The little tugboat that could

The legislative session wasn't generous to the environment, especially Puget Sound. But there was one victory of 'dumb doggedness': the rescue tug at Neah Bay, a key to fighting oil spills.
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The Neah Bay rescue tug

The legislative session wasn't generous to the environment, especially Puget Sound. But there was one victory of 'dumb doggedness': the rescue tug at Neah Bay, a key to fighting oil spills.

All over the state, young teachers are getting ready to clear out their desks, and people who have relied on the state's Basic Health plan are about to get priced out of their plan — all victims of Washington's budget crisis. When we're laying off teachers and throwing people off basic health care; so how much new money do you think we're going to spend on fish? Right. The 2009 legislature didn't pour a lot of new money into Puget Sound.

One can, however, see the glass as not quite empty: The Puget Sound Partnership says in a press release: 'ꀜDespite facing an unprecedented budget deficit, the Legislature demonstrated stalwart support for the protection and restoration of Puget Sound during the 2009 regular session. . . . 'It is gratifying to know that even under such dire economic circumstances, Puget Sound recovery remains a top priority of the Legislature,'ꀝ'said David Dicks, the Puget Sound Partnership'ꀙs executive director.'ꀝ

A lot of the 2009 Legislature's accomplishments boil down to continued funding for programs already under way. (In the current economy, business-as-usual is nothing to scoff at, however.) But the Legislature did come up with some new money. Compared to the hefty sums that have been discussed as necessary — $8 billion was the figure thrown around two years ago, when the current save-the-Sound campaign kicked off — they represent a drop in the bucket. Still, the Partnership says it's happy about $3.4 million in new state money for habitat, and $22.2 million, most of it from the federal government, for Salmon Recovery Funding Board grants to protect and restore salmon habitat. People for Puget Sound says it's happy about getting money to help municipalities update shoreline master plans that in many cases date from the 1970s. As the organization's lobbyist, Bruce Wishart, says, those older plans 'ꀜdon't reflect current science and don't reflect current development pressures.'ꀝ

But — behind the positive facade — neither group ignores the empty portion of the glass. 'ꀜGood things did happen,'ꀝ wrote People for Puget Sound executive director Kathy Fletcher. 'ꀜBut the bottom line is clear: Without a long-term source of funding and tough, enforced regulations, Puget Sound will die."

The Legislature failed miserably to provide the funding and, if anything, it slid backward on enforcement. Virtually all the new money represents capital rather than operating funds. Resource agencies' operating budgets have been slashed. The agencies will have fewer people monitoring projects to make sure they work, fewer people enforcing the law. It will be harder to separate effective programs from hollow promises — and hollowness will become more likely.

The Partnership's proposal for a 12-county Puget Sound improvement district (the basis for a new source of taxes) went nowhere. The Partnership was focusing on the right issues, says John Lombard, author of Saving Puget Sound, who has been critical of much save-the-Sound posturing. 'ꀜI was very happy to see that,'ꀝ Lombard adds. 'ꀜI thought it was absolutely right.'ꀝ

'ꀜYou can say that a budget crisis is not the right environment" for establishing yet another taxing body, Lombard concedes, 'ꀜbut that's the point of a dedicated revenue source'ꀝ — making sure the Sound doesn't have to compete with schools or health care.

The Partnership didn't have a lot of help. Much of the environmental community is still stuck in an outdated mode of thinking, he says: stop pollutants coming out of the pipes, and make sure the polluter pays. We should focus more on the long-term threats of population growth and climate change, Lombard argues. Audiences to which he speaks seem to grasp that; the environmental community doesn't. 'ꀜThere isn't anyone out there who's willing to take these issues as their own,'ꀝ he says.

There's plenty to argue about, but virtually everyone seems glad that the Legislature has finally come up with permanent funding for a rescue tug at Neah Bay. The rescue tug law is landmark legislation, although looking at the long-term needs of Puget Sound, authorizing a tugboat is kind of like putting a sprinkler system into a house with a crumbling foundation. If a fire breaks out, you'll be glad you have it, but it won't stop the slow process of deterioration. Still, that tug is arguably the environmental highlight of the session. On its web site, People for Puget Sound hails a 'ꀜVictory on Permanent Rescue Tug at Neah Bay.'ꀝ The 'ꀜprogressive'ꀝ political group Fuse has given the 2009 legislature a D on its environmental performance but an A on the rescue tug legislation.

There's nothing new about the tug itself; the novelty is assured funding. A rescue vessel has been stationed at Neah Bay for the past decade. But it has always had a hand-to-mouth existence. In 1999, Congressman Norm Dicks got the Navy to pay for its first year. Then, the next year, the Makah tribe used money awarded as damages in the Tenyo Maru spill — when a Japanese fish processor hit in the fog by a Chinese freighter spilled 100,000 gallons of fuel — to help the state fund it for another year. (The Justice Department had to approve using Tenyo Maru damages for prevention, rather than restoration. Environmental actvist Fred Felleman, who has worked extensively with the Makahs, likes to call the concept 'ꀜprestoration.'ꀝ) The state has paid ever since, but funding has been year-to-year, and, until this year, only enough to keep a tug there over the winter. Felleman describes the funding effort as a long series of bake sales.

Under the new law, the state will pay $3.6 million to keep the tug on duty for another full year. Then, the maritime industry — operators of all tankers, oil barges, freighters, and passenger vessels passing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, — will have to come up with the money. The ocean shippers have until December 1 to figure out how to do that. "If they can't,, the Legislature will do it for them, and probably none of them will be happy," said the legislation's senate sponsor, Kevin Ranker, according to a story by Robert McClure in

No one pretends that the rescue tug law would have passed if the state hadn't been able to send the bills to someone else. 'ꀜI don't think there was much of a chance we could have done that this year with public funding,'ꀝ Bruce Wishart says. Felleman agrees that the third-party funding was a crucial 'ꀜa pot-sweetener.'ꀝ Because ocean shippers will have to pay, he says, the new law represents 'ꀜone of the few environmental regulations that actually saves the state money.'ꀝ

The Makah tribe, which wants to protect its treaty fishing rights in the Strait and coast, started talking about a tug in 1995, when Congress lifted the ban on exporting North Slope oil, explains Chad Bowechop, manager of the Makah Office of Marine Affairs. A guarantee that North Slope oil would be used only in the U.S. had been a pre-condition for Congress approving construction of a Trans Alaska Pipeline. (As it was, the measure passed only because Vice President Spiro T. Agnew broke a Senate tie, shortly before resigning amid a bribery scandal.) U.S.-flagged tankers had carried Alaskan oil into Puget Sound. The changed law on North Slope exports raised the specter of oil entering the Sound on crumbling foreign-flagged ships. What would happen if a big tanker ran into trouble? Senator Patty Murray tried unsuccessfully to get a rescue tug into the North Slope law.

Felleman and the Makahs started working on the issue in the late 1990s, as did People for Puget Sound. Congress wouldn't make the federal government, the oil industry, or the shipping industry pay for a tug. Sen. Murray wasn't the only one who tried and failed. Sen. Maria Cantwell introduced legislation that went nowhere, too.That has left it up to the state, but environmental activists and regulators worried for years that the state couldn't act, because the federal government might preeempt the field. (This wasn't just paranoia. In 2000, the U.S.Supreme Court threw out Washington spill prevention rules that dealt, among other things, with the training and English proficiency of tanker crews, because the federal government had already preempted much of the field.) A Coast Guard rule issued on the last day of 2008 for oil-carrying vessels' salvage and marine firefighting plans got rid of that argument. The rule defines 'ꀜsalvage'ꀝ as 'ꀜany act undertaken to assist a vessel in potential or actual danger, to prevent loss of life, damage or destruction of the vessel and release of its contents into the marine environment.'ꀝ And it says unequivocally 'ꀜwe have determined that these regulations will not interfere with or preempt existing State regulations on the same subject.'ꀝ

The language was 'ꀜnot [inserted] by accident,'ꀝ Felleman says. He and the Makahs lobbied Sen. Cantwell's office for words to that effect. Then, Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's subcommittee on oceans, atmosphere, fisheries and Coast Guard, 'ꀜleaned on the Coast Guard on our behalf.'ꀝ

He doesn't suggest that the new Coast Guard rule was an environmental triumph. Instead, he describes it as the Bush administration's 'ꀜlast gift to the oil industry.'ꀝ It calls only for planning; it does not require drills; and it makes clear that shippers won't be held responsible for actual performance. The rule was issued on the very last day of 2008. Nevertheless, the new rule opened 'ꀜa clear legal path'ꀝ around the threat of preemption, Felleman says.

Once he saw the language in the rule, Felleman and Bowechop started drafting a rough version of the bill. Felleman took it to his own legislator, State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson. She wouldn't sponsor the bill, but she 'ꀜgot the ball rolling,'ꀝ Felleman says. Once that happened, Wishart 'ꀜdid the lion's share' of the work getting sponsors and shepherding the bill through the Legislature day-to-day. (This was hardly a new role. 'ꀜBruce was involved in the annual bake sale for that tug'ꀝ as the Legislature scraped money together, year after year.) The Department of Ecology supported the legislation, as did the oil industry, which saw a chance to spread the cost over the whole shipping industry.

Bowechop says that the tug law represents both the culmination of a long struggle and the beginning of a new effort to make Neah Bay a center for effective spill response. He hopes that eventually tribal members will be trained to crew the tug. And he talks about using the tribal fishing fleet as a key part of the oil spill response system — as the local fishing fleet is already used in Prince William Sound. ('ꀜWe don't have to re-create the wheel,'ꀝ Bowechop says.)

Although there's still a long way to go, the Makahs have come a long way already. Felleman 'ꀜcould see the light at the end of the tunnel,'ꀝ Bowechop says. 'ꀜHe's worked with us for many years, and for some of those years, we couldn't afford to pay him.'ꀝ Felleman himself takes an ironic view of the long struggle that led up to this year's legislation. 'ꀜIt wasn't dumb luck,'ꀝ he says. 'ꀜIt was dumb doggedness'ꀝ


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.