Cantwell Urges Action to Protect WA Coastal Jobs from Floating Tsunami Trash

Floating debris field is five times the size of Washington state, could hit Pacific NW by 2014 Senate committee approves Cantwell tsunami trash amendment; also advances her legislation on Puget Sound oil spill prevention, icebreakers, and salmon strongholds ***VIDEO AVAILABLE***

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced and secured passage of an amendment to address the threat approaching tsunami debris poses to industries up and down Washington’s coastline. The amendment was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee at a markup hearing today. Click here to watch a video of Cantwell’s remarks delivered at today’s markup hearing.

Also today, the Commerce Committee approved a number of other important Cantwell provisions including legislation requiring an assessment of the risk posed by new Canadian oil supertankers crossing through Puget Sound, her bill to protect thriving “salmon strongholds” and a measure that would postpone the decommissioning of the Polar Sea icebreaker currently docked in Seattle.

After a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in March 2011, an enormous amount of debris was washed out to sea. Currently, the trash field stretches 1,300 miles wide and is 360 miles long, measuring five times the size of the state of Washington. The debris is expected to reach Washington state’s shores in 2014 and Hawaii’s shores in 2013. Cantwell’s amendment would identify the debris as a unique threat and require the Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere to develop an interagency action plan to help prepare our region for this potentially serious problem. 

“After the tragic tsunami that struck Japan, whole communities were swept out to sea in an unwieldy mass of toxic debris. This field is about five times the state of Washington,” said Cantwell at today’s Commerce Committee markup. “We in the Washington economy depend on our waterways for a great deal of our commerce. We have everybody from workers at restaurants to tourist visitors that are all going to be impacted by this. We can’t wait until all of this tsunami trash washes ashore. We need to have an aggressive plan on how we’re going to deal with it.”

Cantwell’s amendment requiring an analysis of the threat of a Puget Sound oil spill due to increasing Canadian oil supertanker traffic also won passage in today’s Senate Commerce Committee mark up. The amendment, added to the Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill, directs the Coast Guard to complete a risk analysis that includes recommendations for managing and minimizing the potential increases in supertanker, tanker and barge traffic exporting Canadian tar sands oil. Cantwell’s amendment requires the study address cross-border spill response capability, and whether tar sands oil – which experts say could be more corrosive than other types of oil – may require different maritime clean up technologies. Some reports estimate that Canada is poised to increase oil supertanker traffic through the waters around the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca by 300 percent.

“As a state that helps power America’s export economy, we can’t afford a massive oil spill off Washington’s coast,” said Cantwell. “My amendment ensures that a comprehensive action plan is in place to handle this major threat. A spill in the narrow and heavily populated waters of the Puget Sound or Strait of Juan de Fuca would be devastating and could endanger Washington state’s 165,000 coastal economy jobs.  Now is the time to develop a robust strategy for dealing with a potential spill.” 

An oil spill in waters in Washington state interior waterways could be devastating. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, a major spill would have a significant impact on Washington state’s coastal economy, which employs 165,000 people and generates $10.8 billion in annual economic activity. 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 animals and plants, including a number of endangered species such as Southern Resident orcas and Chinook salmon.   

At a Coast Guard Subcommittee hearing on July 20, Cantwell demanded that the Coast Guard perform an extended analysis of cross-border readiness and the ability to respond to potential spills along the U.S.-Canada maritime border off Washington state. She secured a commitment from Rear Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Assistant Commandant for Marine Safety, Security and Stewardship for the United States Coast Guard, to deliver an analysis. Cantwell has already called for a more general analysis of U.S.-Canada oil spill response agreements in her Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill in 2010.

Also at the Senate Commerce Committee mark up, Cantwell secured passage of her legislation to sustain thriving wild salmon populations, or ‘salmon strongholds.’ The Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act seeks to preserve the economic, ecological, cultural, and health benefits of wild Pacific Salmon for generations. It was originally introduced, with the backing of all eight U.S. Senators representing the Pacific Coast states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California, in July.

“Thousands of jobs in Washington state and over a billion dollars in economic activity depend on healthy salmon populations,” said Cantwell. “With this legislation moving one more step forward, we are working to ensure salmon continue to be a vital part of our economies and culture in the Pacific Northwest. This bill will support healthy wild Pacific salmon stocks and the habitat they depend on so they can continue to thrive and support our fishing industry in the future.”

The bipartisan Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act of 2011 establishes a public-private partnership Board administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service and comprised of federal, state, tribal, and non-governmental-organizations invested in sustaining strong wild salmon populations. The legislation charges this multi-jurisdictional group to sustain core salmon stronghold populations and habitats in order to preserve our thriving salmon stocks for future generations.

Cantwell has consistently supported sustaining healthy wild salmon. She introduced similar salmon stronghold legislation during both the 110th and 111th congresses. Cantwell has long supported salmon recovery programs, including prioritizing funding for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. In the states of Washington, California, Idaho, and Oregon, roughly 20 percent of salmon habitat supports about half of the region’s salmon abundance.

Cantwell’s legislation which would stop the decommissioning or scrapping of the Polar Sea icebreaker also passed the Senate Commerce Committee today. Cantwell’s language was incorporated into the Maritime Administration Authorization Act of 2011 which requires the Coast Guard to maintain the current icebreaker fleet stationed in Seattle.

“We are seeing an approach by OMB to literally dismantle and defund the current icebreaker system,” said Cantwell at today’s hearing. “Our nation needs icebreakers. If a major oil spill happens, I don’t know how the Russians or the Chinese are going to respond to their care of the Arctic in the same way I think we would as the United States. With Russia moving many troops to the Arctic, and Chinese investors buying parts of Greenland, this is also a national security issue.” 

In August, Cantwell urged the Coast Guard to postpone decommissioning the icebreaker Polar Sea until a thorough analysis to determine the most cost-effective way to revitalize the aging fleet based and serviced in Seattle. Cantwell was instrumental in securing the language in the 2010 Coast Guard Reauthorization Act that required the Coast Guard to evaluate the costs and benefits of building new vessels versus refurbishing the existing vessels. Both scenarios could bring hundreds of jobs to the Puget Sound area. Refurbishing an icebreaking vessel can take roughly five years and employ upwards of 300 workers. Rebuilding the vessel can take roughly eight years and employ more than 1,000 workers.

Decommissioning the Polar Sea would leave the U.S. with only one operational icebreaker, the Healy, which was designed primarily as a scientific research vessel and only has medium icebreaking capability. The second heavy duty icebreaker, Polar Star, is currently in Seattle being refitted after years in ‘caretaker’ status, when the vessel is out of active service but still receives routine upkeep and maintenance. The United States Navy has no icebreaking capability. 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, according to a recent third party analysis of the United States ice breaking requirements.

The polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, opening new passageways through the Arctic ice, which creates national security, law enforcement, shipping, transportation, and maritime safety concerns. Additionally, emerging environmental protection concerns, resource development and scientific research critical to understanding global climate change, require vessels capable of polar operations. Historically, icebreakers have also helped resupply the McMurdo Station, the main U.S. station in Antarctica, but over the last few years the U.S. has been forced to contract foreign icebreaking to fulfill this national need.

The Senate Commerce Committee also considered and passed an amendment authored by Cantwell that would expedite the implementation of a provision passed into law last year that strengthens oil spill response preparedness in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The provision, authored by Cantwell and shepherded into law as part of last year’s Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill, extends the “high volume port area” from Port Angeles farther west to Cape Flattery. Cantwell’s amendment approved by the Commerce Committee today would ensure the new law extending the high volume port area to fully cover the Strait is implemented by July 12, 2012.

Prior to Cantwell’s provision, industry was only required to position oil spill response equipment in Puget Sound, leaving the busy shipping lane in the Strait of Juan de Fuca unprotected. But as a result of Cantwell’s provision, oil spill response equipment, such as booms and barriers, will be prepositioned along the Strait, supplementing the response equipment already in place in Puget Sound. Approximately 600 oil tankers and 3,000 oil barges travel through Puget Sound’s fragile ecosystem annually, carrying about 15 billion gallons of oil to Washington’s five refineries. The Strait of Juan de Fuca also has significant outbound tanker traffic originating in Vancouver and carrying Canadian oil.

Today the Commerce Committee also approved Cantwell’s ‘green ships’ program amendment, which expands the newly created green ships program to include cold ironing. Cold ironing is when a shore-based power source is used to power a vessel docked in a harbor rather than the ship being powered in port by burning fuel. Powering the docked vessel with shore-based power improves the local air quality, and depending on the type of power source, the vessel’s operation can be significantly more energy efficient.

The Navy has used cold ironing for years at its homeports. The Port of Seattle is currently using cold ironing for two berths used by cruise ships and is considering installing it for a third berth. As over 70 percent of Washington’s power is hydro-based, using a shore-based power source can be a very clean and affordable substitute. Some California ports also use cold ironing to help address local air quality issues.