The controversy over the Harper government’s cutbacks to Canadian Coast Guard resources on both west and east coasts has now become an issue in the United States Senate.
While most of the media attention last week was on Newfoundland, where there are fears not only of moving the search coordination centre from the island to Trenton, and the possible privatization of the entire search and rescue service, the cutbacks on the northern coast of British Columbia have yet to become a national story, even though the conservative government is increasing its promotion of tanker traffic from Pacific ports.
Now the issue has come to attention of Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, who is raising alarm bells in the Senate about the dangers of tanker traffic, the possibility of a spill and the probable inadequacy of the Canadian response to any major shipping accident along the coast.
Cantwell’s main concern is upgrading the ability of the United States Coast Guard to respond to such an accident, “This is a major threat to our region,” Cantwell said at hearing on July 20 of the Senate Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee. “It seems that Canada’s oil spill response plan in the Pacific Northwest is to call the Americans. …Obviously any such spill in the narrow and heavily populated waters of the Puget Sound or Strait of Juan de Fuca would cause tens of billions of dollars in damage and impact millions of my constituents. … I think it deserves a very robust oil spill response plan.”
Cantwell says she secured a commitment from Rear Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Assistant Commandant for Marine Safety, Security and Stewardship for the United States Coast Guard, to have the U.S. Coast Guard perform an extensive analysis of cross-border readiness and ability to respond to potential spills given the potentially dramatic increase in oil tanker traffic along the U.S.-Canada maritime border off Washington state.
After the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Cantwell pushed a bill through the U.S. Congress that, strengthens oil spill protections for Puget Sound and other U.S. coastal waters. The bill, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 15, 2010, includes provisions that significantly enhance oil spill response and prevention to protect valuable coastal communities and their economies.
Cantwell’s news release says
The legislation expands the oil spill response safety net from Puget Sound out to the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, ensuring that Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca have spill response teams and equipment in place. The bill further reduces ship and tanker traffic in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary; enhances spill prevention efforts on vessels transporting oil; and establishes a stronger role for tribes.
Cantwell also fought to include a provision that requires tug escorts for double-hulled tankers in Prince William Sound. Approximately 600 oil tankers and 3,000 oil barges travel through Puget Sound’s fragile ecosystem annually, carrying about 15 billion gallons of oil to Washington’s five refineries. The Strait of Juan de Fuca also has significant outbound tanker traffic originating in Vancouver and carrying Canadian oil. Prior to the 2010 Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill, American industry only had to position oil spill response equipment in Puget Sound, leaving the busy shipping lane in the Strait of Juan de Fuca unprotected.
Cantwell’s provision extended the “high volume port area” designation west to Cape Flattery. As a result, oil spill response equipment, such as booms and barriers, are now prepositioned along the Strait, supplementing the response equipment already in place in Puget Sound.
An oil spill in waters in Washington state interior waterways could be devastating. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, a major spill would have a significant impact on Washington state’s coastal economy, which employs 165,000 people and generates $10.8 billion. A spill would also severely hurt our export dependent economy because international shipping would likely be severely restricted. Washington state’s waters support a huge variety of animals and plants, including a number of endangered species, all which would be harmed by a spill.
Cantwell says she was successful in protecting a tanker ban in Puget Sound. Former Alaskan Repuiblican Senator Ted Stevens attempted to overturn the then 28-year-old protections authored by former Senator Warren Magnuson limiting oil tanker traffic in the Puget Sound. In 1977, Senator Warren Magnuson had the foresight to recognize the great risk that oil supertankers would have on the waters of Puget Sound. He put his findings into law and essentially banned supertankers in the Puget Sound by prohibiting the expansion of oil terminals in Puget Sound.
Enbridge, environmentalists agree
The inadequate Canadian Coast Guard resources in the Pacific region bring rare agreement between Enbridge which wants to build the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline and the project’s environmental opponents.
While Enbridge maintains that safety systems it plans would make a tanker accident a rare event, when officials were questioned at last September’s public meeting in Kitimat, they said Enbridge was worried about Coast Guard resources on the west coast. They said that Enbridge’s emergency planning scenarios call for it to take 72 hours for the Canadian Coast Guard to respond with its meagre equipment from Victoria and Vancouver to a tanker accident in Douglas Channel. The Enbridge team admitted under questioning from the audience that the company would urge to Canadian government to call on US Coast Guard resources from Alaska and as far away as California in the event of a major spill, confirming Sen. Cantwell’s statement to the subcommittee that Canada would “Call the Americans.”