HARD AGROUND - Wreck of the Exxon Valdez - March 24, 1989



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Daily News reporter

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 10/15/89
Day: Sunday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

ANCHORAGE- In the 1970s, the oil industry and its friends in government were ready to promise almost anything in return for permission to turn on the pumps at Prudhoe Bay.

One of those promises was that, under tough U.S. Coast Guard oversight, tankers that would haul up to 2 million barrels of oil a day through Prince William Sound would be the safest in the world.

"I consider our primary concern with regard to ValdezPrince William Sound to be the prevention of a catastrophic oil spill," said Coast Guard Rear Adm. John B. Hayes to a fishermen's convention in Cordova in April 1977.

Hayes said the Coast Guard would among other things propose that double bottoms be required on tankers to reduce the chances of their poisonous cargo fouling the Sound in a grounding.

Lt. Cmdr. Ken Thompson, a Hayes subordinate, told the conference that a Coast Guard traffic system would ensure the tankers didn't collide with each other or with the rocks and reefs lining the route into the Gulf of Alaska.

"Valdez Narrows and Arm will be covered by a radar at Potato Point," Thompson said. "The radar to be installed is among the most sophisticated available."

But these and other Coast Guard commitments were abandoned soon after oil began flowing through the pipeline in August 1977.

When the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef on March 24 it had one bottom, not two. The resulting 11milliongallon spill, the Coast Guard itself recently estimated, was up to 21|2 times larger than it would have been if the ship had had a double bottom.

And the operators on duty in the Coast Guard's Valdez Vessel Traffic Center said the 987foot vessel didn't even register on their radar screens as it plowed toward disaster, although Bligh Reef is only 13 miles from the "sophisticated" radar at Potato Point.

The Coast Guard's mission is to protect the safety of ships and sailors, and to prevent pollution of the oceans. To do so, it regulates ship design, manning standards, crew qualifications and vessel operating practices.

The agency portrays itself as chronically underfunded but heroically dedicated, willing to tackle almost any job with almost no money, but a Daily News investigation suggests that its failure to prevent or lessen the severity of last spring's catastrophe stemmed more from its coziness with the oil industry than from any lack of resources.

Judged on its record, the Coast Guard is more often partner than policeman to the shipping companies it is supposed to regulate.

Single bottoms and a feeble Vessel Traffic Service are only two of many examples of how the Coast Guard sliced away at the safety net that had been promised for the Sound.

Usually, as in the matter of double bottoms, it was because the Coast Guard bowed to industry pressure.

Less often, as in the case of the Vessel Traffic Service, it was because the Coast Guard lacked or didn't want to spend the money to do its job properly.

Over the years the Coast Guard has also:

* Routinely approved reductions in the number of sailors required on oil tankers, to the point that crew fatigue apparently played a part in the Exxon Valdez disaster;

* Reduced the level of experience required to drive oil tankers through the Sound, allowing oil shippers including Exxon to cut costs by not sending crew members to training courses in which they "sailed" a tanker simulator in and out of the Sound for practice;

* Turned an Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. whistleblower in to his boss after the whistleblower informed Coast Guard officials in Valdez about possible pollution violations at the Alyeska tanker terminal there; and

* Allowed a welltrodden career path to develop from itself to the industry it purports to regulate.

Citing these and other actions, Coast Guard critics contend it set up Alaska for a spill like the Exxon Valdez.

One of those critics is Canadian David Anderson. In the 1970s, as the transportation system through the Sound was being designed, Anderson was a member of the Canadian parliament and served in the British Columbia Legislature.

Eventually, Anderson joined a group of environmental organizations in a lawsuit that held up the transAlaska pipeline until Congress passed a special law to get it going.

Today, Anderson is a consultant on the Valdez spill to the British Columbia government.

In his view, the Exxon Valdez crash wasn't so much an accident as a conscious choice made long ago.

"In this area, there's a systems failure of the regulatory agency," Anderson said. "We must face the fact that those who made those decisions deliberately chose to have an accident.

"It's all very well for Coast Guard admirals in splendid uniforms to turn up in helicopters and say, "We're going to get to the bottom of this; we're going to go after that rascal Hazelwood,' " Anderson said. "But he's the goat. It's the system that's at fault."


Hayes was not the first federal official to lead the public to believe that tankers traversing the Sound would have double bottoms. The discussion had gone on for years.

"Newly constructed American flag vessels carrying oil from Port Valdez to United States ports will be required to have segregated ballast systems incorporating double bottoms," Interior Secretary Rogers Morton told Congress in 1972.

Morton appears to have been sincere, but within a year the Coast Guard was backing away from that commitment.

Other countries opposed double bottoms at a 1973 convention of the InterGovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization, a United Nations agency set up to promote marine safety and international cooperation on technical shipping matters.

The Coast Guard soon dropped its proposal to require double bottoms, saying it wouldn't impose standards on U.S. vessels that weren't accepted internationally.

The Coast Guard's aboutface drew squawks from Morton, from the Environmental Protection Agency, from environmentalists, from the governors of Washington and Alaska, and from Sens. Edmund Muskie of Maine and Warren Magnuson of Washington.

The new regulations had been formulated with the help of a study group organized by the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade association, formed without public notice, chaired by an opponent of double bottoms, and meeting in secret, according to an article in Audubon magazine.

The Coast Guard wouldn't budge.

"We collected new data, and we changed our mind," Rear Adm. William Benkert told the National Observer in early 1975. "We don't think groundings are as serious a problem as we once thought, and . . . they cost a hell of a lot more money."

But double bottoms cost only a little more money, according to a report published by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment in mid1975.

The technology office examined the figures on doublebottom tankers built in the early 1970s and concluded they cost 21|2 to 4 percent more than single bottoms.

A more recent study, done by the Coast Guard after the Exxon Valdez spill, concluded that double bottoms might add 5 percent to the cost of a tanker in the case of the Exxon Valdez, about $6 million.

Exxon has estimated the disaster in Prince William Sound will cost it $1.3 billion, enough to put double bottoms on more than 200 tankers like the Valdez.

Although the Coast Guard scuttled double bottoms in 1974, the issue quickly resurfaced.

In December 1976, the tanker Argo Merchant ran aground off Massachusetts and dumped 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.

In March 1977, newly elected President Jimmy Carter proposed a host of tanker reforms, including double bottoms. It was that position that Hayes reported to the Cordova conference in 1977.

As before, though, the Coast Guard soon fell back into line with industry. After another meeting of the InterGovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization in 1978, the Coast Guard dropped double bottoms again, and tankers including the Exxon Valdez, built in 1986 were allowed to sail in and out of Valdez without them.

"It was commonly accepted by those who worked on the problem that when you go up against the industry, you go up against the Coast Guard," said Walt Parker, an Alaskan who has been deep in the oil policy debate for more than a decade.

Parker, now chairman of a state commission investigating the Valdez spill, worked for the state in planning the pipeline system in the 1970s and was an observer at the 1978 maritime organization meeting at which double bottoms went down for the second time.

The Coast Guard's abandonment of double bottoms came despite studies confirming their effectiveness in limiting spills.

In early 1975, Lt. Cmdr. James Card who worked under Benkert in the Coast Guard's Office of Merchant Marine Safety published an analysis of 30 tanker groundings from 1969 to 1973 in which oil leaked into U.S. waters.

He concluded that in 27 of the cases, double bottoms would have prevented any oil loss, because the ships weren't penetrated far enough to have reached the inner bottom.

In the other three cases, Card concluded, double bottoms would have reduced oil loss by 30 percent.

Shippers including Exxon had mentioned generally that under some circumstances double bottoms might endanger a ship in an accident but produced little hard data to back up their claims.

Both the Office of Technology Assessment study in 1975 and the postValdez study this spring concluded there was no reason to believe double bottoms threaten ship safety.

Even in the mid1970s, double bottoms were required on tankers carrying liquefied natural gas and other chemicals deemed more hazardous than oil. The technology office study found that their double bottoms had caused no safety problems.

The agency reported that ships carrying bulk flammable liquids above a double bottom void had not "exhibited any explosion record in these spaces."

The technology office did look at 13 tanker explosions in 1973 and 1974; none involved a double bottom.

The OTA also studied the claim that a double bottom might cause a ship to sink in a grounding and found that the opposite was true.

"In fact, sinking rates due to groundings are less for these types of ships," the technology office reported.

Despite the conclusions of doublebottom studies going back more than a decade, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost still offers the same antidouble bottom arguments the industry and Coast Guard made in the mid1970s.

In an interview a few weeks ago, he said the Coast Guard is having another study done.

Then he cited the higher cost of double bottoms, repeated industry claims that double bottoms might somehow jeopardize ship safety, and maintained the U.S. shouldn't pass tanker requirements unacceptable to shippers in other countries.

"It is a great idea as long as you've got guys like Stan Jones and Paul Yost who don't mind paying for it at the gas pump," Yost said. "Everything you do in this regard adds cost to the transportation. As you add cost to it, you have a little more trouble getting the international community to accept it."

"For thousands of voyages, they shipped oil in and out of there when those double bottoms would have been a waste of money," said Jim Simpson, Yost's press aide.

Double bottoms would cost the public somewhere between half a cent and a cent per gallon as much as $1.5 billion a year according to estimates from marine consultants.

Clyde Robbins, the Coast Guard vice admiral overseeing this summer's effort to clean up the Exxon Valdez spill, said much of the pressure on the agency comes from inside the federal government, not just from officials of the affected industry.

Members of Congress get pressure from their constituents and pass it along to the Coast Guard, he said. The state department, juggling a host of diplomatic issues, worries about how other countries will react to U.S. maritime regulations.

And the Office of Management and Budget demands that regulators show that the benefits of new regulations exceed the cost.

"You have to react to all of those pressures to meet some sort of compromise in your regulations," he said. "One of the largest pressures is from OMB. That economic analysis that has to go on is crucial to a regulatory process."


After the Coast Guard's second aboutface on double bottoms, in 1978, a New York maritime consultant and arbitrator named George Reinhard wrote an indignant letter to Benkert, the head of the Coast Guard's Office of Marine Safety.

Reinhard demanded to know if the Coast Guard was "really a subsidiary of the oil industry."

An equally indignant Benkert wrote back that Reinhard was "ill informed and completely out of line" to even suggest such a thing.

Coast Guard policies and people, Benkert informed Reinhard, were directed only toward accomplishing "the very best we can for our country insofar as vessel safety and pollution prevention are concerned."

Five months later, Benkert had retired from the Coast Guard and become president of the American Institute of Merchant Shipping, an advocacy group representing tanker owners. He did not respond to a recent request for an interview passed through the Coast Guard's retirement office.

Benkert's case may be extreme, but it is only one of many examples of the ease and apparent lack of misgivings with which Coast Guard officials, often from the service's top echelons, move into jobs with the companies and industries the public had been paying them to regulate.

Indeed, the industry is liberally sprinkled with former Coast Guard employees, sometimes called "service revolvers" by critics of the Coast Guard.

Among the revolvers is Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi.

Iarossi graduated from the Coast Guard academy and spent eight years in the Coast Guard, four of them as head of the marine engineering section. In 1968, he left the Coast Guard and joined Exxon.

Jim Woodle, who commanded the Valdez Coast Guard station from 197982, recalls several former subordinates who resigned and went to work at the Alyeska tanker terminal.

In 1982, Woodle crossed over himself. When he took a job as Alyeska's marine superintendent, his pay leaped from about $40,000 a year to more than $80,000.

"Certainly, at that time a job with Alyeska was considered the plum," Woodle said.

While federal laws and regulations are fairly tight for officials in positions to influence purchasing or contracting Defense Department employees who order weapons systems, for example there is little scrutiny of regulators who go to work for the industry they've been regulating, despite the fact that regulatory actions can cost or save an industry millions of dollars.

John Hillman, a member of the Exxon Seamen's Union governing board, thinks there should be a coolingoff period for exCoast Guard employees.

"We need to get some legislation down the road that says, "Hey, you can't suck these people over into the shipping companies and give them jobs until they've been retired for a certain number of years,' " Hillman said.

Most Coast Guard officials interviewed for this story not only don't see any problem with all the traffic on the lucrative path from the Coast Guard to the shipping industry, they think it's desirable. Their theory is that having Coast Guard members enter the private sector will make industry cleaner, more careful and more competent.

"At the early onset, I was hoping to get some additional Coast Guard people over there," said Woodle of his time with Alyeska. "I recognized their talents."

Woodle lasted two years with Alyeska, eventually becoming a critic of the company's cutbacks in oilspill response.

Steve McCall, who commanded the Valdez Coast Guard station at the time of the Exxon Valdez crash, said he doesn't think the prospect of someday applying for a job with industry leads Coast Guard personnel to go easy as regulators.

"If you're too easy with them, they're not going to hire you," McCall said. "They want somebody who's going to be a company man, whether it's your company or their company."

McCall's boss in Washington, Coast Guard Commandant Yost, said it's only natural for industry to want to hire experts from the Coast Guard.

"When a Coast Guard officer has been working in an area for a very long time, he becomes one of the more knowledgeable people in that area," Yost said. "I don't see the conflict."

Simpson, Yost's aide, said the Coast Guard could be hurt by a ban on crossovers.

"I would argue that's a pretty extreme position," Simpson said. "If you take that, you'll be hardpressed to find regulators."

Hayes, the Coast Guard admiral who told the Cordova fishermen about doublebottom tankers in 1977, and who was commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard from 197882, is another revolver. This summer, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. paid him to work with spillaffected communities.

Hayes said he's seen a few crossovers he disapproved of though he wouldn't be specific but basically agrees with Yost.

"There's just so much talent in government in all kinds of places," Hayes said. "It would be just be a shame if our nation could not take advantage of it in the next career that person might pursue. . . ."


In the 1970s, the Coast Guard seemed to be saying its Vessel Traffic Service in Valdez would be a kind of mother hen, watching over the tanker captains in case they went astray.

In a 1975 Environmental Impact Statement, the Coast Guard said the VTS would "monitor progress of participating vessels and give timely direction when needed, thus providing checks against error."

State officials thought that could best be achieved by combining radar with a system called LoranC retransmission under which each tanker would continuously and automatically radio its position to the VTS.

The Coast Guard estimated retransmission would cost shipping companies $3,000 a tanker and that its own cost, for equipping the VTS to receive that information, would be about $38,000.

For a time, the Coast Guard supported retransmission as a cheaper alternative to building enough radar sites to cover the whole Sound, as demanded by fishermen.

"I believe that LoranC retransmission may provide approximately the same level of protection to the environment as radar coverage and at far less expense to the taxpayer|consumer," Hayes told Sen. Ted Stevens in an April 1977 letter.

But nobody in the Valdez VTS was monitoring the Exxon Valdez on any system when it veered out of standard traffic lanes and blundered into the reef only a few miles from a Coast Guard radar site.

The LoranC retransmission system was never put in and neither was the fullcoverage radar net the fishermen wanted. Gordon Taylor, the VTS watch stander who last saw the Exxon Valdez on radar before it hit Bligh Reef, said it faded from the screen when it was about nine miles from the radar site at Potato Point, possibly because a drizzling rain that night limited the radar's range.

Simpson, Yost's aide, said LoranC retransmission was dropped because it wasn't effective in Valdez Narrows, which everybody then considered the likeliest spot for a tanker crash because of stone pinnacle called Middle Rock.

Yost said many things were discussed in the 1970s that didn't turn out to be feasible or economical, including LoranC retransmission.

"A lot of practicality and realism crept into the original rather idealistic view of how we ought to treat this," Yost said.

But if Coast Guard higherups had listened to the advice of their own field personnel, the VTS might have been able to track the Exxon Valdez even without LoranC retransmission.

In early 1984, Pat Levy was a civilian technician maintaining the Coast Guard's Valdez radars, manufactured by AIL|Eaton. He learned that the agency, in an effort to save money, planned to replace them with Raytheon radars he didn't consider as potent or reliable.

"I still can't help feeling that this is . . . bringing an oil tanker disaster in the Sound closer to a reality," he wrote Congressman Don Young on Feb. 29, 1984.

Young passed on Levy's concerns to the Coast Guard. Its commandant, Adm. James Gracey, wrote back to say the new radar would be as good as the old, and safety wouldn't be compromised. A Coast Guard radar expert made the same claim this spring at a hearing on the Exxon Valdez disaster.

But, within a year of the Raytheon radar going in, the Coast Guard commander in Valdez, Micheal Cavett, was complaining about poor reception in the bad weather common to the Sound and asking for an upgrade of the radar at Potato Point.

"The installation of a 10centimeter radar system could improve tracking ability in rain, wind, and snow," Cavett wrote in April 1985. "I request one of the 3centimeter radar systems at Potato Point be replaced with a 10centimeter system."

Centimeters are used to measure the length of the electromagnetic waves that make up radar signals; the longer the wave length, the better the radar can "see" through rain and other precipitation.

Valdez never got its 10centimeter radar, however, and the 3centimeter system was still in use when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef.

Simpson said Cavett's request was turned down because the big concern in the Coast Guard was resolution, not range. Resolution refers to how small a target a radar beam can pick out, Simpson said, and how well it can distinguish differentsize targets.

He said the radar operators in Valdez didn't want the 10centimeter radar because of its poorer resolution, so Cavett's request was turned down by Coast Guard technicians without even estimating the cost.

"They went with the recommendation of the users over the commanding officer," Simpson said.

The failure to use LoranC retransmission or ensure better radar coverage was not the only Coast Guard decision on the Vessel Traffic Service that may have contributed to the spill.

When the Valdez VTS began, three people stood watch at the radar scopes. By the time Steve McCall took over as commander in Valdez in 1985, staffing was down to two per watch.

Even that was too many, he decided.

"The inefficiency I see here can be summed up simply: Too many people for the tasks to be performed," McCall wrote his Washington superiors in August 1986.

His bosses took him up on the suggestion and cut staffing. Valdez was still under his command and only one person was on duty when the tanker hit the reef.

While there's no guarantee that two heads would have been better than one, it is a fact that Bruce Blandford, the only watch stander on duty in the radar room at the time, said he was doing paperwork and other shiftchange chores when the Exxon Valdez wrecked shortly after midnight.

Blandford also said that when he adjusted the radar and looked at the Bligh Reef area after learning of the crash by radio, the tanker, by that time broadside to the beams and presenting a larger target, was clearly visible.

All this suggests that, if a second watch stander had been on duty with Blandford and adjusting the settings of the radar, the Valdez might have been visible before the crash, in time for it to have warned off the reef.

"I'm not satisfied with the situation in our VTS before this accident," said Yost, commandant of the Coast Guard. "I think it's at least possible that that ship could have been tracked out that far."

Since the crash, staffing at the radar scopes has been increased to two people.

"Perhaps if we'd tried a little harder for funds for the VTS's, perhaps if we would have kept after it, we would have had better control of the ships going in and out," said Robbins, the Coast Guard official who oversaw the cleanup effort. "We cut back on people here a few years ago . . . and perhaps we shouldn't have done that."


In the 1970s, the Coast Guard seemed to be promising tough pilotage requirements for Prince William Sound, just as it seemed to be promising tough tanker design standards, a vigilant VTS and other safety measures.

"Properly trained pilots are probably the single most important factor in building a safe tanker transportation system for Prince William Sound," Hayes, the Coast Guard admiral, told Cordova fishermen at the 1977 conference. "To this end, we have implemented local qualification standards . . . that represent a quantum step in upgrading Coast Guard pilotage requirements."

The standards that Hayes bragged about in 1977 required that a crewman who wanted certification to pilot a big tanker into the Sound have in addition to detailed knowledge of the Sound's waters and hazards experience on big ships. The standards set up a tiered system for obtaining that experience.

Sailors with experience on ships of 20,000 gross tons or less could become certified to pilot ships up to 20,000 tons; those with experience on ships of 20,0000 to 40,000 tons could handle ships up to 40,000 tons; and so on.

The final tier was 60,000 tons those with experience on ships larger than that could be certified to pilot vessels of any size, such as the Exxon Valdez at 95,000 gross tons.

Coast Guard standards allowed part of the experience to be obtained on tanker simulators. Because of the difficulty and expense of obtaining real experience on large ships, some of the companies running tankers through the Sound including Exxon employed the simulators.

One company they used was Marine Safety International, in Kings Point, N.Y. "We had a complete computer model of Prince William Sound and Valdez, the Narrows, all the way in to the dock," said Thomas Garrigan, a Marine Safety official.

About 20 Alaskatrade crew members took the simulator course each year at a total cost to the shippers of about $80,000 a year, Garrigan said.

Four to six of those crewmen each year came from Exxon at an annual a cost of $20,000 to $30,000.

In October 1985, the Coast Guard relaxed pilotage standards so that a crewman need have experience only on a ship of 1,600 gross tons or more about 1|60th the cargo capacity of the Exxon Valdez to obtain an unlimited pilotage endorsement.

Pilotage requirements for Prince William Sound were lowered to match the new national standards, which at the same time were raised slightly for the rest of the country.

Because most oceangoing mariners already have experience on ships of 1,600 tons or more, the tanker companies no longer needed Marine Safety's Prince William Sound simulator.

"When the companies that did training with us heard that, they stopped training," Garrigan said.

Greg Cousins, the third mate in charge of the bridge when the Exxon Valdez slammed into Bligh Reef, did not have a pilotage endorsement for the waters where Joe Hazelwood, the Valdez's skipper, turned the ship over to him.

Nor, said Garrigan, had Cousins ever trained on Marine Safety's Prince William Sound simulator in New York.


Thirty years ago, the average American tanker carried a lot less oil and a lot more people than it does today.

Arthur McKenzie, who runs an independent rating service called the Tanker Advisory Center in New York City, estimates the typical tanker in the late 1950s carried a cargo of about 6.3 million gallons and a crew of 40 to 42.

When the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef with 53 million gallons of oil aboard, it carried a crew of 20.

Even so, it was more than 30 percent over staffed by Coast Guard standards. Exxon had the agency's approval to operate with as few as 15 people aboard.

As the size of crews required by the Coast Guard has dwindled in recent decades, the Coast Guard and shipping industry have justified the reductions on several grounds.

One is that the cost savings are needed to keep American shippers competitive with foreign operators, who have reduced their crews. According to industry and union officials, the savings are about $120,000 a year per crew position eliminated.

Another justification is that a modern ship simply requires fewer people.

Automation of major systems such as engines and steering requires fewer hands, the industry and Coast Guard say. The increased reliability of modern equipment means fewer people needed for maintenance, they say.

McKenzie favors double bottoms and other tanker reforms opposed by the industry, but sides with the shippers on crew size.

His reasoning: Since most accidents involve human error, fewer humans mean fewer accidents.

"If you get rid, as much as you can, of the people and depend more on machinery, provided that machinery is designed and run properly, you're probably going to do better," McKenzie said.

Nonetheless, there are signs that even a crew of 20 on the Exxon Valdez wasn't large enough to prevent overload and fatigue when the ship came into Valdez to take on its cargo of North Slope crude.

Greg Cousins, the third mate in charge of the bridge when the Valdez hit the rocks, told the National Transportation Safety Board that he had been on duty from 8 a.m. March 23 until the crash 16 hours later, except for a 31| 2hour nap in early afternoon.

Cousins said he wouldn't have been on the bridge at all, except that he let his relief, Second Mate Lloyd LeCain, sleep in after his own long day at work. James Kunkle, the ship's first mate, told the board he frequently was up 24 hours at a time during cargo loading.

Federal law prohibits a shipowner or operator from permitting an officer to take over the bridge of a ship leaving port unless he's been off duty for at least six of the preceding 12 hours.

Cousins and the other mates denied being too tired to work properly and no official determination has yet been made on whether fatigue was a cause of the crash.

But sleep experts say it fits the pattern of sleeprelated accidents.

"It's not unreasonable to suspect either that they were not able to detect how sleep deprivation was affecting their performance or they were unwilling to admit it," said Donald Tepas, an industrial psychologist at the University of Connecticut.

Despite the long history and high stakes of demanning, the Coast Guard still has no agencywide standard for setting minimum crew size.

Instead, the shipowner proposes a minimum crew size, then local Coast Guard officials evaluate and approve, subject to review by Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.

In the case of the Exxon Valdez, local Coast Guard officials concerned about Exxon's bottom line allowed their approval of smaller crews to continue even after headquarters told them they had done it improperly.

In September 1987, R.A. Janacek, the officer in charge of marine inspections at the Coast Guard station in Long Beach, Calif., wrote headquarters in Washington to request that the Exxon Long Beach the Valdez's sister ship be allowed to cut three positions in the engine room.

"Exxon is of course requesting prompt action to eliminate the cost of retaining these men on board," Janacek wrote. "The Exxon Valdez . . . is already operating satisfactorily with reduced manning."

Fred Grady, the Coast Guard's chief of Merchant Vessel Personnel in Washington, wrote back two months later to say that not only was the proposed cut of the Long Beach crew inadequately documented, but that approval of crew reductions aboard the Valdez had never been reviewed by headquarters.

Nonetheless, the California office let it stand.

Paul Larson, the Janacek subordinate who had actually handled the Valdez evaluation, wrote Exxon on Jan. 28, 1988, to say the erroneously allowed crew cuts would stand because the ship had operated for six months with no problems.

"I certainly understand your vested interest in gaining approval in a timely fashion to reduce the crew and cut costs," Larson wrote. "The best I can do is apologize and assure you I will urge MVP's (headquarters') handling of your case as a priority rather than a routine matter."

Simpson, Yost's aide, defended Larson's decision to let approval for the Valdez's crew cuts to stand, despite the letter from headquarters saying it had not been properly reviewed.

"The bottom line is that what he did was perfectly legal," Simpson said. "If you want to find fault or error, the error was his in not clearing it through headquarters before he did it."

Hillman, the Exxon Seamen's Union official, thinks the Coast Guard should worry more about safety and less about Exxon's bottom line.

"You and I have this regulatory agency called the U.S. Coast Guard. It does not belong to the shipowners," said Hillman. "It was set up for a purpose: to see that these ships are operated safely and that the seamen are not abused by the shipowners."

Despite industry and Coast Guard insistence that crew cuts haven't jeopardized safety, people who have to bet money on it are beginning to think otherwise.

Harry Keefe is vice president of a marine insurance company called GRE America and vice chairman of an industry group called the American Institute of Marine Underwriters.

At a marine insurers' conference in Belgium last month, Keefe warned that modern shipping practices including smaller crews and less crew training are creating hazards at sea.

"We have had a revolution in technology accompanied by a deemphasis on marine training," Keefe said in a speech to the conference. "In this scenario, who cares about safety?"

"True efficiency must incorporate a level of safety tolerable to society."

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