The author of a new report on tar sands shipments says that increased shipments could be the final harpoon in the back of our endangered resident killer whales.
The author of a new report on tar sands in the Salish Sea says that increased shipments could be the "final harpoon in the back of our endangered resident killer whales." Happy Earth Day! Monika Wieland/Shutterstock

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, odds are you've heard of "bomb trains"—the infamous nickname given to long trains carrying volatile shipments of North Dakota crude oil to West Coast refineries. There's a much smaller chance that you've heard anyone talking about "articulated barges."

The lack of attention given to articulated barges—or, more broadly, tar sands crude oil transport on the Salish Sea—is something that frustrates Fred Felleman, the co-author of a new report about the dangers of tar sands shipments between Canada and refineries in Puget Sound. Felleman, who is a Seattle port commissioner as well as an environmental consultant for Friends of the Earth, says that tar sands shipments in local waters are a "recipe for disaster."

Over the last year, Felleman and the report's co-author, Friends of the Earth's Marcie Keever, have been studying oil shipments in the Salish Sea. They found that while the overall volume of oil on the water has decreased, the number of trips by vessels known as articulated barges (ATBs) has increased. Unlike regular barges, ATBs are tugs that directly attach to the back of other tugs instead of being towed by a cable behind them. ATBs can sometimes also carry more oil than barges, but aren't treated like oil tankers, which are subject to certain environmental regulations meant to prevent spills.

"From a risk perspective, there's more shipments of oil on the water, even though the volume of just crude oil is down," Felleman says.

Unlike the light, sweet crude transported out of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, tar sands crude is heavy—and it sinks. On water, tar sands crude poses a significant threat to local ecosystems. The dilbit crude can stay in sediments for years, and it's near impossible to clean up.

If Canada, the Kinder Morgan/Trans Mountain pipeline connects tar sands producers in Alberta to an export terminal in Burnaby, British Columbia. Shipments leave BC and work their way down Washington waterways to the US oil refinery in Tacoma. If the Canadian government allows Kinder Morgan to triple its capacity of the pipeline, as the company has proposed, Felleman predicts a seven-fold increase in tar sands shipments through the Salish Sea.

"We go from one tanker a week to one tanker a day," Felleman says. "Which to me is the final harpoon in the back of our endangered resident killer whales."

Last year, the Washington state legislature passed an oil transportation safety bill that originally included a provision for ATBs, but that provision was stripped out by the time the bill became law. Had the provision stuck, ATBs would have to be escorted by other tugs in case something went wrong and an ATB had to be towed to shore.

"We absolutely need to be worried about dirty, sticky tar sands oil coming across our waterways, and we need to act," Representative Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle) told me last year. "The oil-industry-backed Republican senate refused to negotiate on the marine side."

If Kinder Morgan is approved, Washington's waterways will bear the consequences. Felleman stresses that when that time comes, Washingtonians won't simply be able to blame the Canadians. He says: "We need to engage our senators to make sure that [Canada's President] Trudeau doesn't deal us under the table."