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    NW coal port traffic raises worry about huge marine spill

    While other areas worry about train traffic and climate change, San Juan Islanders also fear a shipping disaster that could harm whales, salmon, and beaches.
    The  Cape Violet, a Capesize coal bulker built in 2009 and operating under Panamanian flag, recently stopped at Westshore Terminal south of Vancouver, B.C.

    The Cape Violet, a Capesize coal bulker built in 2009 and operating under Panamanian flag, recently stopped at Westshore Terminal south of Vancouver, B.C. Paul Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy

    The Northwest could increase the traffic from Capesize ships, the world's largest, from coal and bitumen exports. This graphic shows a Capesize ship in relation of the largest class of Washington state ferry.

    The Northwest could increase the traffic from Capesize ships, the world's largest, from coal and bitumen exports. This graphic shows a Capesize ship in relation of the largest class of Washington state ferry. ReSources for Sustainable Communities

    For the 15,000 residents and the tens of thousands of visitors, the San Juan Islands are about as good as it gets: clean air and water, recreation, wooded hillsides, and small towns with great theater, artists, and eateries. No wonder San Juan County has the highest per-capita income in the state and is ranked as the healthiest and one of the best educated.

    Yet, there is fear in the island air that much of this could be washed away by what ecologists call a “low probability, high risk” event: an oil spill from an accident to just one of the thousands of oil tankers, container ships, and coal ships transiting the two narrow passages that define the Islands, Haro Strait, and Rosario Strait.

    “We are the Achilles Heel for coal exports,” says Stephanie Buffum, executive director of Friends of the San Juans, who is helping organize opposition to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at nearby Cherry Point north of Bellingham, a project that would add nearly 1,000 transits each year of coal ships, some of them the largest cargo ships on earth.

    San Juan County and The Islands Trust went on record nearly two years ago expressing their concerns. County Council Chair Richard Fralick noted, “The health and well-being of our islanders is inextricably tied to the health of the marine waters around us. Because of the geography and marine conditions here, experts tell us more than 85 percent of the oil from a major spill would probably escape containment. A spill anywhere in the Salish Sea could be devastating.”

    San Juan residents are already expressing themselves online as testimony begins for the scoping process that will determine what issues an environmental review of the export terminal will cover. Buffum and her neighbors fear damage to the marine environment. And just the added mega-ship traffic itself could jeopardize the Islands’ appeal to tourists and retirees, the core of the local economy as well as livability, they say.

    Although exact statistics on ship transits are difficult to obtain, the Washington Department of Ecology lists 2011 traffic through Puget Sound at 10,360 large ships, in excess of 300 gross tons; nearly half are headed for the docks of Port Metro in Vancouver, the busiest foreign-export terminal in North America.

    Those ships are already here — without a serious accident in recent years — but two huge export proposals would up the ante by some 1,572 tankers and coal ships a year. In addition to Gateway Pacific’s projected 972 coal ships, the Kinder Morgan pipeline company plans an expansion in Vancouver that would add about 600 tanker trips. The pipeline is already in place; a proposal would double its volume of tar-sands oil from Alberta. If both projects proceed as sought, the vessel traffic would be nearly 12,000 very large ships a year transiting the San Juan Islands.

    In addition to these cargo vessels, some 163,000 Washington State Ferries transits take place in Puget Sound every year, along with uncounted recreation boats and small fishing and commercial boats. In the San Juans, the Alaska Ferry makes 252 trips a year.

    Large ships are noisy, and the effects of noise on whales is of particular concern. In a 2005 study, research scientists Scott and Val Veirs noted, “Approximately one ship transits Haro Strait every hour with about 30 minutes of quiet between. This puts the total shipping traffic at about 20 ships transiting Haro Strait every day of the year. The potential effects of shipping traffic on the Southern Resident killer whales are a threat and further study into this issue is needed.” The Veirs partnered with three other marine scientists in a 2008 study also detailing the impact of ship noise on killer whales.

    The risks of huge ships with toxic cargo are not limited to the San Juans, of course, but the narrow passages at Haro and Rosario call for one-way traffic for the largest ships, the tankers and coal ships now operating from Vancouver. Tankers are required to have double hulls and tug escorts; the much-larger coal ships meet lesser standards, although requirements for double hulls are phasing in.

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    Posted Wed, Oct 24, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thank you Floyd and Crosscut for covering the many issues associated with our waterways being used as an orifice to provide China with dirty fuels. I have consulted for many local and tribal governments organizations as well as local state and national environmental organizations over the past 20 years tracking shipping issues after completing my graduate research on our endangered orcas. Therefore, it is understandable that Floyd got my affiliation wrong in this story. I am working several vessel traffic risk assessments (VTRA) in this region as a consultant to the Makah Tribe and NW consultant to Friends of the Earth. while I was party to settlement with SSA as Ocean Advocates over a decade ago - I no longer consult for OA and am quite dismayed by how the settlement parties switched consultants on the VTRA. Previously, both the Gateway study and the BP dock expansion studies were to be completed by academics at the George Washington University. Now both studies are being run by maritime consultants Glosten and Associates as well as Entrix who brought you the Keystone Pipeline EIS.

    Posted Thu, Oct 25, 6:11 p.m. Inappropriate

    The possibility of a coal terminal isn’t “if” but “when and where”. The economic pressures are big enough that we’ll get the coal terminal and all the problems associated with it, probably sooner rather than later.

    I think that there are things that we could demand to lessen the impacts of, as you say, a ‘low probability, high risk’ disaster. First, charge each ship a safety fee to pay for the next two suggestions. If there are 1500 ships transiting Rosario and Haro straits each year, a $1000 transit fee would give a budget of $1.5 million to mitigate the effects of a disaster. Scale the fee up or down as needed to fund the cleanup efforts. A $1000 fee is chump change for vessels that cost between $20,000 to $30,000 an HOUR to operate.
    Second, position a rescue tug somewhere in the eastern strait in addition to the tug at Neah Bay. To improve cross-border relations, keep the tug in Victoria or Sidney so our northern neighbors get some economic benefit. The Neah Bay tug has proven its worth over the past several years by rescuing ships and barges that could have been environmental disasters.
    Third, position oil spill cleanup vessels along the routes of Haro and Rosario straits. Currently, there is only one oil spill cleanup vessel in the San Juans. It is run by Islands Oil Spill Association, a dedicated volunteer organization. But as that description states, it’s volunteer and only has one boat to respond to spills. Station boats at say, Fish Creek and Snug Harbor on San Juan, Deer Harbor and Obstruction Pass on Orcas and at Hunter Bay on Lopez then pay staff to be on call 24/7 so they can respond quickly. I suspect that the same could be done on the Canadian side of Haro Strait at, say, Beecher Bay, Oak Bay, Sidney and somewhere in the Gulf Islands. Train all the crews together so they know how to work cooperatively.

    As a resident of San Juan Island, I shudder to think about the impacts we would incur if a spill occurs. At the least we would see the tourist industry shrivel up. Nobody wants to go kayaking in an oil slick or find dead seals and birds on the beach. Worst case – I don’t know what worst case would look like. But I know I don’t want to see it.

    If SSA and Warren Buffett are going to profit by putting the San Juan Islands, the Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island and the Washington mainland at risk then charge them a little something so we can try and protect ourselves.

    Posted Fri, Oct 26, 7:40 a.m. Inappropriate

    I wish there was still a state Office of Marine Safety around but alas, they were just too effective and therefore had to be assimilated. And cheers to Fred Felleman who has been working these issues front and center for two decades.

    I am often reminded of Eric Nalder's Pulitzer prize winning series Tankers Full of Trouble in The Seattle Times in 1990, and the devastation wrought from two relatively small spills on the outer coast of Washington in 1989 and 1991. Some significant changes have certainly been made since then but two facts will always remain - an oil spill in Puget Sound would be incredibly devastating to the environment and economy, in ways nearly unthinkable, and the odds are weighted to when, not if, it will happen.


    Posted Sat, Oct 27, 1:41 p.m. Inappropriate

    "$1.5 million to mitigate the effects of a disaster"

    All experience is the monetized cost of a major oil spill is in the hundred's of million to billions of dollars. And even under the best of conditions, it unlikely that more than 15% of the spilled oil could be recovered. To be adequate, such a fee would have to be sufficient to create and assure support of an ongoing ship rescue and oil spill prevention/containment/cleanup infrastructure prevention and cleanup orders of magnitude larger and better than anything ever done before. To raise $1 billion from 1500 ships means a fee of $666,000 per ship. At that rate, it will take +/- 10 years to create a fund large enough to cover a Valdez class oil spill.
    And those are just the easily monetized costs.
    Now, what does a fee of this magnitude do the the economics of shipping low value bulk commodities like coal?

    Steve E.

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