Senate OKs oil spill protection bill

NEAH BAY -- The Strait of Juan de Fuca would be better protected from a large oil spill under a Coast Guard spending bill approved unanimously by the U.S. Senate on Friday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, seeks to designate the entire Strait as a "high volume port area," which applies federal requirements for oil-spill-response equipment.

The designation currently applies to Puget Sound and as far west as Port Angeles.

More than 600 oil tankers and 3,000 oil barges travel through the Strait annually, carrying about 15 billion gallons of oil to refineries, according to Cantwell.

The bill, which will be sent to a House-Senate conference committee, would extend it to Cape Flattery.

The news was reason for celebration for both the Makah tribe -- which has pushed for the legislation for the last six years -- and the entire North Olympic Peninsula, especially after seeing what damage a major oil spill can do after the oil platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, said Chad Bowechop, Makah marine affairs manager.

"The whole coast will directly benefit," he said.

The bill also places more restrictions on what vessels can enter the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

Other measures

Bowechop said extending the high volume port area to Cape Flattery would likely lead to more spill response equipment being placed in Neah Bay.

He didn't know specifically how the federal requirements differ from the state's.

The Coast Guard spending bill also includes reforms to a multibillion Coast Guard contracting program which were sought by Cantwell.

Senate passage of the spending bill also could set the stage for congressional approval of a sweeping overhaul of federal fishery-safety laws that are contained in a companion bill approved by the House.

Cantwell "strongly supports the fishing-safety legislation," and she will try to have it included in a final bill that would emerge from the joint House-Senate conference committee, said Katharine Lister, a Cantwell spokeswoman.

Cantwell is chair of a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Coast Guard and fisheries, but for the past four years she had been unable to gain passage of a Coast Guard spending bill.

Some Republican senators had objected to certain provisions and pursued tactics that would have required a difficult floor fight to gain passage.

In recent days, a compromise deal was struck to make changes to the bill.

Senate Republicans, for example, objected to a provision that would have allowed the Pacific Northwest pollock fleet to replace aging vessels because the provision was unrelated to Coast Guard spending.

This measure was dropped in the final bill approved by the Senate, according to Lister, but Cantwell will attempt to get it restored in the conference committee.

The bill also includes a provision that bans the use of private contractors to manage Coast Guard acquisitions.

Cantwell says that a 25-year, $24 billion program to replace the Coast Guard's aging fleet has had major cost overruns, and that the legislation is intended to give the Coast Guard more oversight on the contracting process.