The U.S. Coast Guard is cracking down on oil tankers with cracks in their hulls that in the past have been allowed to carry crude oil from Valdez.
The action is aimed at preventing disastrous oil spills, but it could also mean expensive delays for shippers.
In a letter sent Monday to Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., Cmdr. E.P. Thompson of the Coast Guard's Valdez office said tankers with cracks in their outer hull, a common problem, will no longer be allowed to take on oil in Valdez and might have to sail back to the Lower 48 for repairs.
Moreover, if a crack is discovered while the ship is being loaded, whatever oil it has taken on must be pumped back to the Alyeska facility and the ship sent off for repairs before it can be loaded, he said.
"I realize that this policy is a big departure from the way that the Coast Guard has handled these problems in the past," Thompson wrote to Alyeska, "but based on the current climate, there is no way we can continue to follow the practices we have followed in the past.
"The tanker fleet is aging. What may have been acceptable for the past 11 years is now, in my judgment, no longer defensible," he said.
Alyeska officials and Arco's tanker chief said the new Coast Guard policy isn't that much different from their own procedures.
George Jurkowich, an Alyeska spokesman, said the terminal has unloaded tankers on several occasions after a crack has been discovered. "We tend not to load vessels which have detectable cracks in them," Jurkowich said.
The ship is loaded after the crack has been repaired and inspected by the Coast Guard and company inspectors, he said.
Capt. Jerry Aspland, who heads Arco's tanker fleet, said his Valdezbound ships sustain perhaps one crack a year among the 10ship fleet. Procedure is to anchor outside the port or tie up at the city dock and repair the crack before going to the terminal to take on oil, he said.
"If the problem is in the internal structure, then they've got no business loading," Aspland said. "If it's a minor crack in a plate, you can fix it and go on about your business. If it's on the bottom, then there may be the requirement you would have to drydock it for repairs."
There are no tanker drydock facilities in Alaska. The closest is in Portland, Ore.
Thompson invoked the new policy after a loaded tanker, the Mobil Arctic, sailed from Valdez Nov. 24 with only temporary repairs to a 2foot crack in a starboard ballast tank. The damage was inspected by the Coast Guard and the ship allowed to sail "with very minimal temporary repairs," Thompson said.
He noted that shippers have been lucky in the past that fully laden tankers have made it safely to Lower 48 ports.
"Just because it hasn't occurred in the past doesn't mean that one of these days one of these cracks isn't going to spread and cause a breach in one of the cargo tanks," Thompson wrote. "I feel it's only a matter of time before that happens."
Thompson couldn't be reached for comment Thursday. But Lt. Cmdr. Tom Falkenstein, the Valdez station's executive officer, said officials realized the new policy could cause costly delays for the shippers.
"The decision wasn't made lightly because the schedules will be very much disturbed if they have to take a ship out of service," he said.
Over the past few years, the Coast Guard has noted a rise in the number of Valdez tankers suffering hull cracks. About six cracks a year have been reported the last two years, up from two reported cracks in 1984, according to statistics released earlier this year by the Coast Guard.
A 1988 Coast Guard study on the soundness of the U.S. merchant ships revealed that Valdez tankers had a higher rate of structural failure mainly hull cracks than any other class of commercial ship. Most shippers and Coast Guard experts believe repeated voyages through harsh weather in the Gulf of Alaska puts extraordinary stresses on the ships' hulls.
Hull cracks often result in oil spills. Alyeska records show at least 36 oil spills in the port area have been caused by hull cracks since shipping began in 1977.
In 1987, the tanker Stuyvesant lost hundreds of thousands of gallons of North Slope crude twice in the same year in the Gulf of Alaska when storms either cracked the ship's hull or opened up a crack already there.
Last January, the tanker Thompson Pass leaked 72,000 gallons of oil into Port Valdez from a crack in the hull. The tanker was suspected of having a crack when it docked in Valdez, so it was surrounded by containment boom while it was being loaded. Much of the oil was captured in the boom and scooped up.
Two weeks later, the tanker Cove Leader spilled about 2,500 gallons from a crack that hadn't been anticipated. The crack apparently was up against a dock while the ship was being loaded, but opened when the tanker moved away from the berth, officials said at the time. Most of that oil escaped containment and washed up on beaches several miles away.
Dan Lawn of the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Valdez said he is "extremely pleased" with the new Coast Guard policy.
"It's a very important signal to industry that prevention is the way to deal with oil spills," he said. "This puts more emphasis on prevention rather than reacting after a spill."
Lawn said hull cracks have been frequent in the past. Once discovered usually when a leak begins standard procedure has been either to unload only the cracked tank, or load it to a point below the crack and put a temporary patch on the fracture.
Bill Lamoreaux, DEC's Anchorage supervisor, pointed out that before the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in March, the state's biggest fear had been that a cracked tanker would break apart in heavy seas in the Gulf of Alaska.
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