Salvage crews and divers were scheduled to make their first attempt to refloat the tanker Exxon Valdez today at about 1:30 p.m.
The tanker has been aground on Bligh Reef since March 24. It hit the reef on a clear, calm night with its captain in his cabin and an unqualified third mate in command. Investigators have since said the captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was too drunk to legally be in charge of her at the time of the accident. The grounding, at shortly after midnight, punched holes in eight of the vessel's tanks, spilling more than 10 million gallons of oil into the fertile waters of Prince William Sound.
Exxon has spent the better part of two weeks siphoning about 42 million gallons of oil off the Valdez and onto three other tankers.
Frank Iarossi, the president of Exxon Shipping Co., estimated on Tuesday that between 50,000 and 100,000 gallons barrels of oil are still on board the tanker, generally floating on about 600,000 gallons of oily seawater. The company will not try to recover that oil.
As the oil has been removed, Exxon has pumped seawater into ballast tanks, and seawater has flowed through the ruptures into the damaged tanks as oil was siphoned from their tops.
Iarossi said salvage crews aboard a vessel called the Salvage Chief will float the Valdez.
Air will be pumped into the damaged tanks through a forward hatch. There is about 52 feet of oil and seawater in the tanks now, and enough air will be pumped in to force about 3 feet of water out the holes in the bottom of the Valdez' tanks.
Matching levels of water will be taken into ballast tanks to keep the vessel upright in the water.
Iarossi said he is confident that the vessel can be refloated without sinking it.
The Salvage Chief will "be pulling on the bow of the tanker," Iarossi said. "There'll be four other tugs working in concert with the Salvage Chief.
"We don't really expect to pull it off the reef; that's the last thing we want to do. We want to float it up, and then be able to move it."
The process is a delicate balancing act. Iarossi said it could take six to eight hours just to float the tanker.
"Folks have been told if things aren't right on the first tide Wednesday, we've got other tides, so we're not going to rush things to catch a schedule.
"But sometime between Wednesday afternoon and Friday we will refloat the vessel."
Iarossi said crew members aboard the Valdez will know it's afloat when they feel the heel change. "Right now its heeled to starboard about one degree at high tide and four degrees at low tide."
If the Valdez floats free, Exxon plans to tow her 25 miles across the Sound to Outside Bay, on the southwest end of Naked Island.
The island already has been hit by the oil spilled by the Valdez. After Valdez Mayor John Devens said he didn't want the Exxon Valdez brought back to his city, the company settled on Outside Bay as a better place to make temporary repairs.
Outside Bay may no longer be pure, but state environmental officials still don't want it oiled any more. Exxon will throw a boom around the stillleaking tanker while working on it, and other cleanup vessels are supposed to trail it on the passage to Naked Island to sop up any oil that escapes.
"There is a concern that there might be some oil trapped near the bottom of the vessel where it is on the reef," said Bob Flint of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
"They could burp some oil out when they move it," he said.
He said Exxon has requested, as a last line of defense, to use chemical dispersants on that. "When they say "last line of defense,' I assume there is a first line," he said.
Flint says state officials figure only a comparatively minor amount of oil might escape during the refloating or moving of the Valdez, maybe 200,000 gallons or less.
Still, that would be more than the 168,000 gallon spill Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. used as an example in preparing its spill contingency plan, and five times the amount of oil Alyeska described as the "most likely spill volume . . . during the 30 year lifetime of the marine terminal."
Just how extensive the temporary repairs to the Valdez will have to be won't be known until the vessel is free of the reef and divers can get a close look at the damage to her hull.
But salvage expert Don Neet, who works for a company hired to help repair the Valdez, said divers are used to making underwater repairs in Alaska waters. The comparatively quiet currents of the Sound should be manageable for crews used to working underwater in Cook Inlet, he said.
If the Valdez can be made seaworthy, she'll be taken to a port for permanent repairs.
Earlier, Iarossi said the vessel would be put up in drydock in Portland, Ore., and fixed. But people in Portland have expressed some reservations, and Iarossi Tuesday said the Valdez may wind up at an as yet unspecified port in the Far East.
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