In Our Opinion: Ships should follow same environmental rules as everyone else

Over the last year, giant hulking figures emitting low, intrusive rumbles have appeared in Holmes Harbor.

These massive container ships have impacted the lives of many Whidbey Island residents, yet somehow they are allowed to mar the sonic and marine environment for months, or possibly years, without having to go through the environmental impact studies that the law requires of the Navy and other agencies.

This must change, although local officials are unsure about how this would be accomplished. Environmental and maritime law are both crazy complicated and the intersection of both is nearly opaque.

The big metal boats from far-off places have temporarily anchored in the deep-water harbor off Whidbey because of traffic congestion in the ports of Seattle, Tacoma and even Vancouver, Canada. The claim is that the jammed-up ports are a side effect of the pandemic and that residents may continue to see ships waiting in Holmes Harbor at least into 2022.

The noise of the giant rumbly motors is loud enough to keep Freeland, Greenbank and rural Langley residents awake at night. There have been reports of foamy, icky stuff floating ashore from the direction of the ships.

Frustrated residents have generated many complaints to emergency dispatch. The South Whidbey Record has been covering the issue for months. More recently, Seattle news stations and public radio have reported on the issue. A group of residents spoke out at an Island County commissioners’ meeting.

Although the county noise ordinance likely doesn’t cover container ships, the policy behind it is clear. With the exception of aircraft, nuisance noises violate county code, especially at night.

In practice, the metaphorical soundbars are uneven. A motorhome providing shelter to homeless people might violate county code if a diesel engine is too loud. A multi-million-dollar ship owned by a multi-national corporation, on the other hand, can shake the earth without repercussions.

Sure, it’s important for plastic furniture, rubber duckies and silicon chips to make their way through the ports and into the economy at large. But instead of waiting for local media or officials to track them down for explanations, officials at ports and the owners of the container ships should reach out and explain exactly what will happen before it happens. An end date should be set.

And the state or federal government should require ports and ships to obey the same environmental impact laws that everyone else has to follow.

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