Posted on December 13, 2023
Some of the most significant oil spills in Washington State’s history happened in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Salish Sea.
An Emergency Response Towing Vessel (ERTV) stands ready 24/7 on the northwestern Olympic Peninsula point in the Port of Neah Bay to quickly respond. However, challenging tides affect its readiness and the ability of this deep-draft vessel to navigate the channel.
That’s about to change with a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project that began December 11 to make navigation improvements by deepening the harbor entrance channel. A hydraulic pipeline dredge will deepen the 4,500-foot entrance channel to -21 feet from its current depth, allowing unrestricted access for ocean-going tugs, barges, and larger ships transiting Neah Bay during low tide.
The Corps of Engineers is expected to remove up to 30,000 cubic yards of never-before-dredged sediment material from the channel that’s expected to take two months to complete, pending weather conditions.
The Port of Neah Bay plays a pivotal role as a harbor for ERTVs responding to distressed or disabled vessels, and as a designated harbor of refuge. The heavily trafficked Strait of Juan de Fuca sees various types of vessels passing through: cargo, passenger cruise, oil tankers, vehicle, fishing, and privately owned.
From 1999 to 2016, the stationed Neah Bay rescue tugs responded to 57 disabled vessels or those with reduced maneuvering ability. These incidents could have resulted in accidents or groundings leading to oil spills. The rescue tug is important to preventing spills, which would be extremely damaging to the area’s environment, economy and cultural resources, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.
“This project will help to ensure that the rescue tug based at Neah Bay is ready to respond to marine emergencies on Washington’s coast,” said Rich Doenges, Southwest Region director for the Washington Department of Ecology. “We think the channel deepening represents a necessary step to prevent impacts to our state’s sensitive coastal environment and preserve our Pacific shorelines.”
The project falls under the Corps of Engineer’s civil works mission’s Continuing Authority Program (CAP) Section 107. It authorizes the Corps of Engineers to make navigation improvements for the non-federal sponsor, in this case the Makah Tribe. The $3.3 million project is mostly federally funded due to a cost-share waiver for Native American Tribes.
Seattle District Project Manager and biologist Juliana Houghton emphasized how the dredged material is perfect for reuse and will help fortify a nearby beach.
“We’ll place the beneficial use dredged material in an area along the shoreline that needs rehabilitation because of a lack of naturally occurring stream sediment,” she said. “The goal is to restore intertidal habitat by depositing the dredged material as beach nourishment.”
Deepening the Neah Bay entrance channel will reduce the emergency response tugs operating costs by minimizing the need for vessels to remain outside the bay in deeper waters during low tide. This will save an estimated $81,000 annually in fuel by reducing transit time during tidal changes.
The project first gained traction in the early 2010’s when the non-federal sponsor Makah Tribe contacted the Corps of Engineers Seattle District requesting a study to determine if navigation improvements for the Port of Neah Bay entrance channel were feasible.
“This project has been a long collaborative partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and we’re thrilled to see these improvements enhance the protection of the valuable Neah Bay ecosystem and improve safety for larger commercial and fishing vessels entering the port,” said Makah Tribe Chairman Timothy Greene, Sr.
Throughout the planning process Corps of Engineers officials coordinated, consulted and worked with federal, tribal and state agencies, including Environmental Protection Agency, National Marine Fisheries Services, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Makah Tribe, Washington’s State Department of Ecology, State Historic Preservation Office and Clallam County.
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