Best of 2012: 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.
Crosscut archive image.

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.

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.

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.

A big spill in Haro Strait, for instance, could devastate the whale population; a similar spill at Cherry Point could wipe the already reduced herring, feed stock for salmon; in every instance, salmon would be under severe stress. Mitigation would be difficult if not impossible. The risk has been there for decades but the odds get worse each year as more and larger vessels join the fleet. When, or who, decides that enough is enough?

SSA Marine, which will build Gateway Pacific Terminal if it is approved, didn’t cause a serious decline in herring stock around its proposed site — that came after three oil refineries moved into the neighborhood, although scientists are cautious about assigning blame. Nor is it the only contributor to shipping traffic in the islands. But the older installations are not up for permitting, and critics have no choice but to focus on the proposed terminal.

Most of the shipping through Haro and Rosaria is headed to or from Canada, including some 394 tanker trips, according to Ecology. Some carry tar-sand crude from Alberta, which must be diluted to pass through pipelines to British Columbia. The product, bitumen, has qualities that may cause it to sink rather than float unless it is immediately controlled. This produces severe risk to fish, according to Bellingham consultant Barry Wenger, a former Ecology senior planner who fears severe damage to salmon because of increased tanker traffic through Unimak Pass, a narrow outlet in Alaska's Aleutian Islands where traffic is essentially unregulated and where there's a lack of recovery equipment and vessels. A spill in the region could mean “the end of salmon in the Northwest,” Wenger warns, because of the huge number of salmon smolt mingling with tankers in the Aleutians.

Cherry Point coal ships would add to the Unimak traffic, already about 4,500 large ships a year, according to an Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment report. The Pass, similar in width to Haro Strait, is part of the Great Circle Route that carries most of the Pacific Northwest’s commercial traffic to Asia; some California shipping also uses the pass.

Leslie Pearson, coordinator of the risk assessment project, told the Anchorage Press that, “Unimak Pass is essentially one of the pinch points for the Aleutians. That’s an area of concern because there have been other accidents in the area and near misses, historically. The major risks are associated with the remoteness of the region and the lack of access to response equipment.” Pearson also noted regarding bitumen, “Nobody knows a whole lot about it. How do you respond to it? Does it sink? Does it float? What are the risks associated with diluted bitumen?”

Worrisome though it is, Unimak Pass appears to be well outside the boundaries of any environmental review of Gateway Pacific. Bitumen, however, is already part of the traffic flow in the Salish Sea. The proposed Northern Gateway project for the tar-sand product is extremely controversial, however, including opposition from First Nations organizations in the region. A spokesman for the pipeline company told Crosscut’s Daniel Jack Chasan that the waters off Kitimat are similar to those in Scotland and Norway, and new safeguards would be made to protect shipping.

Another danger cited by Wenger and others is ballast, required for stability in large ships empty of cargo, a category that would include Asian coal ships bound for Vancouver or Cherry Point. Wenger notes that Asian ballast is from warm water and often carries invasive species that could harm Northwest fisheries. The ballast — it could be as much as 17 million gallons on a Capesize ship headed for a coal terminal in the Northwest — is exchanged at sea, at least 200 miles from shore, for cold and cleaner ocean water before it enters Puget Sound, where it can be inspected by Washington Fish and Wildlife inspectors before the dumping of the ocean ballast at the terminal.

The ocean exchange is designed to limit invasive species, but Wenger points out that Fish and Wildlife has only two full-time inspectors for thousands of ships, and foreign species can also attach themselves to a ship’s hull, which is not inspected. Ships may also avoid at-sea exchange in case of severe weather.

Allen Pleus, who heads the state’s ballast-water program, says his two inspectors can board only 5 percent of incoming ships a year but concentrate on “higher risk” vessels known from past incidents or with old equipment. Inspectors can turn a ship around and send it back to sea if samples produce problems, but Pleus admits that is a rare occurrence. The cost of turning back encourages ship owners to be careful of ballast, he notes. The Coast Guard is also involved in regulating ballast.

Ballast and stability are particular issues for bulk carriers, which make up some 40 percent of the world’s merchant fleet. The Capesize coal carriers planned for Gateway Pacific Terminal are called that because of their size: They are the largest bulk carriers, too big to transit the Panama Canal and therefore forced to use Cape Horn. Less regulated than tankers, bulk carriers had a terrible accident record in 1990-91, with 44 sinkings resulting in 248 deaths. Regulations adopted since then by international maritime agencies have produced a better record, similar to other ship classifications.

Capesize vessels are almost entirely used to ship coal and iron ore. They are also “a class of vessels most often subject to catastrophic structural failure due to the nature of their cargo, poor maintenance and the potential for leaks in the hatches,” notes Fred Felleman, a longtime activist with Ocean Advocates. “Large coal carriers can hold more than 2 million gallons of bunker fuel that was found to be even more toxic to herring than crude oil,” Felleman adds. It’s possible for a collision with the dock to break these single hulled vessels and cause a major spill, he says. Newer Capesize ships have double hulls, but many of the ships are older. In the wake of January’s cruise ship grounding in Italy, international regulators assured reporters that strong regulations were in place to regulate large ships.

San Juan citizens have support from folks in Burnaby, B.C., who have organized opposition to the Kinder Morgan expansion, which runs through the suburban city. The pipeline also has a leg extending to existing refineries at Cherry Point, but no expansion is currently planned.

Canadian First Nations have spoken against the pipeline expansion similar to what is happening with the Gateway Pacific proposal. In Washington and Oregon, tribal leaders have joined to oppose the export terminal, which they say threatens traditional fishing grounds and also interferes with Lummi historical and cultural sites on Cherry Point.

It remains to be seen whether the governmental agencies involved will agree to numerous requests for a cumulative study or Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that would pull together the five proposals for export terminals in Washington and Oregon into one coordinated study. Such a joint study would be more likely to venture into effects away from the project sites — the largest are at Cherry Point and in Longview — and consider rail and marine transportation issues. Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon has led efforts for such a study, joined by a host of local governments and various organizations.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.