Ship Shape: Oil Spill Prevention Victory

Ship Shape: Oil Spill Prevention Victory

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We recently passed the the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  And what is there to remember from such an awful environmental disaster?  Maybe the thousands of gallons of crude oil still polluting Alaska, the almost assured extinction of an orca pod, the collapse of the Prince William Sound herring stock, or the paltry amount Alaskan fishermen were finally paid by Exxon, which will never make up for ruined lives and ruined livelihoods. 

However, we can celebrate the fact that our government has forced the shipping industry to take at least some precautionary measures to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.  Nationally, the year after Exxon’s indelible moment in Prince William Sound, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90).  The bill’s primary provision was to require oil tankers and barges to be double hulled by 2015.  Two recent incidents in the Gulf of Mexico – a ship grounding in the Houston Ship Canal and the SKS Satilla’s collision with a submerged oil rig – did not result in spills because of OPA 90’s double hull tanker provision. 

This week we achieved yet another victory in preventing an Exxon Valdez-like tragedy from happening in Puget Sound.  After 20 years of effort by Friends of the Earth’s Pacific Northwest representative, Fred Felleman, and with the support of other environmental groups and tribal governments, Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire signed State legislation this week requiring all commercial vessels over 300 gross tons calling on Juan de Fuca Strait to contract with an emergency response tug in Neah Bay. 

Since 1999 public funds have kept the Neah Bay tug operating during the winter and it has aided 42 ships, preventing numerous, disastrous oil spills and other emergencies. With the Governor’s signature, the responsibility now appropriately shifts to the shipping industry to pay for the tug to operate year-round in one of the busiest commercial shipping lanes on the West Coast.