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Protection in a fragile Environment

MAKAH, Wash. – The Makah Nation’s land is considered by some to be one of the most beautiful places in the continental United States. It’s within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. It’s located at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, gateway to an inland sea and Puget Sound.

Gray whales are common sights, as are killer whales and 27 other species of marine mammals, and endangered runs of salmon pass through.

The Makah reservation overlooks a perilous area for ships, and Makah officials have long known how precarious the health of the marine environment is. It was onto Makah’s shores in 1991 that 100,000 gallons of oil washed after the collision of a Chinese freighter and a Japanese fish processing ship, the Tenyo Maru, 23 miles northwest of Cape Flattery.

The spill fouled beaches and killed wildlife. Scientists estimate that seven to 11 percent of the marbled murrelet population along Washington’s outer coast were killed in the oil spill, according to Environment News Service.

In the wake of the Tenyo Maru spill, Makah established an Office of Marine Affairs and worked with state and federal officials to develop a $5.2 million habitat restoration plan to offset damages to fish and wildlife populations. The plan set aside 900 acres of coastal forest nesting habitat for marbled murrelets.

But the threat of another spill was not abated. Since 1999, more than 40 ships have been in danger of grounding and spilling fuel and oil that could harm this sensitive environment.

“This is the crossroads of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Pacific, a place where weather can be wild, with unbelievably fierce storms, huge waves and ferocious winds,” Makah Chairman Michael Lawrence said. “Yet it’s where hundreds of oil tankers and thousands of cargo and other vessels enter into our waters every year.”

Now, thanks to a new law approved by the state Legislature, this marine environment has another layer of protection.

One of the laws approved this session established a permanent funding source for an emergency response tug to be stationed at Neah Bay. Senate Bill 5344 was approved 44-4 and was approved by the House 74-23.

“This is a big step in the right direction to provide funding for the Neah Bay response tug from the organizations that pose the risk instead of the taxpayers,” said bill sponsor Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Islands.

“I appreciate the collaboration of the Legislature, Department of Ecology, the Puget Sound Partnership, Western States Petroleum Association, maritime industry and numerous environmental organizations in helping move this important legislation forward.”

Lawrence, a long-time advocate for a year-round emergency response tug, said the passage of the bill was the culmination of much hard work.

“I think that any time we can take part in protecting our resources, it’s a good day for us, for our children and future generations. This has always been an effort of ours. Whether in Washington, D.C. or the state, funding for a year-round tug has always been on our list.”

Since its inception, the Neah Bay emergency response tug has assisted 42 commercial vessels that lost rudder control or propulsion or otherwise found themselves in situations where they were in danger of running aground.

The emergency response tug is privately owned and operated, provided under contract with either Crowley Maritime or Foss Maritime. The tug service was funded on a part-time basis by state and federal programs from 1999 to 2008, when the state began providing funding for full-time year-round service. But with Washington state in a budget crisis, Ranker worked with cargo, cruise and oil industries to form a cooperative to fund the response tug service.

The tug is expected to cost $3.5 million to $3.7 million a year.

Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, said an oil spill would be detrimental to “valuable economic, environmental and cultural resources” and said the new law “correctly delegates payment for the potential (emergency response) services to those who would use them, not taxpayers.”

Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said the new law “puts the payment for the tug where it belongs – in the laps of industry. Industry brings in the tankers, freighters and barges from all over the world onto our waters. As long as that happens, they need to pay their fair share of the cost for prevention.”

The tug has also provided new career opportunities in Neah Bay, which has about 800 residents and an economy sustained mostly by fishing and tourism (the U.S. Coast Guard also maintains a base here).

Lawrence said two Makah tribal members have served as response tug crew. And Makah is starting a program to get more tribal members licensed to crew on tugs.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at rmwalker@rockisland.com.

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