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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