Applicants Overflow Tanker-Spill School

FORMER Coast Guard Capt. Tim McKinna is a realist about oil spills. The Mega Borg spill, he says, ``is one more accident in an industrial society that will remain industrial.''

So there's likely to be steady business for the oil-spills school he runs for Texas A&M University on Galveston's busy, gritty ship channel. Indeed, since the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska's Prince William Sound last year, the nation's only hands-on spills school has been booked solid by blue-collar and executive employees of oil companies, as well as harbor masters and government officials.

``Valdez opened our eyes. It helped enhance the reasons for taking more training,'' says Jim Kurka, a safety and environment official with Amoco Production. He is moving from Alaska to help in a new Amoco offshore project in the Congo. Mr. Kurka and 29 other students in this week's 40-hour course are practicing miniature cleanups in the searing Gulf sun.

Gloved in industrial-strength rubber, they test absorbant pads on gooey brown oil slicks created in barrels; they watch dispersants cut through oil, like that shown on dishwashing commercials; and, as their final exam, they deploy booms from shore to capture a ``spill'' of cottonseed hulls created by their instructors.

How often do classes pass the final exam?

``They almost never do,'' says Mr. McKinna. ``You go away from here knowing how you're supposed to do it, but failure is a great lesson.'' And often more realistic in the spills business.

The course is aimed at typical employees who might find themselves at the site of one of the nation's thousands of small spills. It's not unusual for oil industry employees to know nothing about cleanup, McKinna says.

One student struggling to pull-start the outboard engine on his small launch stands precariously in the stern, unknowingly digging the prop into the shore's gravel.

``This,'' says McKinna, nodding in the student's direction, ``is why there are failures in spill response. You'd be amazed what happens in a crisis.''

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