Update: The state Department of Ecology has decided that it will issue only a warning letter to Pete Knutson in connection with the incident he describes here. The decision was announced on the Ecology's blog. On Friday (Feb. 3), Knutson said he had spoken with a department official and that the discussion looked ahead to future cooperation. The letter, which was dated Feb. 2, appeared to take a similar tone. Knutson said he is still waiting to hear anything further from the Coast Guard. — The editors
“K. was living in a free country, after all…”
—Franz Kafka, The Trial
My story begins on November 9, 2011 when, acting on a tip from an unnamed private citizen, a harbor manager for the Port of Seattle reported me as a polluter to the Department of Homeland Security. His report alerted a chain of agencies, including, among others, Customs and the Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, FEMA, NOAA, EPA, the Washington State Department of Ecology, the Port of Seattle, and the Oregon Titan and Washington State Fusion Centers, federal intelligence clearinghouses created in the aftermath of 9/11.
So began Homeland Security Incident #995038 — when the harbor manager reported that an automatic bilge pump on my 40-foot fishing vessel discharged an estimated one-quarter cup — two ounces — of oil into the water at Shilshole Bay Marina.
I’m a fisherman with a family business and a long history of public activism in support of sustainable fisheries. I’ve fished for 40 years in Alaska and on Puget Sound; I am committed to protecting the web of marine life in the Sound and North Pacific. I serve on the Puget Sound Salmon Commission, a state commodities commission. Last year I co-authored a Seattle Times op-ed and a Crosscut piece on the need to equip fishing boats to fight oil spills. I’ve organized fishermen to testify for environmental responsibility, successfully opposing huge industrial interests. In my other job, at Seattle Central Community College, I teach environmental anthropology. Never before have I been charged with any fisheries or environmental violation.
Beginning in 2001, I’ve repeatedly challenged the Port of Seattle for ignoring its mandate to support small family fishing operations. I sold smoked salmon from my boat at Fishermen’s Terminal and handed out leaflets to other fishermen while port officials tracked me with their surveillance cameras.
“Sorry, our hands are tied, Pete,” the harbor manager told me that morning last fall. “If someone reports a spill we are mandated to call Homeland Security. We have no choice. Fifteen agencies have been notified. You are in the bull’s eye.”
When I arrived at my boat, the Njord, there was little evidence of what would normally be considered an oil spill. The oil-absorbent diapers the Port had placed around my boat were white and appeared unstained. The only evidence of hydrocarbon next to it was light streaks of residual oil, a common sight most days at this marina.
Perhaps a hundred feet down the dock from my boat was a patch of light oil. It was just after slack water, and there had been very little tide and no wind that morning; if my vessel’s automatic pump had discharged this oil, there would have been signs everywhere around the hull and in the diapers.
As I began taking cellphone pictures of the clean booming and barely oiled water, a knot of state and federal investigators arrived.
A severe-looking woman who turned out to be a Department of Ecology agent glared at me as I snapped photos. Without introduction, she barked at me, “One drop of oil in Puget Sound is a crime against the state!”
“Where’s the oil spill?” I asked her, palms upturned. She pointed at the water next to my boat and snapped, “Just because it’s not there doesn’t mean” — she pointed at the sheen at the end of the dock — “it’s not there. You may need to hire a private contractor to do your cleanup.”
I was tempted to tell her that she was making a mountain out of a molehill, but I remembered my wife’s parting advice: “Don’t give them attitude.”
Mr. Coast Guard now consulted with Ms. Ecology, referring to me in the third person: “Do you want him, or should we be lead on this?”
The dock grew crowded with personnel from the Coast Guard, the Port of Seattle, and the Department of Ecology. They crawled into my engine room on their hands and knees, alongside the John Deere diesel motor and refrigeration compressor. Admittedly, it wasn’t spotless. My crew recently had finished another Alaskan salmon fishing season — three months, 1,500 engine hours, and 3,000 miles. That is a lot of labor, fossil fuel, and maintenance, which ultimately translates to about 30 tons of processed-on-board salmon and halibut for farmers’ market customers in Bellevue, the Rainier Valley, Ballard, West Seattle, and Capitol Hill.
The Coast Guard men checked the engine room and pronounced the bilges dry. But the Ecology agent emerged soon afterward brandishing a sample of clear hydraulic oil apparently taken from my engine room floor. A quarter-inch sensor line with a loose fitting had weeped a small amount of oil, perhaps one or two ounces, on the floor next to the bilge. I had not noticed the loose fitting; now I fixed it with one turn of the wrench.
Back on the dock, I signed Coast Guard papers acknowledging federal jurisdiction in this oil “incident.” My automatic bilge pumps were shut off, the hydraulic hose tightened, and the paperwork finished. It was now 11:30 and I had to drive from Ballard to Capitol Hill to teach my noon environmental anthropology class at Seattle Central Community College. (Sometimes I teach during the day and fish at night). I informed the authorities that I would return after class, and expressed my desire to go out that evening the scheduled fishing opening.
When I returned to my boat that afternoon, the Coast Guard incident manager handed me "Order 102-11 from the Captain of the Port of Puget Sound," who in this case was also the “federal on-scene coordinator” and a parallel "Administrative Order." The upshot was that my vessel was impounded until it underwent an engine room inspection and a Coast Guard Fishing Vessel Safety Inspection. According to Order 102-11, a “nonwillful” violation of these orders made me liable for a $32,500 civil fine. A willful violation is a class D felony, “subject to a criminal penalty of not more than $50,000 and/or five years imprisonment.”
“For a spill of this size we would normally just file a warning,” said the Coast Guard incident manager. “Losing a fishing night is already a pretty stiff fine.” I replied. This is a financial hit for my family. Washington State gives us only a few fishing nights for the fall season and a single night can be worth a couple thousand dollars.
The Ecology agent then took over and informed me that if I put any dispersant (i.e. soap) in the water, I would be violating state law and would be prosecuted. She also handed me literature regarding the potential fines to which I might be subject, including a fee for her time. And she left me her card. It read, “Working with you for a better Washington.”
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