Thursday, June 10, 2010

Neah Bay emergency response tug funding: Ecology expects seamless transition

By Kelli Gustaf, Spill Preparedness Planner

News of the devastating impacts surrounding the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has me thinking about oil spill preparedness in Washington State. For the past year, the maritime industry has been diligently working on a plan to fund a year-round emergency response towing vessel stationed at Neah Bay, Washington.

I’m happy to share that in less than a month, the private, state-regulated maritime industry in our state will take over the funding to keep an Emergency Response Towing Vessel (ERTV) permanently stationed at Neah Bay. The transition from public funding to the private sector starts Thursday, July 1, 2010.

Important safety net

The ERTV is a critical safety net to keep disabled ships from running aground and spilling oil in the western Strait of Juan de Fuca and Washington’s outer coast. There are few, if any, emergency response assets that can be quickly called on to assist vessels in distress in our waters west of Port Angeles – except for the Neah Bay tug.

Here’s what it means for the public:
  • A high-capability ocean-going tug will be permanently stationed at Neah Bay year round to assist oil tankers and large cargo and passenger vessels that lose propulsion or maneuverability.
  • Instead of taxpayers shouldering the burden of funding a tug, the responsibility will be picked up by our maritime industry, which poses the greatest risk of an oil spill.
  • There will be no break in service. This means potential spill impacts to environmental, economic, and cultural resources including tribal and coastal communities, the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Olympic National Park, national wildlife refuges, and critical fish and shellfish habitat areas in the western Strait of Juan de Fuca and our outer coast will be minimized.
  • The Department of Ecology and the U.S. Coast Guard can still deploy the industry funded tug as necessary to support vessel emergencies.

Some tug history

The Washington State Legislature has provided funding to Ecology to station an emergency tug at Neah Bay since 1999. At first, there was only enough funding to keep a tug at Neah Bay during the winter season when the weather was the most treacherous. Beginning July 1, 2008, the Legislature provided $3.6 million – enough funding for a full year of service for the first time. The contract was extended for another full year from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2010.

Tug proves its mettle

The tug now is completing the last days of its public contract with Ecology. During the last 10 years a tug has been stationed at Neah Bay, and has stood by or assisted 45 ships either completely disabled or with reduced maneuvering ability. During 11 responses, a tug attached a tow line to take physical control of the disabled vessel to safely tow it to a harbor for repairs. We estimate the Neah Bay tug has helped prevent several million gallons of oil from being spilled in some of our most sensitive waters. Ecology developed a map showing where these responses have been made during the past decade.

Getting ready for the transition

When Governor Chris Gregoire signed Senate Bill 5344 on March 24, 2009 – also the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill – the law required industry to file progress reports in October and December 2009 that addressed methods for assessing costs, limitations and developing a response system for deploying the tug. These reports were submitted.

By August 2010, the state-regulated maritime industry was also required to incorporate the Neah Bay tug into their oil spill contingency plans with Ecology detailing the emergency response tug system, tug notification process, a commitment to include the emergency response tug in oil spill response drills, and to report to Ecology whenever the tug is deployed. We recently provided industry with key guidance to update their contingency plans.

Maritime industry agree how to fund private tug

Through negotiations, industry worked to identify a mechanism for funding the tug. Under the current contract the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents companies that ship oil in bulk, will pay 57% of the tug costs while the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents cargo shipping companies, will pay 43%.

Ecology can penalize vessels that violate their contingency plans

While we can penalize state-regulated vessels if they operate in our waters without an approved contingency plan or violate the provisions of their existing plan, we anticipate the transition from a publicly-funded tug to a private one at Neah Bay will go seamlessly.

As we get new information, we’ll keep you posted. And if you have thoughts about the benefits or drawbacks to an industry-funded tug – or just general questions, please let me know at

For more information, see Ecology's Spills Program and Response Tug webpages.

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