The U.S. Coast Guard Monday flip-flopped on plans to allow nighttime oil tanker traffic in Prince William Sound, reinstating restrictions that allow tankers to operate only in the daylight.
The restrictions also require that two tugs must escort each tanker through Valdez Arm and out to the open water near the mouth of the Sound.
On Sunday, the Coast Guard told industry officials that the restrictions would be dropped. But they reversed that decision after state officials protested.
"We've got a lot of activity out there right now," said Bill Lamoreaux, Southcentral regional supervisor with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, pointing to the cleanup activities and heavy tanker traffic.
"We had one spill down there at night. Until we can make sure that's not going to happen again and until we know Alyeska is ready to respond, we don't want" tanker traffic to return to normal, Lamoreaux said.
"We advised Alyeska (Sunday) afternoon we were going to drop the daylightonly reservation," said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Rick Meidt. "After consultation with the state, we changed our mind."
Tanker traffic had been restricted since the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef March 24, dumping more than 10 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude in the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
The leading edge of the spill was pushed to the south in a huge sweeping plume Monday by a combination of favorable winds from the northwest and freshwater runoff.
It reached four to five miles off of Aialik Cape at the mouth of Resurrection Bay, but so far has spared the bay, another major commercial and sportfishing center and sightseeing attraction. A change in weather or wind could drive it back north into Resurrection Bay, state and federal officials said.
The spilled crude surged out of Prince William Sound last Wednesday, skirting along the mouth of Day Harbor and hugging the coastline.
The crude continues to foul the western half of the Sound. Its effects are spread over more than 1,000 square miles.
Exxon has pumped most of the 42 million gallons of oil that remained on the tanker Valdez onto three other tankers.
The pipeline terminal was closed to tankers for four days after the Valdez, with its captain in his cabin and an uncertified third mate at the helm, steamed more than 11|2 miles off course and onto Bligh Reef just after midnight March 24. The Coast Guard reopened the terminal to daytime traffic on March 28.
Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi Monday said the last of the oil from the Valdez should be transferred onto other tankers this morning. Salvage crews will try to float the vessel at the first of a series of high tides on Wednesday about 1 p.m.
Exxon assuming the state and federal agencies concur then plans to take the Valdez to Outside Bay on Naked Island, where divers will attempt to make temporary repairs. Boats with cleanup gear are supposed to sweep along in its wake, scooping up any residual oil that leaks from the Valdez.
Once temporary repairs are made, Exxon plans to take the Valdez to drydock in Portland, Ore.
Plans for floating and moving the vessel have to be approved by the Coast Guard.
Another center of activity Monday was at Sawmill Bay on Evans Island. At a major salmon hatchery there, high school students, fishermen, state workers and private contractors struggled for a second day to fend off an oil slick.
Miles of protective booms were deployed between the Armin Koernig Hatchery at Sawmill Bay and the waves of smelly, sticky oil. In some places, oil was reported piling up 3 inches deep behind booms.
Some of that washed underneath, lacing the inner bay with a gleaming sheen. Cleanup workers in skiffs patrolled the booms, trying to sop up the stubborn crude collecting on the outside before it could seep in.
In case the perimeter booms fail or the wind and waves pick up, plans are being made to attempt the rescue of at least some of the 120 million salmon fry at the hatchery.
Dan Warren, vice president of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp., said a landing craft basically a boat with a drop front that can run up to the shoreline and pick up cargo was expected at the hatchery Monday.
The idea is to pick up loads of 7 to 10 million salmon fry and try to transplant them to Cannery Creek or Esther Island. Both areas are in the north end of the Sound, above the Exxon Valdez spill.
It might be a long shot, but time is running out. The fry have to be moved from their fresh water pens to saltwater within three to four days, he said.
The Sawmill Bay salmon are part of 600 million fry due to be released into the Sound by hatcheries.
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