The tugboat stationed at Neah Bay to rescue disabled ships during the storm season could get a stable, long-term funding source under a bill proposed by Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim.
"This will end the tugboat question, and we won't have to come back every year and fund it," Van De Wege said.
"The funding will be there all the time. It will be state law, and we will not have to deal with it."
Van De Wege, along with Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, and Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, represents the 24th Legislative District, which includes Clallam and Jefferson counties and one-third of Grays Harbor County.
Van De Wege's bill would require 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.
A rescue tug has been stationed at Neah Bay since 1999 on a part-time seasonal basis and paid for by state and federal funds.
Since July 2008, the Legislature has funded a full-time rescue tug to stand by at Neah Bay, but funding ends on June 30.
Since 1999, the rescue tug has been responsible for 40 rescues or assists of oil tankers, cargo ships and other vessels in the region.
House Bill 1409 is co-sponsored by Kessler and numerous other legislators. It was scheduled for a Jan. 27 public hearing before the House Ecology and Parks Committee.
Its companion bill, Senate Bill 5344, is co-sponsored by Hargrove and several other legislators. It was referred to the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee for a first reading on Jan. 20.
Van De Wege said this is a new idea, not a revised version of the 1 cent per barrel tax on oil received at marine terminals, which encountered such opposition from oil companies during the 2007 session.
"This takes the state out of the funding picture," he said.
"Oil companies, cargo companies and cruise lines would be adding this to their oil spill contingency plan."
Initially, the oil companies aren't that opposed to the bill, Van De Wege said.
"Their complaints have been oil companies are paying for tugs that rescue cargo ships, and they are right.
"Those are a large majority of the ships requiring the tugboat, but they don't pay for it," he said.
"If you spread the cost, they said they would support it, and it looks like they might," Van De Wege said.
New federal regulations for cargo companies also require them to have a response tugboat stationed somewhere, and this bill might allow them to meet that, he said.
"This was brought to me at the beginning of session, and I was pleased to see it. This will be huge if it passes," Van De Wege said.
"How much it costs each ship depends on the amount of marine traffic, but maybe $1,000 a ship, which is not a terrible amount for shipping," he said.
Hargrove said the bill would have the oil companies, cargo companies and cruise lines fund the Neah Bay tugboat as part of their existing responsibilities for oil spill response and prevention in Puget Sound.
"It's kind of nice because we have no money," Hargrove said.
"The federal government promised to fund it a long time ago but they never seem to come up with the money."
Jamestown S'Klallam Natural Resources Director Scott Chitwood was pleased to hear of the legislation.
"The tribe has been an ardent supporter of all preventive measures for oil spills including the response tug.
"We have people trained in oil spill response and we helped get equipment stationed at John Wayne Marina," he said.
"It may seem like we're spending a
lot of money to put a tugboat out at Neah Bay but, if we had an oil spill, it costs much, much more money. I don't think any of us want to see an Exxon Valdez situation in the Strait of Juan de Fuca," Chitwood said.
Brian Gawley can be reached at email@example.com.
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