It happened again Dec. 3: Another near grounding of a cargo ship off the Washington coast at our home in Neah Bay.

Forty-foot seas powered by 90 mph winds knocked out the main steering on the 720-foot Mattson Kauai near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Waves shattered all of the windows in the ship’s wheelhouse as the vessel wallowed offshore.

Thankfully, the ocean rescue tug Gladiator was on station and able to tow the Kauai to safety. Sadly, neither the state nor federal government will commit to financing placement of a rescue tug year-round in Neah Bay.

Close calls like the Kauai don’t make much of a splash in the news, and they happen more often than you know. In the past eight years, the part-time rescue tug at Neah Bay has assisted more than 30 ships in distress. Every year more than 2,000 cargo ships enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca bound for Puget Sound.

It doesn’t take a grounded oil tanker to create a disaster on the Washington coast. The ship that hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge last month wasn’t an oil tanker, but it still spilled 58,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil from a tank capable of carrying 1 million gallons.

That’s why we’re encouraged by Sen. Maria Cantwell’s efforts to draw attention to oil spill prevention along the Washington coast.

Oil tankers have been the focus of spill prevention efforts for nearly 20 years, in large part because of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. That has led to development of new safety requirements that have made oil tankers safer. Little, however, has been done to address the safety of large non-tanker vessel traffic.

As Sen. Cantwell points out, in 1990 Congress directed the U.S. Coast Guard to place adequate salvage, rescue and firefighting vessels in strategic locations around the U.S. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Sen. Cantwell is pushing hard for legislation that would station a rescue tug year-round in Neah Bay, and we wholeheartedly support that effort. The tug legislation is stalled in the Senate now, but we are hopeful it will move forward in this session of Congress. In the meantime, hearings are scheduled next month in Washington, D.C. to examine oil spill threats posed by large non-tanker vessels, as well as oil spill response plans and allocation of federal funding for spill prevention and research.

We’ve known for many years that stationing a tug year-round in Neah Bay is one of the best steps we can take to protect the people, fish, wildlife and environment of the Washington Coast. We just hope it won’t take many more years for that to become a reality. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before the law of averages catches up with us.

Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.


For more information, contact: Steve Robinson or Tony Meyer, NWIFC, (360) 438-1180.