shipping industry increase its responsibility to protect the public waterways that it exploits, Gov. Gary Locke has proposed more studies and a misdirected policy of placing the onus of protection on members of the public — making them amateur spill-responders.

Lack of preparedness

Here is the inadequacy of our spill-response capability:

• The 4,800-gallon Foss Maritime spill at Chevron/Texaco’s loading terminal at Point Wells, near Richmond Beach, on Dec. 30, 2003, involved blatant failures of spill prevention, containment and response.

• ConocoPhillips is allegedly responsible for the Oct. 14 Dalco Passage mystery spill off Vashon Island, as well as three other recent spills. However, the failure of the response was no mystery given the increasing deference the state has given the U.S. Coast Guard and its obligations to homeland security. At $2 million to respond to a 1,500-gallon spill, it was the nation’s most expensive spill per gallon.

• On Nov. 11, when the Greek bulk carrier Thrasyvoulos V was reported spilling oil 150 miles off our coast, the Coast Guard was unable to send a helicopter out of Port Angeles to verify the ship’s condition due to backlogged maintenance schedules. In order for the seasonal rescue tug in Neah Bay to patch the ship’s hull, it had to steam back and forth to Port Angeles to pick up gear because the state has refused to equip it for salvage, fire fighting or spill response. The tug has responded to 25 ships in distress since 1999, but there is only enough public funding for three more winters.

• The initial response to the Nov. 26 Delaware River tanker spill in Philadelphia was slow and grossly underestimated the spill’s volume, even though it was near a massive oil port.

• On Dec. 8 in Alaska, appropriate tugs were not readily available despite the seamanship exhibited by the crew of good Samaritans aboard the stricken vessel, the Selendang Ayu. The grounding of the bulk freighter in the Aleutians painfully resembles the $50 million 1999 wreck of the New Carissa in Coos Bay, Ore. The remains stand as a monument to the nation’s failure to require salvage tugs around increasingly congested waterways.

Despite Congress directing the Coast Guard to implement salvage and firefighting regulations in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the service has not. More recently, Congress has failed to provide the direction and funding for the Coast Guard to jointly meet its obligations to defend the homeland and the environment. As one who has been a long-term critic of the Coast Guard’s cozy relationship with the maritime industry, that criticism does not extend to the selfless heroics of its helicopter crews. In addition to saving lives, the crews also can be used to detect spills and pass towlines and crew between tugs and disabled ships.

Rather than following the lead of traditional maritime nations that have stationed salvage tugs around their countries, the Coast Guard has advocated for tugs of opportunity and liberalized chemical-dispersant use. As we have seen in Alaska and Oregon, we cannot rely on such programs. While dispersants may help to mitigate the impact of some crude-oil spills, the majority of ships calling on our waters run on heavy bunker fuel that does not disperse.

The Coast Guard and Navy could improve our nation’s salvage capacity, assuring our maritime environment does not become a casualty of explosive trade growth or acts of environmental terrorism. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard lacks the leadership, and the Navy is fighting a war. President Bush’s Committee on Ocean Policy is not likely to address this problem because the Ocean Commission failed to raise the issue despite urging by the National Academy of Sciences Marine Board.

Citizen oversight is the best way to reverse the complacency plaguing maritime industries and agencies in Washington. In Alaska, they rise to huge logistical challenges and embrace real public involvement. Meanwhile, representatives of Washington’s Department of Ecology testified before the Legislature about the difficulty of responding to a spill adjacent to Washington’s largest port and the lack of need for further public oversight.

History of flawed studies

The current practice of including token public representation in maritime rule-making efforts has resulted in a long series of wasteful and biased studies. Besides the limited Dalco Passage spill analysis, a $200,000 fiasco was just completed at the behest of British Petroleum to try to get around the state’s 1975 tug-escort requirement.

The state ignored the little public input it received, rendering the study incomplete. It now wants to spend more money to study removing the federal supertanker ban. The public legally intervened to affect the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s recently defeated effort to site a natural-gas pipeline through critical orca habitat. Soon, there will be another committee established to review dispersant-use guidelines. There is expected to be one environmentalist out of 30 participants in that group.

Consequently, the state of Washington needs to:

• Pass our own salvage regulations, as California has done;

• Make funding for the Neah Bay rescue tug permanent, requiring more horsepower, firefighting, spill response and salvage equipment;

• Require the maritime industry to stockpile and be prepared to promptly deploy additional spill-response equipment in its Contingency Plan Rule, including pre-booming ships before transferring fuel;

• Prevent catastrophes by banning risky tanker transits such as the quarter-mile-wide passage between Saddlebag and Huckleberry islands next to ecologically rich Padilla Bay;

• Embrace a more meaningful role for public oversight of maritime industries and agencies.

While U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell has carried the late Sen. Warren Magnuson’s torch for orca research and conservation, the new governor and the Legislature must do more to protect the habitat from oil spills. That way, the grandchildren of Washington’s residents may have the privilege to see the grandchildren of our resident orcas.

Fred Felleman has studied and photographed Puget Sound killer whales since 1980 and has worked to protect their habitat from oil spills since 1988.