Thursday, April 11, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Public Must Fight Plan For Oil Drilling Off Olympic Coast

IT IS hard to imagine that the Bush administration would subject Washington's irreplaceable wealth of marine resources to the polluting effects of oil and gas development for less than a week's worth of the nation's energy needs.

Since the United States possesses only 4 percent of the world's oil and gas reserves, we will continue to be dependent on foreign oil unless we increase the efficiency with which we use energy.

However, the lack of conservation measures in the president's energy policy is no excuse for polluting one of the most pristine and culturally significant coastlines in the country.

Bush has repeatedly said that oil drilling should not occur in environmentally sensitive habitats. But rather than supporting the Olympic Coast Marine Sanctuary's plan for permanent protection, he has merely put the decision off until after the year 2000.

We have extraordinarily rich marine waters - from the nursery grounds found in the nation's largest and cleanest coastal estuaries and wildlife havens off the seastack-studded Olympic Coast, to the sheltered and diverse waterways of the inland straits. Critical habitats along Washington's coast have been protected through national and international recognition as wilderness areas, national parks, wildlife refuges, biosphere reserves, and - because of their cultural significance to the coastal tribal nations - as world heritage sites.

By curtailing coastal development, these land-oriented designations have helped marine organisms to flourish. However, these designations do not regulate development in the sea itself.

National Marine Sanctuaries are the only program in the United States that specifically recognizes the environmental and cultural significance of unique marine habitats.

The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 authorizes the secretary of commerce to designate discrete areas of the marine environment as sanctuaries.

There are eight sanctuaries, ranging in size from a nautical-mile circle around the remains of the USS Monitor off North Carolina to 2,600 square nautical miles in the Florida Keys.

All West Coast sanctuaries (Channel Islands, Gulf of the Farallones, Cordell Bank), including the soon to be designated Monterey Bay, prohibit new oil and gas development within their boundaries.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administers the sanctuaries act. Since it is a federal program, NOAA cannot make new regulations without first seeking public input to identify gaps in the regulations, especially when affecting state waters.

Sanctuaries can provide permanent protection of marine resources from oil and gas development, and regulate tanker traffic. But unlike wilderness areas, sanctuaries allow for multiple-use activities consistent with the designation. Eventually, sanctuaries will be zoned to provide maximum protection for critical habitats, while allowing other activities in less sensitive regions.

While the prospect of new regulations is what gets most people's attention, the sanctuary program also affords nonregulatory benefits. These include improved research, education and interpretive programs about the marine environment as well as improved coordination among the agencies responsible for managing ocean resources.

In 1988 Congress directed NOAA to create a sanctuary off the Olympic Coast by June 1990 and to review the possibility of creating a sanctuary surrounding the San Juan Islands by March 1991. Washington state has been working with NOAA and has requested that both study areas be expanded.

NOAA is behind schedule in its designation of these sites. The review of the study area in the inshore straits of Washington will benefit from more time, but the Olympic Coast site needs immediate attention.

In April 1989 over 500 people testified at the "scoping" meetings NOAA held in Aberdeen, Forks, Port Angeles and Seattle. The Seattle meeting was the best-attended scoping meeting NOAA has ever held for a sanctuary.

People expressed their concerns for the Olympic Coast, noting that not all the protection that has been afforded the land areas since 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt made the offshore islands a preserve, extend into the ocean.

The public told NOAA what was needed to protect this region. Almost everyone at the hearing asked for permanent protection from offshore oil and gas development. In addition, concerns were raised about near-shore oil transportation and military activities, which include the Navy's bombing of Sea Lion Rocks, within the Copalis Wildlife Refuge.

Many people also worried about redundant regulations, especially on fishing activities already heavily regulated.

The Bush administration's opposition to the permanent protection that only the sanctuary program can afford has become apparent, thanks to David Schaefer's articles in The Seattle Times on March 7 and 8.

Despite overwhelming public participation at the meetings held by NOAA, the administration has made NOAA appear unresponsive to public comments by considering a plan to allow oil and gas development within the sanctuary after the year 2000.

Does the fact that NOAA has recommended, in the yet to be released Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), that oil and gas development could be allowed within the sanctuary by the year 2000, mean that public comments do not matter? Absolutely not!

NOAA is required to publish a Draft EIS to solicit public comments before making a sanctuary. The public can still influence the sanctuary.

However, we cannot comment on a document that has not been released for public review. It appears that Bush's Office of Management and Budget, now reviewing the Draft EIS, and the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service want to keep the option for oil exploration open. These branches of the administration have kept NOAA from releasing the document for the past three months.

Most of the Washington state congressional delegation has signed a letter urging NOAA to get OMB to release the draft sanctuary plan, and has urged them to prohibit oil development within the sanctuary.

We should recognize the congressional support for this program and urge the lawmakers' continued vigilance in getting the Draft EIS out of OMB.

You must continue to let this administration, your congressional representatives, and the governor know what is appropriate protection for marine resources of the Olympic Coast.

We must also address the president directly. Write to: The Honorable George W. Bush, The White House, Washington, D.C. 20500.

Fred Felleman is a conservation biologist with the American Oceans Campaign in Seattle.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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