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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Other Papers Say: Confront risk of oil in Salish Sea

By The Seattle Times
Published: June 24, 2024, 6:01am

The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:

The best oil spill response is doing everything possible to ensure one never happens in the first place. The environmental consequences are severe — and often permanent. Preventing another Exxon Valdez-like disaster, such as that which devastated hundreds of miles of Alaska’s coastline in 1989, must remain a top priority in local waters.

This spring, with the Canadian government’s completion of the $34 billion Trans Mountain Pipeline system, petroleum — diluted bitumen — began flowing from Alberta’s oil sands to a terminal in Burnaby, B.C.

The May 22 departure of the vessel Dubai Angel, carrying 550,000 barrels of crude oil to China, marked a sobering new risk for the Pacific Northwest. Up to 34 gigantic tankers each month will transit the Haro and Juan de Fuca straits carrying the bitumen, an increase from just five per month.

Those tankers will sail past the San Juan Islands and Olympic Peninsula on their voyages to the Pacific Ocean. Their increasing frequency has consequences for the ecology and economy of Washington, and those of its Indigenous tribes.

Meanwhile, a separate container port expansion project at Roberts Bank in B.C., planned by the local port authority, calls for an additional 2.4 million containers per year to be exported out of Vancouver. If built, that also will add to shipping traffic in the straits that are part of the Salish Sea.

Policymakers have good reason for concern given recent, high-profile incidents. Locally, a Coast Guard investigation is ongoing into how a container barge got loose and struck Pier 66 in Elliott Bay in November. That report should inform a response to the increase of vessel traffic in the Salish Sea.

Canada’s newest pipeline and its increased tanker transits do come with additional tug boats that escort the ships from Vancouver to the Pacific, noted Capt. Mike Moore, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.

He added that the monitoring of vessel traffic in a longtime cooperative arrangement by the Canadian and U.S. coast guards has boosted safety in local waters. But he cautions against resting on previously implemented measures when the risk environment evolves: “The word complacent cannot be in our vocabulary.”

Vessel sizes, which have ballooned in recent decades, remain a concern here and elsewhere. Moore notes that the largest container ships, which can carry 24,000 20-foot equivalent units, would stretch a path of trucks off-loaded at Seattle from here to a spot 600-plus miles beyond Boise, Idaho.

The changing risks — more and bigger ships carrying a greater cargo — require decision-makers, to respond with further mitigation measures to counter those risks. Specific policies and actions can be worked out. Important now is that state and federal leaders consider meaningful solutions that continue to safeguard an already ecologically fragile Salish Sea.