Rescue tug full-time funding chugging toward governor's desk

Legislation to require oil companies, shipping companies, cruise lines and other operators of large ships to fund a year-round response tugboat at Neah Bay beginning in July 2010 has one more step to go before heading for the governor's signature.

"We have to get the Senate bill out of the House and get the governor to sign it, but the hardest part is done. This is real close to reality and will be great for our district," said Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, sponsor of Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1409.

Van De Wege, along with Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, and Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, represents the 24th District which includes Clallam and Jefferson counties and one third of Grays Harbor County.

ESHB 1409 requires all oil tankers, cargo vessels and large cruise ships to form a cooperative to contract for standby response tug service at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca beginning in July 2010.

It passed by a 62-35 vote on March 5.

Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5344, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Bellingham, passed March 5 by a 44-4 vote.

Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed budget extends the funding due to expire on June 30 of this year until June 30, 2010.

"A rescue tug must be a year-round feature, always ready to respond, because accidents don't follow a set schedule," Van De Wege said.

"It is fair that those who put our waterways at risk pay to mitigate that risk. For too long, the taxpayer has been on hook for it, we need a better way to fund oil spill prevention," he said.

On Monday, March 9, the Neah Bay response tugboat Hunter responded to a disabled vessel for the 42nd time since 1999.

The 541-foot grain ship

Vijitra Naree, headed to the Port of Vancouver, had to shut down its engines and began drifting south toward Duntze Rock off Cape Flattery.

The tugboat Hunter arrived about 1 p.m. and escorted the ship - which has a diesel fuel capacity of 474,222 gallons - after it restarted its engines but with reduced propulsion.

County Commissioner Steve Tharinger, D-Dungeness, said the bill's impending passage was good news.

"Obviously for Clallam County, which has so much exposed shoreline, figuring out a way to have the shippers fund the response tugboat is a good idea," he said.

County Commissioner Mike Doherty, D-Port Angeles, also welcomed the news.

"Everybody should be grateful for what they have done, both Kevins (Van De Wege and Ranker).

It's disappointing that the multipurpose tugboat originally proposed had to be sacrificed but good that shippers are paying for it, he said.

"Prince William Sound has four multipurpose tugboats on standby. Our waters are just as valuable as Alaska's," Doherty said.

In 2007, oil company lobbyists defeated a Van De Wege bill to impose a tax of 1 cent per barrel of crude oil received at a marine terminal in the state and a 4 cents per barrel oil spill administration tax to fund the tugboat.

So Van De Wege reworked the bill to broaden the scope of who pays for the year-round tugboat at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Van De Wege said besides its broader scope, this bill was successful because of pending federal legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, requiring oil companies to include a response tugboat in their oil spill contingency plans.

A state-funded rescue tugboat has been stationed at Neah Bay during the storm season since 1999, rescuing or assisting 42 oil tankers, cargo vessels and other vessels including Monday's escort of the Vijitra Naree.

But finding the money always became a political battle.

The 2008 Legislature funded a state $3.65 million Department of Ecology contract with Crowley Maritime Services to keep a tug in Neah Bay until June 30, 2009.

Brian Gawley can be reached at bgawley@

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