Cantwell Questions Top U.S. Coast Guard Nominee on Tar Sands Oil Spill Readiness in the Northwest

Vice Admiral Zukunft says technology lacking to clean up tar sands spills

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Obama administration’s nominee to lead the U.S. Coast Guard told U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) yesterday that increased shipping of tar sands oil is a concern, and that there is a lack of adequate technology to handle a large-scale tar sands oil spill in Northwest waterways.

At a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday, Senator Cantwell questioned Vice Admiral Paul Zukunft on his agency’s preparedness for a tar sands oil spill. Zukunft also acknowledged to Sen. Cantwell that the United States is lagging behind other Arctic nations in developing and maintaining polar icebreaking capabilities. Video of the hearing is available here.

“Admiral, thank you for your service and your willingness to serve more,” Cantwell said to Zukunft, who is the nominee to be the 25th Commandant of the United States Coast Guard. Zukunft has extensive experience in Pacific issues and understanding of emerging opportunities and threats for the Coast Guard in the Pacific Northwest.

During the hearing, Cantwell cited the threat posed by increased tar sands oil tanker traffic in Pacific Northwest waterways – including the Puget Sound, the Rosario Strait and the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Oil from tar sands is uniquely difficult to remove after a spill because it’s more corrosive than other types of oil and contains heavy metals. Cantwell cited a 2010 pipeline rupture that spewed 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Responders were forced to dredge to remove the river bottom that was contaminated.

In the Rosario Strait – where tar sands oil is being moved today – dredging would mean removing sea grasses that provide critical habitat for salmon, Dungeness crab and other commercial fish stocks.

“We certainly can’t afford to have a spill like we’ve had in other places happen in that particular area – it’s too damaging to salmon and other resources,” Cantwell said during the hearing. “We want to understand whether the Coast Guard feels a new process should be undertaken for this technology, or whether we are going to say that this is not a safe route for transportation.”

Zukunft, a 37-year Coast Guard veteran who coordinated the response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, said tar sands oil is challenging because it’s heavier than water so it sinks to the sea floor and settles.

“My first concern is the volume being moved by intermodal means, by rail car, by barge. We’ve seen catastrophes in both those modes of transportation,” Zukunft said.

“As heavier sediment settles out and sinks, our technology is not as sophisticated when you have tar sands that are heavier than water and settle on the ocean bottom,” Zukunft added. “It is a challenge for us. For surface removal, we have very sophisticated technology. Once it settles on the sea floor, our technology is lacking in that regard.”

Cantwell has been a leading proponent of improving the nation’s oil spill response technology, especially as tankers hauling tar sands oil are expected to increase dramatically through the waters around the San Juan Islands and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The Coast Guard is responsible for overseeing and approving oil spill responses. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 demonstrated chronic underinvestment in oil spill research and development. Currently, the industry lacks incentives and requirements to research, develop and adopt new cleanup technologies.

In 2013, Cantwell introduced the The Oil Spill Technology and Development Act, which would set up small grants to develop new technologies to contain and clean up oil spills. The bill also would require the Coast Guard to maintain a program for evaluating and implementing the ‘best available technology’ and most effective tools to respond to oil spill threats. Cantwell also included amendments to the 2010 and 2012 Coast Guard authorization bills that required the Coast Guard to conduct a risk assessment for shipping oil sands by tanker and barge in the Pacific Northwest.

A major spill would have a significant impact on Washington state’s maritime economy, which is worth $30 billion and supports 148,000 jobs. A spill would also severely hurt the state’s export dependent economy because international shipping would likely be severely restricted. Washington state’s waters support a huge variety of fish, shellfish, seabirds, marine mammals, and plants, including a number of Endangered Species Act-protected species such as Southern Resident orcas and Chinook salmon.

On icebreakers

Cantwell also asked Zukunft about the U.S. icebreaker capabilities. The Coast Guard has only two operational polar icebreakers – the Polar Star and the Healy, both homeported in Seattle. According to a recent study, the Coast Guard needs a minimum of six heavy duty icebreakers and an additional four medium icebreakers to meet Coast Guard and Navy mission requirements. The U.S. Navy has no icebreaking capability. Russia, however, has 30 polar icebreakers.

“Our plan is not to call the Russians, right?” Cantwell asked. “We’re going to have our own capacity?”

“We clearly have some challenges with Russia,” Zukunft said. “But when we look at some of the imminent threats, most of those are environmental and safety of life at sea. In those two realms, there is an opportunity for a coalition approach. But when it comes to sovereign interests, the United States is lagging behind...the other primary Arctic nations.”

Zukunft said the Coast Guard is exploring whether it could share the costs of new icebreakers with other government agencies that work in Arctic, such as the Navy, National Science Foundation, Department of Defense and Department of Interior.

Cantwell (D-WA) introduced legislation in March with Alaska Sen. Mark Begich to strengthen Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic and bolster the nation’s icebreaking capabilities by refurbishing the Seattle-based Polar Sea icebreaker.

The Coast Guard Arctic Preparedness Act would authorize the Coast Guard to overhaul the heavy icebreaker Polar Sea, now idle at Seattle’s Pier 36, and return it to service. The Coast Guard had tried to scrap the 36-year-old Polar Sea in previous years. Senator Cantwell and Senator Begich previously have introduced legislation to save the Polar Sea because the ship’s specialized hull is in excellent condition.