Investigation into tugboat grounding on Bligh Reef begins

BLIGH REEF: Coast Guard has little to say about the accident.

December 28, 2009 

As the drama around the tugboat grounding in Prince William Sound draws to a close, big questions still linger about what happened.

The two biggest: Why did the 136-foot Pathfinder tug go aground at Bligh Reef, one of the most famous shipping hazards in the world? And, how much of the thousands of gallons of diesel fuel it carried leaked when the reef ripped open the boat's hull?

The U.S. Coast Guard is leading the investigation of the Dec. 23 accident but was still releasing little information Monday. It is also the lead agency in charge of watching vessel traffic in the world-renowned waterway.

Did the Coast Guard know the tug was at Bligh Reef? Did it warn the tug? What monitoring occurred at the time of the grounding is part of the investigation, although, "there is no indication of negligence on the part of any Coast Guard personnel at this time, but it's still ongoing," said Lt. Erin Christensen.

The Coast Guard said little information would be available until the investigation is complete. That process "could literally take days, weeks, months," said Petty Officer David Mosley.

The Pathfinder, a Crowley Maritime Services tugboat, was at the Petro Star dock in Valdez on Monday, according to company spokesman Jim Butler. The remaining fuel on board was being offloaded, and Crowley expects to be able to move the vessel to a container dock in Valdez today to better examine the damage.

The powerful, general-purpose utility tugboat had been working in Prince William Sound for more than 30 years, Butler said. Its job on Dec. 23 was to scout for ice in the shipping lane. It had finished its mission and was returning when it struck the reef made famous by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

After the grounding, the Coast Guard did not release a public statement for nine hours, but Christensen said nearby communities and the state were notified within three.

The Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service in Valdez monitors vessels in the area. It does so primarily with two systems: a standard radar and a second Automatic Identification System, which is a locating device carried by larger vessels. The idea is that if one system goes down, the other is there for backup, said Stan Stephens, a longtime tour operator in the area who also sits on the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, a watchdog group set up after the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil, the nation's worst tanker spill.

The Pathfinder was required to have an AIS, Christensen said. But the Coast Guard would not say whether the Pathfinder was being actively monitored on Dec. 23.

"It was probably really pouring down rain, and that would have reduced the radar capability a little," Stephens said. "But it's just unbelievable for most of us that they were there."

Bligh Reef is a rock reef that has deeper sections above which the Pathfinder could have safely traveled, Stephens said, but why it was in the shallower part he didn't know.

"They should have had all kinds of things, of bells that would have went off, to let them know," he said.

Stephens said the council will be checking for the fingerprint of Pathfinder's diesel fuel in its regular spring sampling of sea life.

There were two spills noticed from the Pathfinder's grounding. The first left a three-mile sheen of diesel oil; the second left a mile-long sheen. The second was noticed during the fuel transfer during the response.


Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.

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