Guest Commentaries

Guest commentary: Orcas and oil spills don’t mix

BP stirs the pot
July 20, 2022 at 4:45 a.m.

By Tom Glade, Marcie Keever, Brent Lyles

July 14 was declared World Orca Day in 2014 to commemorate the successful rescue of an orphaned 2-year-old orca, Springer.  She was discovered off Vashon Island and returned to her family in British Columbia in July 2002. She has since had two calves. To mark the 20th anniversary of this rare occasion, when people have directly benefitted the whales, she is pregnant again!

For almost 50 years, the Center for Whale Research documented the births and deaths of every orca that frequents the Salish Sea, known as the Southern Resident community. It comprises three pods (J,K,L), which currently total 75 whales — smaller than when listed as endangered in 2005.  

J-Pod recently returned to the Salish Sea after its coastal forays for chinook salmon over the winter, this time with an exciting new addition. Born in March, J-59, J-pod’s first calf in two years, is a healthy female. Even more encouraging, K-Pod was recently sighted off the coast with its first calf in 11 years.

Such happy news is widely reported, underscoring the public’s interest in the whales’ well-being. However, this recent bit of good news is tempered by the fact that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife just issued an emergency order, notifying boaters to keep their distance, because 13 of the resident whales are declared “vulnerable” to disturbance. Twelve are exhibiting poor body conditions and one is pregnant.

However, we’re not going to recover this beloved population one whale at a time. There also needs to be sufficient laws in place to protect and restore their critical habitat — especially when one significant oil spill can render such milestones meaningless. For example, the North Gulf Oceanic Society found that two pods of killer whales in Alaska experienced unprecedented declines following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and their recovery is still unlikely.

Unlike the attention afforded orca births, reports of industry efforts to interfere with federal agencies’ responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act are rare.  

Case in point, backyard behemoth BP used its political influence to keep the Army Corps of Engineers from completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to issuing its 2001 permit that enabled BP to build and operate a new oil tanker terminal. The terminal doubles the number of tankers able to call at its Cherry Point refinery — the largest in Washington state. 

Seventeen years ago, BP’s permit was successfully challenged in court. The federal court directed the Corps to reevaluate the BP permit by preparing an EIS and conducting an analysis of its compliance with the late Sen. Warren G. Magnuson’s amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Magnuson Amendment restricted the ability of federal agencies to issue permits that could result in increasing crude oil tanker traffic east of Port Angeles.

In August 2006, the Corps published its intent to prepare a draft EIS, but the draft wasn’t released until 2014. The Corps has yet to release a final EIS.

In September 2021, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Evergreen Islands, Friends of the San Juans and Friends of the Earth, filed suit against the Corps for unreasonable delay in completing the final EIS — eight years after the draft was published. Last month, we settled our claim after the Corps committed to finalizing it on Aug. 12.

Congress created NEPA to help assure that environmental protections are included in all major federally permitted projects. The Magnuson Amendment reduces the risk of an oil spill by restricting the federal government from issuing permits that could increase tanker traffic. These provisions are even more critical now if projects like the Trans Mountain oil pipeline are completed, resulting in a seven-fold increase in tankers calling on British Columbia.

To comply with NEPA, Magnuson and the court, the Corps must complete the EIS by Aug. 12 with provisions that assure there are adequate safeguards in place to prevent and respond to an oil spill. In addition, it must add permit conditions that limit the number of crude oil tankers allowed to call at the BP refinery.

As a result of our lawsuit, BP can no longer prevent the Corps from exercising its environmental responsibilities, which have enabled BP to have unmitigated use of its tanker terminal for 21 years.   

While the two recent orca births are certainly worth celebrating on World Orca Day, it's critical to remember a single oil spill can render the whole population extinct, and that our environmental laws can only work if they’re enforced.  

We call on the Corps to make up for lost time and complete their court-ordered work.

Tom Glade, Evergreen Islands

Marcie Keever, Friends of the Earth

Brent Lyles, Friends of the San Juans

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