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Oil Tankers Threaten Endangered Orcas, Tribes Say in Lawsuit

Updated on
  • Trans Mountain project expands terminal in Burnaby B.C.
  • Coast Guard sued for failing to ensure killer whales’ safety

Already-endangered killer whales in the waters west of Seattle face heightened risk from an increased traffic of tankers that will carry oil from Kinder Morgan Inc.’s $5.4 billion Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, two Native American organizations claim in a federal lawsuit.

The U.S. Coast Guard failed to ensure the black-and-white whales known as orcas won’t be decimated by increased shipping traffic or oil spills as it’s required to do under the Endangered Species Act, according to the tribes’ complaint filed Tuesday in Seattle.

“Exporting oil will trigger a seven-fold increase in the number of oil tankers transiting the waters of the Salish Sea,” the tribes said. That sea is comprised of the waterways surrounding the Vancouver Island archipelago, including the Strait of San Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. “These approximately 400 tankers will carry approximately 300,000,000 barrels (over 12.5 billion gallons) of oil through these waters every year.”

The tribes are seeking a court order compelling the U.S. Coast Guard to meet its obligations under the act to implement “traffic separation schemes” that will minimize jeopardy to the whales and to their habitat within a set time frame.

Filing the suit are Tulalip Tribes and the Suquamish Tribe -- once led by Chief Seattle -- for whom orcas are “interwoven” into harvesting, cultural and spiritual practices, according to the complaint.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a U.S. Justice Department spokesman, said the matter is being reviewed and declined to comment further.

Expansion to Proceed

Kinder Morgan isn’t a defendant in the lawsuit, which targets the U.S. Coast Guard. While declining to comment on the case, company spokesman Richard Wheatley said the Trans Mountain Pipeline plans will proceed.

“We’re confident we will build and operate this project in a way that respects the values and priorities of Canadians and Americans, including protecting our coastal waterways,” Wheatley said. Kinder Morgan is based is in Houston.

The project won regulatory approval in British Columbia in January -- after getting the go-ahead from Canada’s federal government. Kinder Morgan seeks to begin work on the expansion, which will more than double the existing line’s capacity and extend its reach, later this year.

Native American tribes and organizations are also pursuing federal lawsuits challenging TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline path in Montana and the Energy Transfer Partners LP-led Dakota Access pipeline project in North Dakota.

The case is Tulalip Tribes v. Kelly, 17-cv-652, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington (Seattle).