Orcas and Oil Don’t Mix
Wednesday, February 21, 2018
The Pacific Northwest is truly the best place in the world to live. We are lucky to live in such a beautiful corner of the world, where both the Cascades and the San Juan Islands are in reach. When we are on the water, either harvesting or for recreation, we can get a better understanding of how special this place is.
Coming from a fishing family, when I am on the water in the Salish Sea, I can’t help but think of how my family has traveled and relied on the water since time immemorial. Also, I can’t help but hope that this same opportunity exists for the generations of the future.
Every day, crude oil vessels move around the San Juan Islands through narrow passageways that are home to 76 surviving Southern Resident Orcas. The continued risk of an oil spill threatens the se waterways that are the lifeblood of our way of life and our economies.
Our state’s Oil Spills program is drastically underfunded by millions, and unequipped to address the present risks. That’s why I’m urging Washington’s legislature to pass the Oil Spill Prevention Act (OSPA) , which would close the funding gap and require better planning and coordination between governments for spill response and prevention.
In recent years, we’ve seen major changes in oil transportation, with far greater volumes shipped on barges over greater distances, and ships being loaded with crude oil for export. There have been dramatic increases in oil imported by pipeline and by rail in the last five years. Yet through a loophole, a barrel tax that funds spill prevention and response does not apply to oil imported by pipeline.
What’s more, Canada is exporting increasing amounts of “heavy crude,” tar sands bitumen from Alberta, and has proposed to multiply tar sands traffic sevenfold with Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to load ships in Burnaby, B.C.
Unlike conventional oil, tar sands bitumen sinks in water. And though it is diluted so as to flow through the pipeline, it can create a spill where some of the toxic materials float and others sink. If a spill were to happen now, from a pipeline crossing the Nooksack River, or a barge in Fidalgo Bay, emergency responders would not know how to contain it.
Our state has no response plan to deal with heavy oil spills. O SPA would require the state to actively study and develop contingency plans for addressing a tar sands spill. This urgently needs to happen.
A single spill is unacceptable, and we can’t afford it. A single spill would devastate the ecosystem irrevocably, and harm thousands of families that depend on fishing. The best response to an oil spill is preventing one in the first place. But as long as crude oil is carried through our waters, we must be ready to respond rapidly.
Being ready for a spill means having containment equipment staged and ready to go, a clear response plan for each watershed, and plenty of well-trained responders available.
Though governmental jurisdiction of the Salish Sea is divided, oil spills don’t stop at the border. We need better transboundary coordination for response planning between agencies of Washington, British Columbia, federal and local governments. OSPA would convene a crossboundary summit for decision makers, emergency responders, and others to coordinate on developing threats and how to jointly respond to a catastrophic oil spill.
I urge our state legislators to take swift action and support the strongest provisions in OSPA to protect our livelihoods in the Salish Sea. We can afford to prevent and be prepared for an oil spill. Our fishers, shellfish industry, children, and way of life cannot afford the consequences of an oil spill in our Salish Sea.
I hope you will join me today in calling on our elected representatives in Olympia to pass the Oil Spill Prevention Act.
Timothy Ballew II is a former chairman of Lummi Nation. He currently serves on Whatcom County Council.