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Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Oil spill rescue rule keeps sinking

Planning drags on for 17 years after Valdez


After the Exxon Valdez gushed 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Congress vowed that the next time a tanker got into trouble in U.S. waters, two things would happen: Help would arrive soon to prevent spills. And if oil did get loose, it could be cleaned up.

A lot has been done to assure that oil-spill cleanups can be launched. But the idea of ensuring that a rescue ship will show up to keep spills from happening in the first place still has not been made into a rule — more than 17 years after the Valdez disaster.

And now the Coast Guard has booted its deadline for taking action — for the fifth time. The agency’s excuse? Its heavy workload guarding against terrorism in the post-9/11 era. The new deadline: February 2009, just weeks shy of the Valdez spill’s 20th anniversary.

“You’ve got 17 years of a tortured history on this,” said Jennifer Carpenter, who started working for the American Waterways Operators lobby just days before Congress passed the Valdez-inspired Oil Pollution Act of 1990. “If you had asked me then if we were still going to be implementing the law in 17 years, I’d have said you were crazy.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has fought hard against oil spills, but she hasn’t had much to say about this delayed requirement. Now, though, because of the Democratic takeover in Congress, she’s in a position to do something about it. She’s chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard.

At issue is the Coast Guard’s long-proposed rule: If a ship loses its steering or power or has a fire or runs aground — all of which have happened in the Pacific Northwest — the ship’s owners must make arrangements to get a tugboat or other rescue ship on the scene within 24 hours.

Sounds simple, right? But it has resulted in endless meetings, countless reams of paperwork and at least one lawsuit.

The Coast Guard in 1993 adopted what are known as the “salvage and firefighting” rules required by the Oil Pollution Act. They simply require that a ship’s owners be able to point out marine-rescue firms, known as salvage firms, or salvors, that operate in areas where their ships sail.

Critics say it amounts to little more than checking the phone book.

“They did a rule making that has no enforceability,” said Fred Felleman, the Northwest representative of the environmental group Ocean Advocates, who was involved in a suit to move the rules along. “It’s a complete shell game.”

After many complaints, the Coast Guard came up with a new proposal in 2002. It would have required a shipping company to have a contract or similar agreement with a salvage company. The salvors would have to be capable of providing a variety of services, including towing a disabled ship, pumping off oil before it could spill, fighting fires and fixing a damaged hull.

In addition, the plan would have tightened the proposed 24-hour deadline for help to arrive, specifying that a tug should arrive within 12 hours if a stricken vessel is within 12 miles of shore and within 18 hours if it is farther out.

But oil-industry representatives objected, calling the environmental protection benefits “modest and speculative.”

“It’s a hodgepodge of very prescriptive time frames,” said Carpenter, of the American Waterways Operators, which speaks on behalf of barge and tug operators involved in oil transport.

Meanwhile, the salvage industry — which unloaded well over 90 percent of the Exxon Valdez’s oil before it could escape the punctured ship — has watched the delayed rule making in frustration for 17 years.

About 250 companies are cited by shipping companies as ready to perform salvage, even though only about 25 bona-fide salvage companies exist in the entire country, said Dick Fredricks, executive director of the American Salvage Association, which represents salvage companies.

In part because salvors aren’t held to licensing standards, they have had trouble winning legal immunity for actions they take to help a stricken ship — legal protection that is granted to those who clean up oil if it does spill.

His group urged the Coast Guard to finally pass a rule, saying, “Without these regulations and the Coast Guard’s diligent enforcement of them, U.S. salvage capability will continue to decline.” That was five years ago.

The very fact that the rule making has dragged on for so long has helped delay it further. By the time the 2002 proposal was ready, it was attacked by the oil and shipping industries because an environmental impact statement that accompanied it was 10 years out of date. Doing another environmental report took until January 2006. The shipping and oil industries attacked that report, too.

In November, the Coast Guard said the rule was in “final review” at headquarters and would be adopted by February 2007. But on Feb. 9, three days before the deadline, the agency said it was again postponing action. The new deadline is Feb. 12, 2009.

Coast Guard spokesman Steve Blando referred inquiries to Lt. Cmdr. Reed Kohberger. Kohberger did not respond to several e-mail and phone requests for comment. The to-and-fro over the rules may not be over. Now the American Petroleum Institute, representing the oil industry, wants the rescue rules for oil carriers to “dovetail” with those for other vessels, said Kendra Martin, the lobby’s director of maritime affairs.

“Oil spills don’t just come from oil tankers,” Martin said.

Martin said of the long-delayed rules, “We’ve all worked hard to get these to a place where they’re very solid.”

And as for her conversations with Coast Guard officials, she said, “They’ve told us this is a priority.”

That’s not the way it looks to the Makah Indian tribe. It’s the beaches and offshore waters from Neah Bay to the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula that the Makah use that would be most at risk if a ship were to get in trouble as it approached Washington from the sea.

Said Chad Bowechop, ocean policy adviser to the Makah Tribal Council, “Our way of life is threatened by a catastrophic oil spill.”

P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or [email protected]. and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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