As the state ferry E.L. Bartlett docked in Valdez on Tuesday afternoon, a blue line tracing a path on a color screen hit home.U.S. Coast Guard vessel traffic controller David McCloskey had been monitoring the progress of the ferry for much of the afternoon as it made its way from Cordova. He paid particularly close attention to the ferry's passage through the Valdez Narrows, which constrict to just 500 yards of navigable waters.
But he watched it all from a 20-by-20-inch color screen, blocks away from where the ferry docked. The screen, which showed a blue triangle and line to mark the ship and its path into port, is part of the Coast Guard's long-awaited vessel-tracking radar system that was christened last week.
The $7 million system is part of a wide range of reforms put in place since 1989, when the Exxon Valdez tanker grounded at Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. The reforms have included acquiring tons of new spill-cleanup gear, mandatory tanker-escort boats, tighter weather restrictions on when tankers can sail and formation of a citizens' watchdog group.
The vessel-tracking system is the Coast Guard's most sweeping and expensive change since the Exxon spill.
This system corrects some of the flaws of how the Coast Guard monitored passage from Port Valdez out to the Gulf of Alaska. For the first time, the Coast Guard can pinpoint a tanker's location and watch its progress all along the way between port and sea. Not only does the Coast Guard now have a bird's-eye view to direct traffic more efficiently, but they can identify ships straying from traffic lanes in the space of an electronic blip. They can access information ranging from water depth to predictions of a tanker's location in the minutes ahead.
Whether or not the Coast Guard and the tankers are communicating verbally, the system ensures they are always in contact electronically.
"The likelihood of an Exxon Valdez or an oil spill like that ever happening again is virtually nil," said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Roger Rufe, commander of the Alaska region.
Valdez has been one of the nation's busiest tanker ports since North Slope oil started flowing in 1977. Each month about 130 tankers dock there to pick up Alaska's North Slope oil production, one-fourth of all U.S. oil output.
The 1989 disaster was the nation's largest tanker spill, spawning lawsuits to punish the Exxon Corp. and laws like the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 designed to prevent another catastrophic mistake.
The spill also loosened purse strings, as the U.S. Congress appropriated money for projects, including the $7 million for the system paraded at the Coast Guard's vessel traffic center in Valdez last week.
THE BIG PICTURE
Until now, the Coast Guard has had to rely on tankers to provide their course, speed and location to them. But the system had built-in errors. For one thing, tankers were giving their coordinates based on the Global Positioning System (GPS), a network system of satellites that pinpoint a vessel's location. But the position could be off by as much as 650 feet, said Paul Rose of the Raytheon Co., the Marlborough, Mass.-based company that developed the vessel-tracking system for the Coast Guard.
In addition, the tankers would update the Coast Guard only every couple of hours or so.
"We'd sort of be guessing (their location) in between there," said Coast Guard Lt. Joe McGuiness, chief of the vessel-traffic center.
The old system relied on radar, which extended to the edge of Bligh Reef, just short of the site where the Exxon Valdez grounded.
And as far as looks go, the old system, in place since 1978, doesn't exactly inspire confidence from a modern technology perspective.
The old system used three submarine-esque circular radar screens, about 15 inches in diameter, with various knobs and buttons. Each screen showed one portion of the route, which meant the Coast Guard could never see the whole passageway in one picture.
Like a second hand on a clock, an orange beam would sweep around the screen to light up the radar reflections. Keeping track of the different vessels in the Sound involved walking over to a seven-foot map of the area, selecting the magnet bearing the name of the ship and plopping it on the map, like a mosaic on a kitchen refrigerator door.
The Coast Guard only kept track of ships until they had passed through the Valdez Narrows and made it out to Prince William Sound. When the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef, the magnet with the ship's name already had been swept off the map.
Here's how the new system works: The Coast Guard computer calculates the inaccuracies of GPS to within 30 feet. It then broadcasts the revision formula to ships. The ships, which have a special transmitter and receiver on board, digest the information and then shoot back their correct location. The Coast Guard computer packages and displays the information on three huge color screens in the vessel traffic center, automatically identifying each ship with an icon and its name.
"They watch that symbol drive right into the dock in Valdez," McGuiness said.
The system is flexible -- the viewer can zero in on one portion of the passageway and enlarge it. It can track the tanker's progress at intervals ranging from one minute to 99 minutes. It also can show or hide different levels of information so as to unclutter or add more detail to the screen. Plus, it allows the viewer to add symbols to keep track of other ships or ice or other potholes that vessels may want to know about. Two people watch the screen at all times, working 12-hour shifts.
The new system also boasts a much wider scope. Now, those keeping watch can see 5,000 square miles of the Prince William Sound area, instead of the 400 square miles previously viewed. They can see as far south as 40 miles out into the Gulf of Alaska, when before they saw to the edge of Bligh Reef, just short of where the Exxon Valdez spilled its cargo.
The system, in place since summer, had its first hard-core testing in early December, when hurricane-force winds shut down normal tanker traffic.
Seven ships, two of which were loaded with oil, circled in the Sound or dropped anchor while waiting for the winds to pass. The system, McGuiness said, allowed the Coast Guard to watch the ships' movements for the first time and choreograph the traffic of the group.
But the system also revealed its ability to detect motion that experienced tanker crews themselves could not pick up.
At one point during the night, the winds were rocking an anchored ship so much that the tanker started slipping from its position. The crew, using their measurements, did not register the shift. But the screen in the Coast Guard office did.
The Coast Guard notified the ship's crew that the tanker was "dragging anchor," but the crew assumed the new system was wrong.
Twenty minutes later, the crew contacted the Coast Guard. Their measurements had registered that the tanker had been losing ground after all.
"Never before had we told a tanker 'you're dragging anchor' before they knew," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Greg Jones, captain of the port. "It significantly reduces the human-error factor.
. We were not kidding when we said it was a 'state of the art' system."
HIGHER COMFORT LEVEL
The automatic display on the Coast Guard's screen occurs only for those ships carrying the receiver/transponder and computer software, which fit in a 40-pound metal box that can be carried onto the ship.
Only oil tankers that call at the Valdez port are required to buy and use the $5,000 set-up, McGuiness said. But the Coast Guard has written cruise-ship operators asking them to voluntarily purchase one. Knowing where the cruise ships are at all times would help sort out traffic coming into and out of the port, said McCloskey, the vessel traffic controller.
He pointed out that cruise ships have their own cargo to consider -- their passengers.
Others, including the Bartlett ferry and local charter boats, voluntarily have added the box, McGuiness said.
The system won't mean much of a change for those on the tankers, said Jim Hurd, a veteran tanker pilot who navigates tankers between Bligh Reef and docking at the port.
But the new system means the Coast Guard has a better fix on all that's out there, said Hurd, who remarked that technology has advanced tremendously since the day he navigated the second tanker to leave Valdez Marine Terminal. It boosts the tanker crew's comfort level to know that the Coast Guard can see all the traffic coming and going, he said.
The system has received a nod of approval from the watchdog citizens' organization called the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, which formed after the spill.
The Coast Guard here is the first to have the vessel traffic system, which is based on air traffic control programs, but won't be the only one for long. Raytheon also developed and is delivering one to Malaysia for navigation around the Strait of Malacca, said Rolf Lanzkron, director of air traffic control and vessel traffic systems for Raytheon. In addition, Coast Guard offices at other ports are considering adding the system.
Coast Guard officials stopped short of saying the Exxon Valdez spill would never have happened had this system been in place. And human error is the one thing that can't be factored out of the equation, they said.
But the equipment is literally at the Coast Guard's fingertips to see problems as they arise, not afterward, they said.
"There's no such thing as spill-proof," McGuiness said. "What we're adding is another very effective layer of spill prevention.
. For us, it's collecting the picture out on the Sound and making sure we get that out to the people operating the ships. If they have all the information, they'll make the right choices."
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