Preventing another monster oil slick

From new tugboats to foam-filled booms, Alaska is far moreprepared toprevent and respond to a spill than it was 10 years ago.

Aboard the Liberty Service - As tanker Overseas Washington moves away from the Valdez terminal through a blowing snow storm, weighed low with 28 million gallons of oil for delivery to Port Angeles, Wash., it suddenly loses rudder control. This could mean big trouble if the out-of-control behemoth hits the nearby shore.

But quickly, the tugboat Nanuq - the most powerful ever built - muscles the 90,000-ton ship out of harm's way and back on course.

The close call is just a drill to practice emergency procedures, and soon the big tanker is on its way toward open waters. But not without close escort through the Valdez Narrows and out past Bligh Reef, where the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and dumped much of its load 10 years ago.

"We have an extremely safe system here," says Vince Mitchell, vessel operations team leader for the Ship Escort/Response Vessel System (SERVS), created just after the 1989 spill.

"It's been a continuous improvement process," says Mr. Mitchell, a former US Coast Guard officer on board the escort response vessel Liberty Service. "We're really focusing on prevention. That's where the real benefit is."

Statistics gathered by the Coast Guard bear him out: The average number of annual oil spills over 10,000 gallons in American waters has dropped by half since 1991, and there have been no spills over 1 million gallons. (The Exxon Valdez dumped at least 11 million gallons here.)

Behind the improvements are new regulations for tanker operations, new equipment like oil-skimming ships, and upgraded radar to track tankers. Crew members are better trained, and a new system of citizen oversight is in place.

Critics say this is not enough, and they worry efforts to prevent another disaster will be cut back. Some oil shippers, for example, want to extend the 2015 deadline for converting to double-hulled tankers. (A double hull on the Exxon Valdez would have reduced its spill by as much as 80 percent, the Coast Guard says.) So far, only three of the 28 tankers operating here have double hulls.

"We think the timetable is already fairly liberal, and there shouldn't be additional extensions or delays or waivers," says Lynda Hyce, deputy director of the watchdog group, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council. "They've had 10 years' notice and it's time to get on with it."

A massive undertaking

More than 276 billion gallons of oil were shipped in and around the US last year. Twenty percent of domestic crude oil moves through the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline and out through Prince William Sound in tankers. That's nearly 50 million gallons a day on ships that navigate through islands and icebergs. And tankers are as heavy as 500,000 tons - more than five times as large as the Overseas Washington. (The Exxon Valdez left its tanker lane because of reported icebergs.)

Most of the safety improvements in place today are a result of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90), passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez.

Tankers now are subject to speed limits, and their officers are tested for alcohol before getting under way. Ships can also be more closely tracked using satellite positioning data, and they are under escort through the trickiest part of the sound.

Bigger and better escort vessels like the Nanuq ("Polar Bear" in the Inupiat language) and the largest oil-skimming ships in North America are here to maintain safe passage and respond quickly to accidents. In addition, some 350 private fishing vessels in the sound are under contract to help out in case of a spill. OPA 90 also established a $1 billion spill liability fund, paid for by the oil industry.

And it's not just Prince William Sound that is better protected these days. The Coast Guard now maintains spill-response equipment at 22 strategic sites near major port areas around the country, including skimming systems and 5,000 feet of foam-filled boom used to contain floating oil after a spill. Political and public pressure have brought other environmental benefits as well.

The Exxon Valdez Oilspill Trustee Council has used $400 million of the money Exxon paid after the spill to protect some 650,000 acres for wildlife habitat, including more than 300 salmon streams and large blocks of old-growth forest.

Combating complacency

Watchdogging by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, whose 18 member groups include communities affected by the spill, has led directly to the installation of new devices to capture the poisonous vapors forced out of tankers while they're being loaded with oil.

"We have no authority but a great deal of influence," says Ms. Hyce of the advisory council, who describes the overall level of tanker safety these days as "much improved, that's for sure.

"But it always needs improvement," she adds. "Our primary responsibility is to combat complacency, and you never get done with that chore."

The creative tension between oil shippers and those who scrutinize them no doubt will continue for as long as oil flows through the pipeline. But the goal is the same for everybody.

"Nobody wants a problem," says Mitchell, the SERVS team leader. "Nobody wants an accident."

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