Stricken oil tanker approved to sail after making repairs

TUGS: Senator says rescue in Hinchinbrook Entrance underlines need for escorts.

January 18, 2010 

The Exxon tanker that briefly lost power in state waters Sunday while carrying more than 25 million gallons of crude oil has quickly become a poster child for pending federal legislation to beef up protection for Prince William Sound oil shipments.

Two tugs escorting the 832-foot SeaRiver Kodiak through the Sound towed it to safety on Sunday morning. The tanker now is en route to San Francisco.

The towing was precautionary, said Joel Kennedy, maritime operations project manager for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council. The tanker remained on course during its 30 minutes without power -- never losing control of its steering system -- and had just exited the Sound when the tugs took control, Kennedy said.

All the same, the advisory council and an Alaska U.S. senator pointed at the incident as a reason why the Sound's tanker escort system -- bolstered after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in the Sound -- should not be sacrificed. Some fear corporate cost-cutting will undermine the expensive tug escorts as the amount of oil piped from the North Slope to Valdez declines.

"With more than 25 million gallons of oil on board (the Kodiak), a vessel grounding in the inclement weather could have been catastrophic," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

She and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, last year introduced a bill requiring all tankers in the Sound to be escorted by at least two towing vessels. Right now, that requirement is part of the Sound's spill-contingency plans, but it isn't mandated in federal law.

On Monday, Murkowski called on the U.S. Senate to pass the legislation, which has already been approved by the House of Representatives.

In 2004, state environmental regulators received a draft proposal from Alaska Tanker Co., affiliated with BP, to reduce the number of tugs escorting double-hulled tankers through the Sound. That proposal was never adopted. Last winter, oil industry officials told the Sound's citizen advisory council that they had no immediate plans to change the number of tugs.

Keeping strong tug response in the Sound is one of the tanker-watchdog group's highest priorities, said acting executive director Donna Schantz.

WHAT WENT WRONG

At 3 a.m. Sunday, the Kodiak's crew reported an electrical problem that caused the tanker to briefly lose power, Schantz said.

At the time, the Kodiak was steaming through Hinchinbrook Entrance -- where the Sound opens into the Gulf of Alaska and at the end of the escort route, she said.

In a report on Monday, Kennedy with the tanker watchdog group said an electrical component, called an "exciter," failed. The exciter is located on the Kodiak's main steam turbine generator.

The electrical component overheated and set off a system alarm, said Ray Botto, a spokesman for SeaRiver Maritime Inc., the Houston-based subsidiary that operates the Kodiak for Exxon.

"There were no injuries or pollution," he said.

Though automated engineering systems on the tanker took over and the vessel regained power after 10 minutes, the boilers that power the tanker's generators went offline for about 30 minutes, according to Kennedy's report, which was based on information passed on by SeaRiver.

"The Kodiak also reported that they believed the generator was on fire, which after further investigation was determined to be false," Kennedy said.

In his report, Kennedy said the electrical component that failed put out a "tremendous amount of smoke," and that's why the crew reported a potential fire.

The tugs took the Kodiak to safe harbor around 9 a.m. at Knowles Head in the Sound, the Coast Guard said.

After Coast Guard officials inspected the power systems and cleared the tanker to sail again, the Kodiak began its trip south at about 4 a.m. Monday, officials said.

The tanker is headed to San Francisco to offload cargo, then it will go to Seattle for permanent repairs, said Coast Guard Lt. Herbert Law, based in Juneau.

The Coast Guard will inspect the tanker again after the repairs, but it has not opened an investigation of the malfunction, according to Coast Guard Petty Officer Charly Hengen.

MULTIPLE BACKUPS

The Exxon tanker was able to sail again without major repairs because it has several layers of redundancy in its power systems, officials said.

SeaRiver said the Kodiak has three backup power systems. They were tested and were deemed fully reliable by the Coast Guard before the Kodiak set sail Monday morning, Botto said.

The two tugs were close by when the tanker lost power because of the Sound's oil-spill contingency plan for tankers. The plan requires two tugs to stay within a quarter nautical mile of tankers when they enter the Gulf of Alaska at Hinchinbrook Entrance.

A RARITY

It's rare for a tanker to completely lose power in the Sound.

But it's the second time within a year that the 1978-built Kodiak has reported a problem with one of its generators, according to a Coast Guard incident report. The first mishap happened in March, in Lower 48 waters, when a component of an emergency generator failed and had to be fixed, according to the report.

The Kodiak is the oldest of Sound's oil-tanker fleet, and unlike the BP and Conoco ships, its main power system relies on boilers rather than electric/diesel power, Kennedy said.

The advisory council said oil tankers have lost power temporarily at least four times since the late 1980s, and each time they were rescued before grounding.

In October 2002, for example, the Exxon tanker Kenai was leaving Prince William Sound in the Hinchinbrook Entrance when it suffered propulsion trouble. The crew called for assistance and shut down its engines, according to the advisory council. That tanker was carrying about 33 million gallons of oil and was towed to Knowles Head for safety, said news reports at the time.


Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.

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