Will a new Neah Bay tug arrive on schedule?

It was at the end of March last year that the Legislature shifted the burden of paying for a tugboat at Neah Bay to the shipping industry, and the governor signed the bill into law.

At the time, it seemed to me that it would be much easier said than done for various shippers to allocate the cost among themselves. Industry representatives agreed that negotiations would be difficult, as I reported in a Kitsap Sun story last March 31.

The Legislature had looked at a cost-allocation system but decided to allow the industry to work it out themselves. Progress reports were required by Oct. 31 and Dec. 1.

And this is where I may have misunderstood the Legislature’s intent. I thought the idea was that if the shippers failed to put a system in place by the end of last year, then the Legislature would come back and do something this year to ensure no disruption in tug service. By then, the industry would have little room to complain. But that’s not what is happening.

This week, I wrote about progress in those negotiations and learned that the two major groups are still some distance apart. (See Thursday’s Kitsap Sun.) But the Legislature has no intent of stepping in. The law requires that the tugboat be on station before ships can operate in Puget Sound, and everyone seems confident that the law will be followed.

Department of Ecology officials have indicated that penalties for shippers could run to $10,000 a day if the tugboat is not there. (You may review the correspondence on the subject.) Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D- Bainbridge Island, a key player in the bill, told me that the fines would be enough to cover the cost of the tug, so he would allow the process to play out.

Since the shipping industry is generally divided between oil shippers and cargo shippers, the only alternative I can see, if negotiations fail, is to have two tugs at Neah Bay. Of course, that would be ridiculous and a waste of money.

As in many negotiations, these are likely to go down to the wire. Everyone expects a new tug to be in place by July 1.

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