Two Northwest Indian tribes are suing the U.S. Coast Guard, claiming the agency has failed to protect endangered orcas from the risk of oil spills associated with tanker traffic in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle on Tuesday, the Tulalip and Suquamish tribes argue that the Coast Guard, which regulates vessels in the region, has failed to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service over the impact the tanker traffic would have on the southern resident killer whale population.
The risk has increased significantly since the Canadian government approved the expansion of the TransMountain pipeline in British Columbia last November, the tribes allege.
The project will nearly triple capacity along an existing pipeline from Edmonton, Alberta, to Burnaby, B.C., about 30 miles north of Blaine, where it will be loaded onto tankers. Currently, the terminal gets five tankers per month; once the expansion is in place, the company plans to get about 34 tankers per month.
The tankers will pass by the San Juan Islands on their way to and from the terminal.
"Killer whales are revered by our people," said Marie Zackuse, chairwoman of Tulalip Tribes. "The increase in tanker traffic and the possibility of a catastrophic oil spill put the entire Salish Sea at risk."
The Coast Guard did not immediately return a message seeking comment to the tribes’ lawsuit.
The tribes are represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice. They seek an order requiring the Coast Guard to avoid harm to the whales until the agency consults with the fisheries service.
Earlier this month, an international group of marine scientists asked the Canadian government to reduce underwater noise in the Salish Sea because it threatens the same southern resident killer whale population. They said increased noise from shipping vessels and other waterfront industries can harm the whales, which rely on echolocation for feeding and breeding activities.
As of this January, the southern resident orca population had only 78 members, fewer than 30 of them reproductive females.