January 28, 2022
Anticipated Salish Sea vessel traffic increases spark calls for more environmental protections
Clifford Heberden

Ready to assist large vessels transiting the Strait of Juan de Fuca and outer coast, the tug Barbara Foss sits dockside at Neah Bay. As vessel traffic is expected to increase in the region, some are calling for additional safeguards against associated risks — such as devastating oil spills. (Image: Washington Department of Ecology)

January 28, 2022
Anticipated Salish Sea vessel traffic increases spark calls for more environmental protections
Clifford Heberden

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Fossil fuel and terminal expansion projects up and down the Salish Sea are estimated to boost annual shipping vessel traffic by at least 25% in the near future. The projected increase has raised concern about escalation of risks to the environment, from vessel collisions to devastating oil or fuel spills and other impacts.

Policy makers, activists, tribal leaders and vessel traffic managers are including increased transboundary cooperation as well as additional rescue tug stationing on their lists of ways to protect the region’s shared waterways, as they plan for the future.

In their 2021 Salish Sea Vessel Traffic Projections, the environmental nonprofit Friends of the San Juans reported there were 10,480 commercial oceangoing vessel transits throughout the Salish Sea in 2020. 

If the 22 proposed terminal and fossil fuel infrastructure expansion projects in the region are completed, they estimate annual vessel traffic could reach at least 13,000 annually. 

Lovel Pratt, marine protection and policy director for FSJ, said there needs to be a transboundary analysis and process that can respond to all of the impacts of vessel traffic. 

“It’s really important that all of us who live in the Salish Sea have a comprehensive understanding of all the projects that are either proposed, in permitting process or in construction that would increase vessel traffic,” she said. 

Pratt said cumulative impacts of all this increase in vessel traffic include accident, fire, hazardous material and oil spill risks, but also noise, ship strike and ship presence impacts on the marine ecosystem including Southern Resident orcas.

Brian Kirk, prevention section manager for the state Department of Ecology, said Canada is showing a good example for approaching this issue through the Oceans Protection Plan.

“Canada has launched an initiative that looks at the cumulative impacts of marine shipping and they’re co-leading that work with First Nations in Canada,” Kirk said. “I’m very impressed with the work that they’re doing; I would love to see a mechanism within Washington for examining the cumulative impacts of marine shipping.”

Policy check

Pratt said the science is still out on what a sustainable level of vessel traffic would look like for the Salish Sea. 

“It’s really critical that we are able to answer that question so that we don’t cause irreparable harm to the ecosystem,” she said. 

The 12 projects identified by FSJ as drivers of increased vessel traffic are all Canadian. There are 10 Washington projects, some of which have been approved without providing data about potential increased traffic

Projections for vessel traffic in the Salish Sea call for a 25% uptick, advises a study presented by the Friends of the San Juans.

Rein Attemann, Puget Sound campaign manager for the Washington Environmental Council, said these expansions may render current policies inadequate. 

According to Ecology, the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process identifies and analyzes environmental impacts associated with governmental decisions related to issuing permits for private projects.

“It brings the question of whether [SEPA] needs to be updated and incorporate vessel traffic as a cumulative impact and that it gets addressed, both for oil spill issues as well as impacts to endangered and threatened species like the Southern Resident killer whales,” Attemann said.

Big projects … increased risks

From the Canadian projects that have shared data, 863 of those projected transits would be transporting crude oil, coal and liquefied gas. Paul Blomerus is executive director of Clear Seas, a Canadian nonprofit research center.

“There are two main things happening,” Blomerus said. “The expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which is resulting in an increase in tanker traffic, and then further out in the future, there is the Roberts Bank Terminal 2container terminal that should be a big increase in container ship traffic.” [Read more: “Proposed Roberts Bank terminal will add cargo capacity — but at what cost to Salish Sea,” Salish Current, August 25, 2020]

The Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project is expected to be in service by the end of the year. It will add 609 miles of pipeline to the region and will include three new berths for tankers to collect oil from the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, B.C.

This project could increase the number of tankers loaded there to 408 vessels annually; according to the Trans Mountain Corporation, a 14% increase in the current traffic in the Port of Vancouver.

The Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project is still awaiting approval. It would add three new berths in Delta, B.C., and greatly expand the Port of Vancouver’s capacity for trade.

Blomerus said these projects escalate the risk of accidents. “The most pressing problem is congestion,” Blomerus said. “The number of ships is a risk indicator but the length of time that they spend either at anchor or loitering, waiting for their berth, increases the risk of potential collision or grounding.”

Traffic management

Last August, Transport Canada and the Port of Vancouver launched an initiative, analogous to air traffic control, to facilitate traffic management and flow of goods through ports and the region. Blomerus said it shouldn’t stop there. He would like to see the project extended into Washington state, extending to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. 

Kirk said that while that project is still in its early stages, Ecology has had regular meetings and updates from Transport Canada and other initiatives in Canada.

“We’re certainly very interested in the active vessel management that the Port of Vancouver and Transport Canada are undertaking, I’m eager to learn more about it and then implement something similar here in Washington,” Kirk said. “It would be a little bit different just because of the way that the ports work here and the way that the authorities are a little bit different between, say, Transport Canada and the US Coast Guard; it’s an intriguing idea.”

Wanted: one more rescue tug

On Jan. 26, San Juan County Council and the Islands Trust Council sent a letter requesting that the Canadian government “facilitate the repositioning of one of Canada’s multi-mission [emergency rescue tugs] to Sidney, B.C., to extend the protections afforded by these vessels to the inland shipping corridor to Vancouver.”

With the presence of only one emergency response tug in Washington, in Neah Bay, organizations are encouraging this change to be made for better emergency response in the central Salish Sea.

“There really is a need for an additional asset,” Pratt said.

Last year, San Juan County contracted for a study to analyze the effectiveness of emergency response towing vessel positioning for distress calls between Haro Strait and Boundary Pass. The modeling in the study identified the most impactful locations for response to be in Roche Harbor and in Sidney. Ecology is also studying the matter, with results scheduled for 2023. 

Ships share waterways in the Salish Sea with smaller boats as well as orca whales and other resident creatures. (Photo courtesy Monika Wieland Shields)

“They demonstrated that positioning an emergency response towing vessel in either of these locations would result in about an 80% effectiveness in responding to vessels in distress,” Pratt said. [Read more: Rescue tug stationed in islands is best bet to avoid oil spills in San Juan – Gulf waters, study says,” Salish CurrentMarch 12, 2021]

Another study, prepared for San Juan County’s Environmental Resources Division and Marine Resources Committee, estimated this investment would range from $4.8 to $6 million, but would represent an important mitigation measure to prevent extensive environmental damage from an oil spill in the Straits — saving hundreds of millions in clean-up efforts.

The funding for this project has yet to be determined. Canadian tugs are publicly funded publicly and the rescue tug in Neah Bay is paid for by the private sector.

Tanker escorts in place

Blomerus said tankers in Canadian waters have organized escort tug systems that guide them from the ports, through the Straits and into the ocean and recently implemented double-hull requirements that ensure greater safety from oil spills.

The Canadian Pacific Pilotage Authority requires loaded tankers transiting through Boundary Pass and Haro Strait to have large tug escorts capable of steering and stopping ships in case of emergencies. Requirements stipulate that a single large tug to be tethered to the vessel from East Point on Saturna Island until Race Rocks, just off Victoria.

From there, the tug is untethered and tankers are monitored by vessel traffic services through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In case of an emergency, the tug in Neah Bay is in position to respond to a distress call .

Study modeling shows that the Neah Bay tug could respond to vessels in Boundary Pass in an average of 8.7 hours and 6.4 hours for the southern part of Haro Strait.

Unescorted carriers

Because of this system in place for tankers, Blomerus said the issue lies with the many more general cargo ships. “An oil tanker worth of fuel would be a huge environmental catastrophe,” Blomerus said. “But the likelihood is much lower because there aren’t as many oil tankers and because all tankers have far more safety and disaster prevention systems.”

“The vessels that are most prone to needing assistance from those towing vessels are bulk carriers, container ships and vehicle carriers,” Blomerus said.

Container and cargo ships aren’t required to have tug escorts and these ships carry significant amounts of propulsion fuel, noted Pratt; in addition, Blomerus pointed out, most of these are single-hull ships.

The last oil spill to occur in the wider region happened in 2016 when the tugboat Nathan E. Stewart grounded and released just over 29,000 gallons of fuel in waters near the Heiltsuk Nation and Bella Bella, B.C. 

Bulk carriers can contain between 400,000 and 800,000 gallons and regular container ships generally carry between 1.5 and 2 million gallons of fuel, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency.

Room for more cooperation

The shared nature of the Salish Sea waterways has prompted the creation of many forums and working groups that encourage government to government cooperation in risk assessment. 

“There are some mechanisms like the Salish Sea Shared Water Forum and the Pacific States and British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force which coordinate all states and British Columbia along the Pacific Rim in oil spill prevention and preparedness,” Blomerus said. “But there’s always room for more.”

Blomerus said Clear Seas is setting up an additional working group with the Canadian Marine Shipping Risk Forum for responsible parties in Salish Sea supervision to share data and have a more holistic assessment of risk.

Kirk said the Pacific Northwest and Canadian Pacific regions have some of the strongest legislation and rules to plan for, prevent and respond to spills while holding those responsible accountable.

“There are certainly a lot of, not only collaborations, but agreements and commitments between the United States and Canada that allow the Coast Guard and Transport Canada to work together,” Kirk said. “One great example of that is the Cooperative Vessel Traffic Service.”

Laird Hail is a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain and director of the Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service, formed in 1979. His program, part of the cooperative service, supervises vessel entries in the entire region and co-manages traffic with Canadian counterparts.

“We already have a very close working relationship with Canada,” Hail said, with the Marine Communications and Traffic Services as well as with Transport Canada.

His staff manages traffic in both U.S. and Canadian waters in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Canadian programs in Victoria and Prince Rupert do the same in Haro Strait, Boundary Pass, the lower Strait of Georgia and west of Cape Flattery. Hail said Canadian and U.S. operators communicate and work together daily.

“It’s a model of international cooperation,” Hail said. “It is a superb working relationship right now that manages the traffic exceedingly well in the area.”

“I think that those are all things that people can feel good about,” Kirk said. “There will continue to be shipping, as long as human beings are moving large volumes of things around; there’s not another means that I can think of where you could move the volume of material with cargo and energy without doing it by sea.”

— Reported by Clifford Heberden

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