Congress passes Senator Warren Magnuson’s amendment banning supertankers in Puget Sound on October 5, 1977.

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On October 5, 1977, only one day after Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) introduces it, Congress passes an amendment that effectively bans oil supertankers from Puget Sound. The stealth move through Congress, assisted by Representatives Norm Dicks (b. 1940), Don Bonker (b. 1937), Joel Pritchard (1925-1997), and Jack Cunningham (b. 1931), abruptly settles an on-going controversy over a proposed oil superport and pipeline at Cherry Point in Whatcom County. Magnuson’s amendment circumvents efforts by Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) to change state regulations to allow the Cherry Point project.

Protecting the Sound

Although both were Democrats, Senator Magnuson and Governor Ray held diametrically opposed views on the need for environmental protection. Magnuson, a Senate veteran and master tactician, had a deep personal affection for the marine environment, especially of Puget Sound. He sponsored many landmark marine environment bills, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, inspired by his disgust with private entrepreneurs who rounded up Puget Sound orcas for sale to exhibitors, and the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, which required states to adopt coastal zone management programs.

In 1976, Magnuson led the celebration at Seattle’s Olympic Hotel when Washington became the first state to adopt a coastal management program. Under the leadership of Republican Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925), like Magnuson a strong proponent of environmental protection, the state’s program banned oil port development at Cherry Point or anywhere east of Port Angeles, the Olympic Peninsula mill town located midway along the Strait of Juan de Fuca between the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound. Evans, Magnuson, and many environmentalists feared the potentially catastrophic consequences of allowing supertanker traffic in the narrow, treacherous, fog-bound approaches to the northern sound through the San Juan islands.

Promoting an Oil Port

Dixy Lee Ray, who won the governorship in 1976 when Evans stepped down after three terms, did not share these concerns. A one-time University of Washington zoology professor who had directed the Pacific Science Center and served on the Atomic Energy Commission under President Richard Nixon (1913-1994), Ray had abiding faith that technology could prevent environmental disasters. Oil companies Arco, which had an existing facility at Cherry Point, and Texaco, which also had refineries in northern Puget Sound, strongly backed Ray’s campaign.

A political novice and outsider, Ray quickly antagonized the media, legislators, and particularly environmentalists. She made overturning the oil port ban in the coastal management program a top priority, and strongly promoted developing Cherry Point as an oil port hub where supertankers from Alaska would unload oil into a pipeline that would transport the oil across the state and to the Midwest. A picture of a smiling Ray at the wheel of an Arco tanker sailing through Rosario Strait in the San Juans fixed her image in the public eye.

Although maritime unions, as well as oil and pipeline companies, supported the oil port, most public reaction to Ray’s proposal was negative. The state legislature passed a bill that would have enshrined the coastal regulations’ ban on a Cherry Point superport into law, but the governor vetoed the bill. With Ray following the proper administrative procedures for amending the coastal program, it appeared to be only a matter of time before the change went through.

A “Little Amendment”

But then, on October 4, 1977, the very day that the first public hearing on Ray’s proposal got under way in Bellingham (where most speakers opposed the oil port), Magnuson sprung his lightning maneuver. After earlier attempting to persuade Ray to abandon the Cherry Point plan, Magnuson remained quiet publicly while lining up Congressional support for legislation to prohibit the federal government from approving any permit that would expand Cherry Point or other Puget Sound oil ports. Opportunity arrived on October 4, when the Senate was scheduled to approve a routine funding reauthorization for Magnuson’s Marine Mammal Protection Act.

In one of the legendary acts of his storied career, Magnuson rose on the Senate floor to quietly propose a “little amendment” to the reauthorization bill — an amendment that barred federal approval for expansion of Cherry Point or any other oil port in Washington east of Port Angeles. Magnuson’s staff had the amendment placed on the “consent calendar,” generally used for routine bills, which allows passage without questions or debate if no lawmaker objects. No senator did, and the amendment passed the Senate. Some eyebrows were raised that Magnuson’s Washington colleague Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson (1912-1983) went along with the ban. Although like Magnuson the author of landmark environmental legislation, Jackson was a booster of energy production and a closer ally to Ray than most other Democrats. Jackson made no statement but evidently chose in this case to defer to his Senate colleague.

Maneuvers in the House

The next day, October 5, 1977, Washington’s House delegation maneuvered the amendment through the House of Representatives consent calendar. Democrats Norm Dicks and Don Bonker took the lead, but two Seattle Republicans played a crucial role. Conservative Republican Robert Bauman of Maryland, who often blocked bills on the consent calendar to gain leverage for his causes, threatened to delay the Magnuson bill. The one member of the Washington delegation with ties to Bauman was Jack Cunningham, a conservative who had surprisingly won a special election to replace Democrat Brock Adams (1927-2004) in Seattle’s Seventh District when Adams was appointed Secretary of Transportation. Magnuson’s staff asked Joel Pritchard, a liberal Republican who also represented a Seattle district, to ask Cunningham to use his influence with Bauman. Cunningham agreed, and after a conference with Cunningham, Bauman let the amendment pass.

The sudden action, which backers had hoped to keep quiet until President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) signed the bill, stunned both sides of the controversy. The scheduled October 5 hearing in Seattle on Ray’s Cherry Point proposal went ahead as scheduled, but the proposal was effectively dead, and the many oil port opponents at the hearing took the opportunity to celebrate. Ray denounced Magnuson as a dictator, which amused the senator, but the governor did not ask for a presidential veto. Maritime unions also condemned Magnuson (usually a union favorite) for a ban they saw costing many jobs. Unlike Ray, the unions, joined by Arco, did campaign for a veto, but Carter signed the amendment into law on October 18, 1977, just two weeks after Magnuson first introduced it.

Although denounced by some, Magnuson was praised by many for ending the controversy and keeping supertankers out of Puget Sound. In subsequent retrospectives on Magnuson’s career, the “little amendment” that spared the sound from potentially catastrophic oil spills was frequently singled out as one of the most important achievements in a career that had many.

Frank Hewlett, “Congress Bans Oil Port at Cherry Pt.” The Seattle Times, October 5, 1977, p. A-1; Eric Pryne and Lyle Burt, “Ray Won’t Fight Oil-Port Ban,” Ibid., October 6, 1977, p. A-1; Richard W. Larsen, “Did Jackson Switch on Port?” Ibid., p. A-10; Jerry Bergsman, “Maritime Unions Angry,” Ibid. p. A-10; Paul Andrews, “Maggie Maneuvers Around Ray,” Ibid., p. A-14; Andrews, “Oil-Port Hearing Turns to a Celebration,” Ibid., p. A-14; Andrews, “Carter Signs Oil-Port Ban,” Ibid., October 18, 1977, p. A-1; Joel Connelly, “Present-Day Marine Issues Recall Magnuson’s Legacy,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 7, 2002, p. A-2; Robert McClure, “Powerful Senator Thwarted No. 1 Goal of Gov. Dixy Lee Ray,” Ibid., November 21, 2002, p. A-17; Restrictions on Tanker Traffic in Puget Sound and Adjacent Waters, 33 U.S.C. sec. 476.

By Kit Oldham, November 26, 2003