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November 17, 1989
Stung by photographs of greasy beaches and dying sea otters, the oil industry and the U.S. government this year have made high-profile gestures to a public furious over the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Critics say, and the evidence indicates, that most of those gestures are but bandages applied to a sickly system of oil transportation that for decades has brought the world major spills on a regular basis.
Since the Exxon Valdez accident in March, the most decisive steps toward spill prevention have been imposed within Alaska's Prince William Sound, and provide assurance only that there probably won't be a similar accident in the same place under the same circumstances. To wit:
Because the captain of the Exxon Valdez was accused of drinking in Valdez, Alaska, before the accident, tanker crew members must now take blood-alcohol tests if they appear intoxicated before they board their ships at Valdez. Nowhere else is such testing in force.
Because cleanup crews responded slowly and inadequately to the Exxon Valdez spill, a boat equipped with oil-containment booms now follows tankers as they sail out of Prince William Sound. Nowhere else is such an escort required.
Because there was no pilot aboard the Exxon Valdez when it went aground on Bligh Reef, pilots guides with expertise on the local waters are now required until tankers pass the reef.
Edward Wenk, a University of Washington naval engineer who advised three presidents on tanker safety, says such limited steps don't begin to address the widespread problems of the oil-transportation system. History shows the next big spill probably won't occur in the same place, and it won't result from the same series of mistakes that doomed the Exxon ship.
What frustrates Wenk and other experts is evidence that for years has pointed to a need for broader changes. For instance, Coast Guard studies showed 15 years ago that double bottoms would prevent most tanker spills, yet there still is no requirement.
As it did in the 1970s, Congress is considering a double-bottom requirement. But most expect that the result will be yet another study, and concrete action won't occur without further public pressure on Congress and the Coast Guard.
"They study for years," Wenk says. "I would characterize the Coast Guard as reluctant dragons. They justifiably deserve and enjoy the white hat of heroes in search and rescue. But they are very resistant to fulfill their role as a regulator."
In 1982, Wenk submitted a report to the Coast Guard that, among other things, strongly urged the agency to make a simple change in the location where pilots board and depart tankers in Washington's Strait of Juan de Fuca. Gigantic tankers laden with crude oil now sail the first 63 miles into Washington waters without a pilot or a tugboat escort.
Wenk's recommendation for pilots and escorts to be required farther west in the strait was ignored, although there is evidence that allowing tankers to sail that far into the strait without pilots and escorts is a dangerous practice.
Last month, for instance, a fully loaded Liberian-flagged oil tanker without a pilot or an escort was sailing off course, directly toward a beach west of Port Angeles, says Jim Richardson, supervisor of Coast Guard radio operators in Seattle. A Coast Guard operator saw what was happening and warned the crew by radio to avoid a grounding.
Without the warning, the 85,000-ton ship Cloudesdale would have ended up on the same beach where the Japanese oil tanker Matsukaze went aground in April 1988. The Matsukaze, which has a double bottom, did not spill its cargo. But the Cloudesdale does not have a double bottom and almost certainly would have dumped some of its 28 million-gallon cargo.
Richardson says such incidents happen all too often in the strait. The Coast Guard became especially concerned last April when the unescorted tanker Exxon Philadelphia lost power near the entrance to the strait.
To address the concern following the Exxon Philadelphia and Matsukaze incidents, the agency is no surprise conducting a study of whether tug escorts and pilots should be required in the strait.
Wenk draws a long sigh, saying that if it takes this long to make a simple change in tanker operations in Washington state, what will take for meaningful changes on a national and international level?
His solution: Give the job to a higher authority.
This week, Wenk submitted a report to Alaska's Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Commission in which he calls for legislation that would give the president direct responsibility for the safe transportation of oil. As it is now, the president oversees the Department of Transportation, which oversees the Coast Guard.
Wenk, who is a member of the Alaska commission, says moving responsibility to the Oval Office would give oil-tanker safety a higher profile. He says the president should be required to submit an annual report to Congress citing, among other things, ship-casualty statistics, the causes of accidents, their effects, the penalties assessed and the Coast Guard's record for accepting recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.
He says there should also be independent audits of tanker operations. And such states as Washington and Oregon, which are vulnerable to tanker spills, should join together in compacts to enact uniform standards for ship operations.
Without these kinds of changes, Wenk says, the maritime transportation system will limp along, with the oil industry evading significant improvements.
"The Band-Aids are not going to work," Wenk says.
Like other concerned parties, Wenk is little more than a spectator in a system that is so large that the United States is unable to single-handedly effect most major changes.
Even so, the public can draw some comfort from history.
In the early 1970s, it was common practice for tanker crews to dump crude oil overboard as they cleaned the ships. East Coast beaches were regularly blackened this way, and it once accounted for most world oil pollution.
But a rash of spills 15 years ago spurred the international shipping community to require sweeping changes in the way tankers are cleaned, and other major improvements in fire prevention, crew standards and navigation equipment.
Those changes weren't as effective as requiring double hulls might have been, but a Coast Guard study published in 1978 says if the changes hadn't been imposed, quantities of oil equal to more than 70 Exxon Valdez accidents could be staining the world's oceans every year.
So there is hope that, slow as they might be, regulatory changes can make a significant difference. Here are some changes in the works:
Scores of bills addressing tanker traffic have been introduced in Congress since the Exxon Valdez accident, but few have emerged from the committee level.
Of those that have, perhaps the most important is a proposal for double bottoms.
The House last week passed a measure that would require double bottoms on all new U.S. tankers. Seven years from the date the bill becomes law, any tanker calling on U.S. ports would be required to have a double bottom, no matter where or when it was manufactured.
This summer, the Senate passed a less stringent version of the bill. It requires the Coast Guard to study the double-bottom proposal again, and if the agency can't prove that double bottoms are unnecessary, it must write a requirement.
The two versions now go to a conference committee. Many members of Congress expect the Senate version will prevail.
Congress is also tinkering with Coast Guard regulations already in place. One change would allow the Coast Guard to revoke or suspend a merchant mariner's license if the agency has evidence such as drunken-driving convictions that the sailor has a shoreside drinking problem. Another measure would toughen standards for U.S. crews and tanker officers. The Senate has never ratified a 1978 international treaty that does upgrade crew qualifications.
As things stand, "the qualifications for an able-bodied seaman come from 100 years ago," says Jerry Aspland, president of Arco Marine Inc., the shipping arm of Atlantic Richfield Co.
Congress also has appropriated $4 million to upgrade the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic System in Puget Sound, but legislation has yet to address the poor condition of Coast Guard radars elsewhere and the lack of any traffic system in most U.S. harbors.
Making changes in federal law is a challenge in light of the power of the oil-industry lobby, which last year contributed more than $1.7 million to congressional campaigns.
That power was demonstrated last week as Congress grappled with spill-liability legislation. The House passed a bill saying simple negligence on the part of an oil company is cause enough to justify imposing unlimited liability for the effects of a spill. But the next day, after intense lobbying by the Bush administration and key congressmen from oil-producing states, the House reverted to old language in the bill saying only gross negligence could be cause for such liability.
Liability is a key issue because, as Washington Assistant Attorney General Lee Rees says, "You make taking risks real expensive."
The state has a new liability law that requires tankers entering Washington's waters to have proof of financial responsibility for each ship equal to $150 per gross ton. (A gross ton is a measure of the ship's cargo volume.) The law predates the Exxon Valdez spill, though, and in light of that accident it appears inadequate.
The tanker Arco Anchorage, with a gross tonnage of 52,486, is required to carry only about $7.8 million of insurance to comply with the law, although it carries a lot more. The minimum requirement is less than the $13 million the company spent to clean up a spill at Port Angeles in 1985. It is a drop in the bucket compared with the $1.24 billion cleanup cost after the Exxon Valdez spill.
Rees says the law "was never intended, though, to limit their liability. It is merely to assure they have some form of financial responsibility."
Aspland, of Arco, says his company surveyed top U.S. oil-shipping companies and found they each had more than $400 million in liability insurance.
More changes may be coming from the state. After a barge spill that blackened beaches in both Washington and British Columbia last year, the state began working with the B.C. government to upgrade a pact on oil-spill cleanup and prevention.
Then came the Exxon Valdez accident, and the states of Alaska, Oregon and California joined the effort. The States-B.C. Oil Spill Task Force is looking at the amount of oil-tanker and barge traffic that plies West Coast waters, and how it can be reduced. They are considering such issues as double bottoms, single boilers and double propellers.
There are limits to what states can do. They can't impose standards on ship construction and crew levels; that rests with the Coast Guard and with the nations where the ships are registered.
But states can establish pilotage and escort regulations and more.
The Puget Sound Water Quality Authority recently recommended in a draft report that Washington state require oil terminals and tankers to have state-approved contingency plans for accidents.
Washington and British Columbia are planning their first combined oil-spill drill, a paperwork exercise done with assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Canadian Coast Guard and U.S. environmental agencies. Future exercises will be conducted on the water, says Cullen Stephenson, oil-spill specialist for the state Department of Ecology.
And the states can influence the federal government. Washington is considering urging the Coast Guard to impose greater control over shipping lanes. The lanes in Puget Sound are often clogged with fishing vessels.
Speed limits for tankers might also be recommended. Currently, the Coast Guard throughout the nation requires only that ship masters act prudently, sticking to a speed that is appropriate for "prevailing circumstances."
THE OIL INDUSTRY
While tanker owners have long lobbied against expensive safety requirements, the shock of the Exxon Valdez accident may soften the resistance.
The owners' organization, the American Petroleum Institute, announced last June a $250 million, five-year program to create spill-response teams in five locations, including Seattle. The owners also called on the federal and state governments to set tougher standards for pilots. They are helping pay for a National Academy of Sciences study of double-bottom and double-hull tanker construction. And they say they would support the Coast Guard in setting new standards for tanker-crew levels.
Individual companies are also doing more. Arco Marine Inc., for instance, now requires its tankers to sail 100 miles off the coast until they reach port a change Aspland, the company's president, says will cost $1 million a year. Arco ships also have been ordered to slow down when ice clogs Prince William Sound, and to slow down in Washington's Rosario Strait. Arco is also pushing for better crew training.
Exxon, Arco and other companies also have instituted drug- and alcohol-testing programs.
THE COAST GUARD
The Coast Guard has amassed the nation's best data base on marine accidents, but with a tight budget eaten up by the drug war, the information has gone largely unused.
The Exxon Valdez spill could change all that.
For the first time in 10 years, the agency is reviewing its inspection program. The agency is also reviewing its spill-contingency plans, which were so out of date at the time of the Exxon Valdez accident that phone numbers in the Seattle plan were not working numbers.
The agency is also looking at adding radars to its harbors, and the expanded use of computerized ship-tracking equipment.
The Coast Guard also continues to study the possible benefits not only of double bottoms, but also of double propellers and bow thrusters.
NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
Tankers traveling in the narrow waters around Washington's San Juan Islands could be more strictly regulated if a proposal to turn those waters into a national marine sanctuary is approved.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state Department of Ecology have been addressing that idea in public hearings, the last of which is scheduled for tonight.
Under legislation written by former Rep. Mike Lowry, D-Seattle, Congress has ordered that the area off the Olympic Peninsula be designated a national marine sanctuary by June 1990 and that a decision be made by March 1991 on such a designation for the San Juans.
Bald eagles and 100 other bird species, plus a variety of sea life, call this area home. If it is designated a sanctuary, the activities of 28 agencies that regulate activities around the islands would be coordinated. That would include the Coast Guard, and its regulation of oil tankers. More than 500 tankers sail through the islands each year.
NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD
The National Transportation Safety Board is writing a report on the Exxon Valdez accident, a report expected to make tough recommendations to the Coast Guard.
That doesn't mean the Coast Guard will comply. The NTSB told the Coast Guard and Congress in 1975 that double bottoms would prevent tanker spills, but nothing changed. Records show that the Coast Guard complies with about 70 percent of NTSB recommendations.
The NTSB report on the Exxon Valdez spill will be completed sometime next March, about a year from the date of the accident, says spokesman Drucella Andersen.
Wenk, of the University of Washington, can't wait to see it. He also can't wait for change, hoping that finally safety will no longer have to take a back seat to economic concerns.
Perhaps, he says, Americans are ready to press their representatives for tougher standards. Perhaps, he says, they are willing to move away from the era when "our terrific appetite for oil suppressed all other considerations."
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