Washington has been stepping up systems to prevent and reduce the risk of oil spills, due in part to the looming expansion of Canada’s Trans Mountain Pipeline. It could result in as much as a sevenfold increase in the number of oil tankers traveling from Vancouver, B.C., through Puget Sound.
In 2018, the state Legislature passed the Strengthening Oil Transportation Safety Act. Among its requirements, along with a barrel tax on crude oil and updates to contingency plans for oil spills, was the establishment of the Salish Sea Shared Waters forum.
Oil and water don’t know political boundaries. So, the Shared Waters forum brought together government representatives from Washington and British Columbia, First Nations and tribes, industry, environmental groups and others. They share information and develop relationships and best practices among all those interested in protecting the inland sea that connects the U.S. and Canada in the Pacific Northwest.
The forum has just wrapped up its third and final year. It had an overarching emphasis on shared values in the effort to continue the work of reducing risks from oil spills.
“The thought is, our Salish Sea is so precious to us all,” said Dale Jensen, spills program manager with the Washington Department of Ecology.
“We want to make sure that we have broad knowledge and understanding of each other, that we're listening well, we're learning and we're growing and we're protecting — doing our best to protect our shared waters of the Salish Sea.”
In prior years, the forum tracked and documented how oil is transported and identified gaps in regulations and safety. This year, the mood was more contemplative. The Lummi Nation’s Blackhawk Singers helped set the tone, with a shared video of ceremonial song and dance.
And a keynote panel provided an overview of why everyone who is gathered for the forum (conducted virtually because of COVID-19) is doing the work of oil spill prevention.
Past Lummi Chairman Jay Julius talked about the need to protect tribal treaty rights.
“Fishing is our way of life. The waters were our highways, the waters were everything to us. And it still is today,” he said, adding that protecting those rights has benefits that extend to anyone who lives here. “There's a perception that the treaties are an Indian thing. And it's so far from the truth. Because a treaty is just as important to every kid in the public school, every citizen of this state, every citizen of this country.”
The Honorable Chief Steven Point, a provincial court judge and former B.C. lieutenant governor, gave a sweeping legal perspective — challenging the audience to think both seven generations into the future, and at least seven back to pre-settlement times, when the region was governed by Indigenous ideas of egalitarianism.
“None of us own the earth. We don't own the air. We don't own the water. We are borrowing it from the seven generations,” Point said.
As for the path forward, he offered an analogy of the earth as a canoe.
“And as we travel in this canoe together — all of us — the canoe is our earth,” Point said. “We must paddle together in the same direction. You can’t get angry at each other because you can't get angry in a canoe. We have to listen and be quiet while we're paddling. We have to learn one song, so that we can put our journey spirit together."
Professor Emma S. Norman, chair of Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College and a renowned scholar of U.S.-Canadian cross-border governance, described the border as construct that is "incredibly young."
“The laws and the policies are not only young — we’re still learning, changing,” she said, noting that it has only been in the last decade or so that the two countries started sharing geographical data and developing common maps of the Salish Sea region. “And so, I really feel like when we enter the work within the transboundary water governance, we really need to start taking a humble approach as to the nascent-ness of the U.S.-Canada border and the construction of British Columbia and Washington.”
She suggested the concept of protecting "sacred waters" as a starting point.
In past years, the open dialogue at these forums has led to everything from new tug escorts for oil tankers in Rosario Strait to risk modeling along shipping routes.
This year, they also talked about reducing underwater noise that impacts endangered Southern Resident orcas, including Indigenous tribes’ and nations’ perspectives about the impacts of oil transportation and ensuring excellence in transboundary spill prevention, preparedness and response.
Although the final formal meeting of the forum has wrapped up, the hope is that the connections it created continue to inform good work throughout the region.
“People have built relationships. There will be ongoing dialog through a variety of different forms that take place,” said Dale Jenson from the state Department of Ecology.
He says this year’s keynote panel brought home for him the importance of keeping that going to protect the orcas and fish and other resources of the Salish Sea.
“We were given all given the responsibility to manage it and protect it. And we all need to do the best that we can to ensure that it recovers healthily and it’s something we can cherish for generations to come.”