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Cantwell Calls for Oil Spill Response Drill at Entrance to Strait of Juan de Fuca

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Location: Washington, DC


Cantwell Calls for Oil Spill Response Drill at Entrance to Strait of Juan de Fuca

Marine sanctuary vulnerable to oil spill; oil tankers and barges made 4,500 trips through Puget Sound last year

Monday, July 17,2006

WASHINGTON, DC - Monday, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called for the first major oil spill response drill at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, saying such an exercise was long overdue. In a letter to Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Cantwell requested a response drill to train for a major oil spill in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Since the sanctuary's establishment in 1994, managers have planned to conduct the much-needed emergency drill, but have yet to do so.

"Preparing for the worst is one of the best things we can do to make sure a devastating oil spill never happens," said Cantwell. "An emergency oil response drill will ensure we have the equipment and resource coordination necessary to protect the diverse marine life, productive fisheries, and scenic shorelines off Washington's northwest coast. This drill was to be one of the sanctuary's first priorities twelve years ago and I think it's high time we tested our readiness and response capabilities."

NOAA has already conducted a similar response drill in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and has plans for another in the Gulf of the Farallones off the coast of San Francisco.

"As our region has grown, Sanctuary waters, particularly at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, have seen ever increasing vessel traffic bound for Puget Sound ports and refineries," Cantwell wrote. "According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, in 2005, oil tankers and barges made around 4,500 trips through Puget Sound waters. This heavy vessel traffic and the area's rough weather, rocky coast, and remote isolation, make Washington's outer coast and the Strait of Juan de Fuca vulnerable to a large oil spill."

At a Senate field hearing in Seattle chaired by Cantwell in August 2005, several regional witnesses declared the importance of a response drill. Witnesses also voiced concern about the lack of oil response equipment and personnel assets positioned near the sanctuary to allow for a rapid response. Based on this field hearing, Cantwell included provisions in her Oil Pollution Prevention and Response Act (S.2440), introduced earlier this year, requiring a Washington state oil spill response drill as well as additional response equipment west of Port Angeles.

Specifically, Cantwell's Oil Pollution Prevention and Response Act would reduce the risk of an oil spill in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca by requiring a year-round rescue tug in Neah Bay, stationing oil response equipment along the entire Strait of Juan de Fuca, strengthening navigational measures in sensitive areas such as marine sanctuaries, and authorizing financial support for Washington's Oil Spill Advisory Council. The legislation would also increases liability caps for parties responsible for an oil spill, require more comprehensive structural inspections of single-hull oil tankers, and initiate an analysis of oil transportation in the United States to determine if additional safeguards are needed.

Puget Sound, home to the third busiest port complex in the nation, is one of the world's most complex and congested waterways, and the hundred nautical miles between Neah Bay and Cherry Point are often plagued with driving wind and rain that reduce visibility. Oil tankers and oil barges travel through Puget Sound's fragile ecosystem carrying about fifteen billion gallons of oil annually to Washington state's five refineries.

[The full text of Cantwell's letter follows below]

July 17, 2006

Dear Admiral Lautenbacher:

As a Senator from Washington state, I know well and appreciate the value of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS). The Sanctuary encompasses one of North America's most productive marine ecosystems and last undeveloped shorelines. It is host to 29 species of marine mammals as well as abundant fish, seabirds, and other marine life. The Sanctuary is also an important tourist attraction for the 3 million people that visit the Olympic Peninsula each year, and is critical to outer coast tribes, who have a federally protected right to harvest marine resources within the Sanctuary.

As our region has grown, Sanctuary waters, particularly at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, have seen ever increasing vessel traffic bound for Puget Sound ports and refineries. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, in 2005, oil tankers and barges made around 4,500 trips through Puget Sound waters. This heavy vessel traffic and the area's rough weather, rocky coast, and remote isolation, make Washington's outer coast and the Strait of Juan de Fuca vulnerable to a large oil spill.

Efforts to date, such as incident command training conferences and the annual United States-Canada equipment deployment exercise, have improved our prevention and response capabilities. But a field drill to respond to a real-time simulated incident has not yet occurred in the Sanctuary and is essential to ensure a coordinated and effective response. The recent spate of vessel oil spills around the country including the ATHOS I, an oil tanker, and the SELENDANG AYU, a cargo ship, demonstrate that we cannot sit idly by, and must be prepared to respond to a worst case scenario.

Therefore, I am writing to ask for your support in carrying out a comprehensive field drill for responding to a major oil spill at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the OCNMS, as was called for in the OCNMS 1994 Management Plan. Such a drill should involve federal and state agencies as well as the tribes, who have been excellent partners in oil prevention and response planning.

NOAA has shown leadership and has a proven track record in this area, having launched its first such drill in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in April, 2005 as part of its "Safe Sanctuaries" program. A similar exercise is planned for August, 2006 in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Given the confluence of the OCNMS with the substantial transport of oil, I believe a drill in this area is necessary.

At a field hearing in Seattle of the Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Fisheries and Coast Guard that I chaired in August, 2005, many witnesses called for such a drill. Witnesses also voiced concern about the lack of oil response equipment and personnel assets positioned near the Sanctuary to allow for a rapid response. Because of this testimony, I included provisions in S. 2440, the Oil Pollution Prevention and Response Act of 2006, requiring such a drill as well as additional response equipment west of Port Angeles.

I appreciate all that you do for our oceans, and hope that you agree that the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary merits this kind of preventative effort. I hope that you will respond favorably to my request, and will begin the planning process to ensure that such a drill can take place as soon as possible.

Sincerely,

Maria Cantwell United States Senator

http://cantwell.senate.gov/news/record.cfm?id=258728&&days=30&

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