Updated: A little oil and a ton of trouble

A fisherman with a leaky hydraulic line discovers what a serious business an oil sheen on Puget Sound can be — especially if you're one of the unlucky few to get tagged for it, and you get on the wrong side of the pollution detectives. New: The Department of Ecology has now reached a decision.

Pete Knutson on the Njord.

Pete Knutson on the Njord. Eric Scigliano

Knutson's impounded boat, with spill-containment "diaper."

Knutson's impounded boat, with spill-containment "diaper." Pete Knutson

The stern of the Njord, with spill containment. Note the unclouded water surface.

The stern of the Njord, with spill containment. Note the unclouded water surface. Pete Knutson

Unrelated oil slick at Shilshole Marina two days after the Njord incident.

Unrelated oil slick at Shilshole Marina two days after the Njord incident. Pete Knutson

Unrelated Shilshole oil slick six days after: no enforcement for this one.

Unrelated Shilshole oil slick six days after: no enforcement for this one. Pete Knutson

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.”


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Sun, Jan 29, 1:56 p.m. Inappropriate

So you want to play rough, huh?
Just who do you think you're dealing with, a bunch a clowns?
We're the government. Got it!
Next time one of us says jump, you just say how high, and we'll all get along just dandy.

007

Posted Sun, Jan 29, 2:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow. Law enforcement in general seems completely out of control, in fact abusing the nature and intent of the law. These enforcers seem to believe that they are above the law, and they can flaunt disclosure laws and otherwise act like tyrants.

SPD is a perfect example: http://www.komonews.com/news/local/130138973.html

When are we going to get ahold of enforcers who themselves break the law, and put them in jail where they belong?

Posted Sun, Jan 29, 2:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Excellent piece... Just cross-posted on Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-loeb/two-ounces-of-kafka-how-a_b_1240359.html

The tragedy, as Knutson points out, is that this kind of bureaucratic overreaction and overreach makes it far harder to get popular support for necessary environmental laws and enforcement, particularly against corporations who measure their spills in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of gallons, instead of in ounces.

PaulLoeb

Posted Sun, Jan 29, 3:09 p.m. Inappropriate

"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."

Too bad you're not sovereign.

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Jan 30, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

I am familiar with Knutson and his large body environmental activism. In my eyes he is an environmental hero.

I would bet that the Coast Guard crew thinks that the Ecology person is way out of line. Her actions are the reason many people hate government. A complete lack of common sense. She should be ashamed and at the very least reprimanded!

Arbutus

Posted Mon, Jan 30, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Under Bush National security was the justification for a huge power and wealth transfer from the citizens to government/bureaucracy. Under Obama health and human safety are serving as the same blanket justification. Unfortunately, most of the new regulations do not achieve their stated goals and do nothing more than punish people for being productive and functionally outlaw small business. As a small business owner, I have come to the conclusion that making a living has essentially been criminalized in Washington State. Mr. Knutson's story illustrates that point perfectly.

Nickjones

Posted Mon, Jan 30, 4 p.m. Inappropriate

Too bad you outed the Ecology employee when you posted the pdf report file (the name of the file contains her name).

Turk

Posted Wed, Feb 1, 7:22 a.m. Inappropriate

When I read the log of events, it is states that Mr. Knutson left the scene. It's like being stopped for speeding (not a big deal) and leaving the scene while the State Patrol is still standing there filling out the form (then it would be a big deal). It might appear that he was not dealing with the situation seriously or in a timely manner.

bellv

Posted Thu, Feb 2, 9:43 a.m. Inappropriate

What a great but unfortunate story. If this were an isolated incident it might not be so serious but I’m sure some form of this is taking place all over the country. We see it with the TSA, Dodd Frank and the new health Insurance regulations. It is always the unintended consequences of good intentions that cause the problem. This costs the taxpayers who pay for the enforcement and all the administrative costs involved, it costs the business person in lost productivity, legal fees and fines and it costs the consumer as these increased costs are reflected in the cost of the product. It is clear Mr. Knutson doesn’t want to harm the environment that supports his living, that would be ridiculous. It is also clear that 99.999% of the people who are getting on an airplane don’t want to blow it up, or that banks don’t want to make loans for which they are not going to paid back, or that people don’t want their healthcare regulated by bureaucrats. But regardless of common sense the government feels compelled to regulate our lives and this kind of thing is the unintended consequence. This story makes a perfect case for smaller government and less regulation.

Posted Thu, Feb 2, 4:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article,,,,too bad the DOE doesn't have the same vigilance at every drive thru restaurant where 2 cups of oil dripping daily is the norm. Then when it rains it kills any chance of salmon surviving because nothing prevents that oil from reaching the creeks, stream, lake, or Puget Sound.

When government has a monopoly of doing nothing productive to achieve sustainability and charging taxpayers for this nothingness you have to ask yourself, if they will ever get a clue and when do we as taxpayers say enough is enough?

salmonjim

Posted Sun, Feb 5, 9:59 p.m. Inappropriate

salmonjim--When we can elect officials who are not beholden to developers, highway promoters, and other elites. "Government" is not the problem; it's having 1%ers own the electeds and bureaucrats that's the problem.

louploup

Posted Mon, Feb 6, 3:20 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm glad to hear that this situation ultimately had an amicable resolution. It sounds like an unfortunate case of what Michel Foucault called "governmentality"--the conduct of conduct. In this case, It seems like much of the hassle came after Dr. Knutson left to teach his class, which was somehow viewed as noncooperation (despite his obvious compliance). Based on the officials' correspondence and reports, it seems that they went out of their way to give Knutson a hard time after this. I agree with Paul L. and Salmon Jim.

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »