When the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef this spring, crude oil wasn't all that escaped from its ruptured tanks.So did an old fight over double bottoms.
Environmentalists and congressmen demanded, as they had after previous catastrophes, that oil tankers be required to have them.
The oil industry and the Coast Guard, warned as they had after previous catastrophes that double bottoms cost a lot, that they might not do much good, that they might even do harm.
If, as before, the Coast Guard and industry win the fight, oil tankers almost alone among the world's ships will continue to sail the oceans with less safe single bottoms.
A double bottom is just what it sounds like: two steel skins, instead of one, under an oil tanker, with empty space in between.
To put it another way, the bottom of the oil tanks and the bottom of the ship are separated by several feet of safety zone.
The Exxon Valdez had one bottom. With two, the Coast Guard estimated soon after the crash, the spill might have been 60 percent smaller. That would have meant just more than 4 million gallons of North Slope crude in Prince William Sound, instead of nearly 11 million.
How could a double bottom have made a difference?
Suppose a loaded tanker hits a rock and the rock punches through the bottom of the ship and 10 feet up into its bowels.
If the tanker has a single bottom, oil will run out through the hole and the sea will be polluted.
But if it has a double bottom 11.5 feet deep about normal for a ship the size of the Exxon Valdez the rock will never reach the oil tanks, and the sea will not be polluted at all.
In more typical groundings, some parts of the bottom are penetrated farther than others, depending on where and how hard the tanker hits. If the ship has one bottom, a tank will be punctured wherever the bottom is opened.
But if the ship has two bottoms, some of the tanks will be spared, and less oil will be lost. This is what the Coast Guard's naval architects assumed would have happened if the Exxon Valdez had had a double bottom.
Double bottoms are not new, complicated, or poorly understood. They are and have long been the norm on drycargo vessels.
"Every ship in the world has a double bottom except about 2,000 tankers," said Arthur McKenzie, a New York tanker expert and doublebottoms advocate. McKenzie runs a rating service called the Tanker Advisory Center, which he started after retiring from 40 years' service in Exxon's tanker operations.
Drycargo ships use double bottoms because the girders, beams and other structural clutter at the bottom of a ship prevent ordinary freight bales of cotton, say, or barrels of rum, or pallets of lumber from being efficiently stowed there.
But a tanker's liquid cargo doesn't need to ride on a smooth bottom, so its owners and designers have a choice. Usually, they choose a single bottom, because it's cheaper to build.
Usually, but not always. Over the years, a few oil tankers have been built with double bottoms, either because their owners wanted the extra protection, or because they thought double bottoms were about to be forced on them.
For example, about a quarter of the oil and fuel tankers certified for Alaska service have double bottoms, according to a recent report by a research agency of the state legislature.
And the federal government requires double bottoms under certain kinds of liquid cargoes. They include liquid natural gas and hazardous materials with exotic names like chlorosulfonic acid, dodecyl phenol and trixylenyl phosphate.
These tankers are treated differently from oil tankers because their cargos are far more dangerous, according to John Hersh, head of the Coast Guard's Standards Development Branch.
"Oil," Hersh said, "wasn't like a hazardous material that was going to cause a flash cloud and half a town was going to be killed, or every fish for 10 miles around that vessel was going to be killed."
The first serious effort to require double bottoms on oil tankers came in the early 1970s, as the battle was being fought over where to put the pipeline from Prudhoe Bay. Environmentalists argued, among many other things, that an allAlaska route was too risky because of the tankers that would carry the oil out of Prince William Sound.
Government advocates of the allAlaska route responded by promising to put double bottoms on tankers in the North Slope trade.
The most notable of these was U.S. Interior Secretary Rogers Morton. In 1972, he told Congress that new American tankers hauling North Slope oil "will be required to have segregated ballast systems incorporating double bottoms."
(When a tanker is empty, it is too light to sail safely. So it carries seawater for stability. Segregated ballast means carrying the seawater in separate tanks, rather than in the empty cargo tanks, where it mixes with leftover oil. Without segregated ballast, the oily seawater must be cleaned before it can be dumped into the ocean.)
The Coast Guard proposed doublebottom regulations and began the process of comment and review required before they would become final.
The industry responded with scary predictions about the dangers of double bottoms.
One of the scariest was that oil vapors might leak into the void between bottoms and blow up the ship.
Another was that, if the outer bottom were punctured in a grounding, the void would fill with water and either pin the ship more firmly on a reef making it harder to salvage or actually sink it. Either way, industry argued, the result would be more oil pollution, not less.
But no one who took a serious look at double bottoms ever found any scary evidence to back up the industry's scary theories.
In early 1975, Coast Guard naval architect James Card published a study of 30 tanker groundings from 1969 to 1973 that leaked oil into U.S. waters.
He concluded that double bottoms would have protected the cargo tanks entirely in 27 of the cases meaning no oil at all would have escaped and that they would have reduced the loss in the other three cases.
All told, he calculated, double bottoms would have contained up to 97 percent of the oil that was spilled.
Congress's Office of Technology Assessment also looked at double bottoms in 1975 and concluded they offered "a significant degree of pollution protection in the event of a grounding accident."
OTA examined the industry's scary talk about explosions and sinkings, too, and found it didn't stand up either. Of 13 tanker explosions in 1973 and 1974, OTA reported, not one involved a double bottom.
As for the claim that double bottoms might sink ships, OTA found just the opposite.
"Sinking rates due to groundings are less for these types of ships," the technology office reported.
The industry had also been putting out scare talk about the cost of double bottoms, saying they could add as much as 33 percent to the price of a ship.
But OTA concluded the extra cost was about 3 percent.
A representative from National Steel and Shipbuilding Co., the yard that later built the Exxon Valdez, told Congress the same thing in early 1977.
C.L. French, the shipyard's general manager, testified at a committee hearing that his yard had just added a double bottom to a tanker construction contract, and it had raised the cost less than 2 percent.
French also said other objections raised by doublebottom opponents either were common to all ships, or could be easily fixed by inexpensive design changes.
But it was too late. Double bottoms had already died.
Soon after the doublebottoms rule was proposed in 1973, two important things happened. One was that Congress passed a law approving construction of the transAlaska pipeline, thus depriving doublebottom advocates of much of their leverage.
The other was that the Coast Guard took the doublebottoms issue before a 1973 meeting of a United Nations agency called the InterGovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization, or IMCO.
IMCO's members were the maritime nations of the world, each of which got one vote in its deliberations. Major seafaring nations like the United States got one vote, and so did flagofconvenience countries like Liberia. The IMCO nations voted against double bottoms by a margin of more than 2to1, and the Coast Guard came home from London saying it wouldn't impose them on U.S. ships only.
Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson, a doublebottoms advocate, wasn't impressed by the Coast Guard's notions of international diplomacy.
"I know what happened in London," Magnuson told Coast Guard Commandant Owen Siler at a hearing in early 1975. "That was an oil lobby pure and simple."
"I don't care about international," Magnuson said. "These people that don't want double bottoms, they don't want them because the people that run tankers around the world want to run them so cheap . . . what we are trying to do is protect the United States."
After the IMCO conference, the Coast Guard put out new regulations that required segregated ballast capacity on large tankers. That capacity could but didn't have to be achieved with a double bottom.
Critics were angry the Coast Guard had decided that double bottoms weren't needed.
But they were even angrier about the way the Coast Guard put together the new regulations. The segregatedballast specifications were drawn up by a task force assembled by the American Petroleum Institute, an oilindustry trade association.
The task force was composed largely of oil company executives, was chaired by Exxon official William Gray, and, as the Coast Guard's boss would soon admit, was probably illegal.
Magnuson accused the Coast Guard of "a political rather than a technical decision."
"I am very concerned that the study group was nearly entirely made up of experts associated with organizations and companies which are publicly opposed to double bottoms," Magnuson wrote Transportation Secretary William Coleman. "Heavy reliance on special interest input in a public rulemaking process can only erode public confidence in our government."
Coleman maintained that the Coast Guard had been "completely open" in coming up with its segregated ballast requirements, but conceded it might have broken the law.
"It now appears possible that the Coast Guard may not have acted in every respect in compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act in regard to the development of the formula," Coleman wrote Magnuson. "If we have been remiss, it was simply an unfortunate oversight."
Out in the hinterlands, meanwhile, anxious state legislatures were writing their own rules on tanker safety.
In March 1975, the state of Washington convened an "extraordinary session" of its legislature, which passed a law requiring that loaded tankers coming into Puget Sound either have double bottoms or be accompanied by tugboats.
In 1976, Alaska adopted a tankersafety law that, among other things, encouraged the use of double bottoms through a system of risk fees.
Under Alaska's plan, higherrisk tankers paid higher fees. A double bottom was considered a lower risk, resulting in lower charges. For example, a double bottom on the tanker ARCO Fairbanks would have lowered its risk charge by as much as $97,000 a year, the state estimated.
The oil industry attacked both laws in court, and federal judges ultimately threw out most of their provisions including the doublebottom requirements and incentives primarily on the grounds that states were preempted by federal law from regulating tanker operation and design. Tanker regulation, the courts said, was up to the Coast Guard.
Though the industry and the Coast Guard had successfully repelled efforts to require doublebottoms, another push was just around the corner.
In late 1976, the tanker Argo Merchant ran aground off New England and poured 7.6 million gallons of fuel oil into the sea. In less than four months, there were 14 more tanker spills off U.S. coasts.
This time it was not a Cabinet secretary, but the president himself who came out for double bottoms.
In March 1977, Jimmy Carter sent a message to Congress declaring the rash of crashes "a grave reminder of the risks associated with marine transportation of oil."
The secretary of transportation would, Carter said, put out new oil tanker standards, including "double bottoms on all new tankers."
But Carter's message left a loophole through which the Coast Guard and the industry found it easy to sail their fleet of singlehull tankers: "Where technological improvements and alternatives can be shown to achieve the same degree of protection against pollution, the rules will allow their use."
The Coast Guard, following the strategy that had so successfully thwarted the first doublebottom push, scheduled the issue for another IMCO conference, while the industry looked for "improvements and alternatives" to offer.
By January 1978, Transportation Secretary Brock Adams the Coast Guard's boss was telling an oil industry forum in London that the Carter administration was willing to back off its demands for double bottoms in favor of several alternatives that were under discussion.
Better crew training was one, on the theory that sharper sailors would mean fewer accidents, which would mean less oil spilled.
Segregated ballast, which had been used to beat back the 197273 doublebottom push, was offered again. This time, the proposal was to require segregated ballast on even more tankers than before.
When the dust settled after the IMCO meeting in February 1978, double bottoms had been voted down again, and Gray Exxon's point man on the issue congratulated the industry on its success.
"In the summer of 1977 there was deep concern over the threat to IMCO of possible unilateral U.S. actions," Gray was quoted in a company magazine called Exxon Marine. "But when the . . . conference was over, there was a . . . sense that the U.S. initiatives had been an opportunity seized by IMCO and a challenge admirably met."
For 11 years after that, the issue lay dormant. Then the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef, and the public got interested in tanker safety again.
The industry and the Coast Guard immediately recognized the warning signs of another drive for double bottoms.
By midMay of this year, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost was repeating to Congress the old industry scaretalk that had been repudiated in study after study: Water flooding into a punctured double bottom might sink the ship, Yost said at a hearing, or petroleum fumes might leak into the void and blow it up.
In midJune, the American Petroleum Institute released a position paper claiming that mid1970s studies had "concluded that doublebottom construction is a liability in salvaging a vessel."
But when the Daily News asked to see the studies, API was unable to come up with a single one that found such problems with double bottoms. One study that API said supported its position didn't even discuss salvageability, and, in fact, concluded that double bottoms would reduce oil pollution from grounded tank barges.
Why do the industry and the Coast Guard keep saying things about double bottoms that, so far at least, are not supported by any evidence?
It could be plain, oldfashioned lying, of course, but McKenzie, the 40year Exxon tanker veteran, thinks not.
"In these huge corporations, it's been my experience that occasionally they make the worst mistake you can make, and that is to believe some of the stuff you put out to the press," he said.
Will the latest effort to require double bottoms on oil tankers turn out any differently than the earlier ones?
Only time will tell. The Coast Guard has called for yet another study, although the facts have changed very little.
Congress still seems inclined to posture in favor of double bottoms, but ultimately to pass the issue along with an ample supply of loopholes to the Coast Guard.
In August, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that directs the secretary of transportation to require double bottoms and double hulls on new tankers, unless he finds that doing so "will not enhance oil tanker navigation safety . . . or that an equal or greater benefit to such oil tanker navigation safety will be achieved by other structural requirements."
Already, of course, Yost and the industry are arguing that double bottoms may not enhance tanker safety, and "other structural requirements" are being proposed as possible alternatives.
Alaska Congressman Don Young, according to aide Lee Forsgren, thinks the Coast Guard should study bladders as an alternative.
"Bladdertype liners" for a tanker's tanks, Forsgren explained.
"It's very strong neoprene that would give with a puncture," Forsgren said. "We're assuming that the rock wouldn't tear the liner."
Dick Tweedie, the Coast Guard officer who did the Exxon Valdez doublebottoms analysis, says that isn't a safe assumption.
"All you have to do is look at the bottom of the Exxon Valdez and see all the jagged steel and so forth, and you kind of wonder how a neoprene jacket wouldn't have been damaged so that the oil wouldn't have been lost," Tweedie said.
Young himself was too busy to discuss tanker safety, Forsgren said.
Sens. Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens placed their faith, and their votes, in the Senate bill that passed in August.
"I think the jury's still out on mandatory double bottoms for all tankers," Murkowski said in an interview. "The current language would require double hulls in Prince William Sound, so I felt our interest was responsibly included in that regard."
Stevens says he favors double bottoms, but feels the U.S. needs a plan that will be accepted internationally.
While Congress could require double bottoms outright, Stevens favors the approach in the Senate bill: directing the transportation secretary to study double bottoms and require them unless he finds good reasons not to.
"There's a better chance the international group will accept those conclusions than they would a political fiat on double bottoms," Stevens said.
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