Paul Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy
Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit two top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is Environment. This article was originally published October 24, 2012.
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.
Huge responsibility rests on a relatively small corps of ship pilots, 55 Puget Sound pilots and 100 in Pacific Pilotage Authority Canada, who guide the multi-national fleet of tankers, container ships and bulk carriers through the Sound. Their safety record is superb, about 20,000 “vessel moves” a year between the two agencies, without major incidents; in their most-recent annual reports the agencies each reported four “incidents” without major damage.
Pilots are “vigorously neutral” on the Gateway Pacific project, says Jonathan Ward of Puget Sound Pilots Association, but they expect to be heavily involved in environmental studies of the export terminal.
The heavy responsibility borne by pilots emphasizes the maxim “low probability, high risk” accidents; the chances of even minor incidents are exceedingly low, but the consequences from one serious accident could be catastrophic to the region’s fish, whales, wildlife, and, ultimately, economy.
Gateway Pacific Terminal, a project of SSA Marine of Seattle, is hostage to the larger argument. Although the impact of its coal ships would be huge, the ships’ cargo would be part of the cumulative effect of Asian demand for energy, America’s declining market for coal and oil while at the same time we produce more of both, and Canada’s seemingly bottomless supply of tar-sands oil.
Puget Sound is becoming one of the world’s major shipping lanes and vessels are continually growing larger and carrying more cargo and bunker fuel. Full or empty, every passage creates a risk to the marine environment and the livability of humans in coastal communities.
Environmentalists and others concerned about the future of the Pacific Northwest and the San Juans in particular lack good handles to approach the beast, largely because of its international nature. But Gateway Pacific must obtain approvals from federal, state, and county officials before it can open the West’s largest coal-export terminal. Extensive meetings and hearings allow organizations such as Power Past Coal and Friends of the San Juans to attack the terminal as the one part of the massive shipping issue that they can reach.
Emotions will likely spill over as the three permitting agencies — Whatcom County, the Washington Department of Ecology, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — bring a “public meeting” to Friday Harbor on Nov. 3 to take statements regarding Gateway Pacific. Just as an earlier hearing Oct. 27 in Bellingham is expected to focus on railroad traffic, the Friday Harbor meeting will delve deeply into the maritime environment.
Most environmental reviews concentrate on “mitigation” measures to alleviate the damage a project has on the land, water, and air as well as on living organisms. Destroy a wetland here, repair one there and the damage is mitigated and the project proceeds. Such mitigation is highly improbable with a major oil spill; it took years to clean up the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and today’s ships are much larger and carry more oil and bunker fuel.
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