Industry Crisis-Response Lacking

Like an oily fingerprint, each accident displays unique - and frustrating - characteristics. TEXAS OIL TANKER SPILL

THE dark plumes of crude oil spilling uncontrolled from the crippled supertanker Mega Borg illustrate a now frustratingly familiar lesson: The oil industry is unprepared for major oil spills. Though the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons of heavy crude in Alaska last year raised the issue to the level of heated national debate, officials of the petroleum industry, government, and environmental groups say they now face the 3 million gallon Mega Borg spill with no improvements in their ability to respond to major oil spills.

It is particularly telling here on Texas' ``chemical coast,'' the capital of the nation's petroleum industry, that the Norwegian ship's salvage contractor waited for key equipment to arrive from the Netherlands to fight the fire that erupted last Saturday in the ship's engine room.

``We said last year at the time of the Valdez that [neither] the US government nor industry was prepared to handle a disastrous spill, and nothing has changed,'' says Joseph Lastelic, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute.

The Valdez accident, which stained a thousand miles of coastline, spurred rounds of industry and government planning for spill containment, says former Galveston mayor Jan Coggeshall, who was chairwoman of the Texas governor's oil-spill task force in the mid-1980s.

``But the question is whether you're prepared for a major spill,'' Mrs. Coggeshall says. ``We need equipment on the Gulf Coast, regular training, and annual spill drills and dispersant training.''

That's just part of the wish list. Others - including the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private environmental group - want the Coast Guard to control cleanup operations and to institute reforms in ship pilot training and ship construction.

Individual states, meanwhile, are passing tougher spill and cleanup liability laws aimed at the oil industry.

Oil-spill legislation foundered in Congress over issues of liability for companies involved in cleanup and tanker structural rquirements, like the controversial double hull. And a $400-million oil-industry plan to create a national spill response network to provide equipment and trained personnel is still on the drawing board.

Environmentalists and the oil industry would like to see the United States Coast Guard take the lead in spill response. If the Coast Guard were given the responsibility, the Petroleum Industry Response Organization (PIRO) planned by the industry might be able to avoid the liability sanctions some legislation would require.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, do not trust the industry alone to provide adequate resources - equipment and trained personnel - to respond to spills. Galveston officials have suggested the Coast Guard should have forced Mega Borg salvagers to use local equipment suppliers for expediency.

Coast Guard officials, though, oppose the idea - and the cost - of becoming spill response experts. ``Our role is coordination, providing guidance,'' explains Adm. William Merlin. ``If we're not satisfied, we can say we'll take over.''

Coast Guard Capt. Thomas Greene, the federal on-site coordinator, says there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes tussling in getting the Mega Borg's owners and its contractors to stay on ``the right course.''

For example, he explains, the Coast Guard has pushed for skimmers to work closer to the thickest concentrations of oil near the flaming Mega Borg and for the contractors to provide extra barges to collect skimmed oil.

``There's a tendency [by contractors] to minimize, to try to reduce the costs for the spiller,'' Captain Greene says. ``But we're providing a Cadillac-type operation rather than a Chevrolet.''

Admiral Merlin says, ``We demand that they [salvage masters and cleanup contractors] give us a plan. So they have to stop and really think about it. Left to their own devices, they'd just run out there and fight it [the spill].''

The Mega Borg had been lightering - transferring crude oil to a smaller ship - about 57 miles southeast of here when fire erupted in the engine room Saturday. By Sunday, explosions had ruptured one of the ship's 14 cargo tanks. Because the incident occured in international waters, Norwegian officials are investigating the cause of the accident.

The fire was contained Tuesday, but oil continued to gush uncontroled from the tanker. Private contractors hired by the ship's owner are using skimming devices and dispersants to control and collect the estimated 40,000 gallons of oil that have not burned or evaporated.

With strong winds kicking up yesterday, small amounts of tar balls were expected to hit the Texas coast south of here by today or Saturday, say US Coast Guard officials. The spill comes just as Texas' summer swelter begins to draw tourists to this beach resort, though there's no sign so far that the spill has discouraged them from coming.

Besides the several national wildlife refuges (including a whooping crane sanctuary) that dot the barrier islands and beaches south of here, the spill potentially could effect shrimp, which are spawning now, environmentalists say.

``Oil will more-than-likely come ashore in small amounts, but we've got to do everything possible to keep it out ot the estuaries, which play an important role for 95 percent of the marine organisms in the Gulf,'' says Bob Nailon, a Texas A&M Sea Grant extension agent.

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