It's official: Industries will pay for permanent tug at Neah Bay

State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, comments on the signing of legislation he sponsored establishing a permanent funding source for the Neah Bay Response Tug. - Contributed photo
State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, comments on the signing of legislation he sponsored establishing a permanent funding source for the Neah Bay Response Tug.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Legislation establishing a permanent funding source for an emergency response tug at Neah Bay was signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire today, on the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Senate Bill 5344, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, requires large vessels, such as oil tankers, cargo vessels and cruise ships, to pay for the response tug – the first line of defense against a catastrophic oil spill on Washington’s coast or Puget Sound.

The bill passed with overwhelming support in both chambers of the Legislature.

As this issue has been discussed at the state and federal level for more than 10 years, this marks a major success for Ranker in his first year in the Senate.

“Twenty years ago today, our nation suffered one of the greatest ecological catastrophes in its history,” Ranker said at the Capitol, “but today we’re celebrating a great victory with a plan that will help ensure that what happened in Prince William Sound won’t happen in the Puget Sound or Washington’s coast. In that 1989 event, 10.8 million U.S. gallons of crude oil spilled into the sea, eventually covering 11,000 square miles of ocean.”

Ranker lobbied not only his colleagues in the Legislature but also stakeholders in the maritime industry and the environmental community to craft a plan that would provide a permanent funding source for the Neah Bay response tug. Tug operations have been funded by taxpayers since 1999, but with taxpayers increasingly strapped and state revenues down, Ranker fought hard to place the cost on those who create the risk.

Ranker anticipates that shifting the burden of funding the Neah Bay response tug to industry will save taxpayers more than $3.6 million annually.

In signing the bill, Gregoire said, “The Neah Bay emergency response tug is a critical safety measure that protects our environment, our economic resources and our cultural heritage from oil spills by international vessels crossing state waters. I believe Washington taxpayers have shouldered the burden long enough.”

The tug boat prevents disabled ships and barges from drifting onto rocks and causing oil spills in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Washington’s outer coast. The 2008–09 contract to station the tug at Neah Bay is $3.7 million. The governor has proposed spending $3.6 million to fund the boat for the 2009–10 fiscal year.

“This legislation will make our oil spill safety net stronger,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who sponsored federal legislation to make the tug permanent and funded year-round. “Every year, 15 billion gallons of oil navigate through the Puget Sound, bringing with it the possibility of disaster. The Neah Bay tug is an important part of our oil spill safety net designed to prevent such a disaster, and finally it will be made a permanent, year-round fixture that is funded by those that bring the risk to our waterways.

"Over the last decade, the tug has saved dozens of vessels and prevented countless spills, and today, we’re one step closer to ensuring it is there to help for years to come.”

Ranker added, “We are not asking the private sector to do any more than what the state has been funding for the past decade. It is time for the maritime industry to step up and take over the funding of this crucial environmental protection asset.”

Ranker said the Strait of Juan de Fuca is one of the busiest commercial shipping lanes on the West Coast. Every year, oil tankers, fuel barges and large commercial cargo, fish-processing and passenger vessels make about 3,000 transits into the Strait bound for Washington ports.

Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, who sponsored the House bill, noted that from the entrance to the Strait to Port Angeles as well as for most of Washington’s outer coast, there are no protective measures for large commercial and naval ships except the Neah Bay response tug.

“Our citizens cannot afford an oil spill in the Strait or on our outer coast. A major spill would adversely affect our shellfish and fishing industry, tribal communities, tourism and recreation — the lifeblood of our economy and culture,” Van De Wege said.

“The cost to clean up such a spill could reach billions of dollars. I believe this is a relatively small investment that would pay huge dividends for the maritime industry and the public.”

Industry leaders estimate it could cost the private sector $10,000 to $20,000 per gallon of oil spilled to clean up and restore the environment fouled by oil.

In the past 10 years, the tug has stood by or assisted 42 ships either completely disabled or with reduced maneuvering ability. During nine responses, the tug attached a tow line to take the disabled vessel to a safe harbor for repairs.

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