The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that the Exxon Valdez oil spill last year was probably caused by a drunken captain turning the ship over to an exhausted and inexperienced officer who ran it onto the rocks in Prince William Sound.
That grounding caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history, spewing about 11 million gallons of crude oil into the waterway.
The board was scathing in its criticisms, but added few new details about the cause of the disaster that has cost Exxon Corp. more than $2 billion in cleanup costs.
It criticized Exxon Shipping Co., the subsidiary that owns the tanker, for failing to provide a fit master and a rested crew. It slammed the federal government for allowing radar monitoring of tanker traffic to deteriorate to the point where operators didn't bother to track the Exxon Valdez's course onto the rocks.
It blasted the state for relaxing marine pilot requirements that could have stationed a more experienced officer on the ship's bridge and probably prevented the accident.
The board approved 36 recommendations to minimize the likelihood of future accidents. Most are either already in effect or will be after Congress approves a comprehensive oil spill prevention and liability law this week. It still would have to be signed by President Bush.
But on the more controversial issues, the board balked at a far tougher approach recommended by its staff.
For example, the staff had recommended that all oil tankers have double hulls by 1998. That suggestion was removed by the board, even though it is a chief element of the pending legislation.
The board said the staff failed to prove its case that a double hull would have prevented a major spill. It directed the staff to rewrite its recommendation, but that probably won't be finished in time to include in the board's final report due out in a month or two.
The board's action Tuesday has no force of law. Its conclusions are not admissible as evidence in court and its recommendations have no enforcement power behind them.
The chief culprit in the board's view was the vessel's master, Joseph Hazelwood, who was accused of drunkenness. One of his attorneys, Thomas M. Russo, denied that allegation.
According to the board investigation, Hazelwood was drinking after the ship left port late March 23 and was legally drunk when it ran aground the next morning.
Dr. Merrit Birky, a national resource specialist for the board, said he had no doubt Hazelwood was drinking aboard the vessel, a violation of federal law and Exxon policies.
He said independent consultants concluded that Hazelwood's blood alcohol level was at least twice the 0.10 level considered intoxicated for a drunken driving charge on Alaska highways.
No one reported Hazelwood to be acting oddly because the captain was an experienced drinker, Birky said, referring to his past drunken driving convictions and known treatment for alcoholism.
"He has developed a very high tolerance for alcohol and probably can mask it," Birky said.
Russo called that assertion "ridiculous," and referred to an Anchorage jury acquittal of the captain of intoxication charges. He added that the Coast Guard last week dropped the same charges because of complaints that the alcohol testing had been botched.
NTSB Chairman Jim Kolstad described the basis of those legal determinations as "technical," saying they carried no weight in the board's independent assessment.
"We conflict with those findings," he said. He described the basis of those legal determinations as the "technical" sort of thing that is not relevant to the board's independent assessment.
While the board came down hard on the ship's third mate, Gregory Cousins, for running the vessel onto the rocks, it was clear that staff investigators felt a measure of sympathy for him.
The board's own findings reflected that sentiment. It attributed the accident to Cousins' failure to "properly maneuver the vessel because of fatigue and excessive workload."
According to the staff, Cousins had worked most of the day helping to oversee the ship's loading at port. The staff said he was a competent seaman who handled the vessel alone to give the second mate an opportunity to sleep.
But Hazelwood had turned over the bridge to Cousins at a critical time. Cousins was not licensed to pilot the ship through the Sound. The tanker had just left the approved shipping lanes to avoid ice. To navigate around the ice and return to the shipping lanes, Cousins had to map the ship's course while also supervising others on the bridge.
"This was too much for one man," William Woody, the chief investigator of the accident. He said that Exxon has since changed its policy to require at least two officers on the bridge while in the Sound.
Crew fatigue was a major part of the board's findings. The board accused Exxon of trimming crew levels to save money, and recommended eliminating company policies that encourage officers to work to the point of exhaustion.
According to Woody, however, the seaman's unions have been powerless to fight crew reductions and instead find themselves in a "losing war" against the companies.
"The greatest surprise (of this investigation) to me was that the Exxon seaman's union and the shipping company are in contention," he said, adding that the union's biggest on going complaint has been crew fatigue.
Board Vice Chairman Susan Coughlin took up that issue with Donald Tyrell, the board's acting chief of the marine division, asking if it was not Hazelwood's duty as the ship's master to keep the vessel in port if the crew was too tired to operate it safely.
"The perception of such an action might be that we need someone else as captain of that vessel," Tyrell said of Exxon Shipping Co. "The master is expected to keep port time to a minimum. That is down time, money out of their pocket . . . It would be a brave person to say we're not going, we're too tired."
For the Exxon Valdez, the fatigue factor was especially vexing. The tanker once carried Alaska oil to the Panama Canal, where it was off loaded to a pipeline for transport to the East Coast.
Because of market conditions on the East Coast, however, the tanker was making trips of half the distance to San Francisco and Los Angles, meaning faster turnarounds and additional burdens for the crew in overseeing in port activities.
Exxon was not exclusively to blame for the accident, the board concluded.
The vessel traffic system, a radar system overseen by the Coast Guard and designed to monitor tanker traffic, was in disrepair. The night of the accident, the system's watch didn't take the trouble to boost radar coverage to follow the Exxon Valdez, even though no other ships were at sea at the time and the vessel had reported ice dangers ahead. It is a Coast Guard practice to monitor vessels through Prince William Sound, but not a requirement.
Had the radar tracked the tanker, staff said, the vessel's collision course would have been detected and the exhausted crew warned of imminent disaster.
"The operators didn't try to crank up the radar to track the vessel," Woody said. "Had they done so, they probably could have tracked it all the way to the grounding site."
Woody said the Coast Guard itself stopped keeping data on ice in the waterway in 1985, even though radar operators knew tankers were increasingly having to swing close to Bligh Reef to avoid it.
Woody said that just hours before the Exxon Valdez ran aground, an Alaska ferry arrived in Valdez after having had to use spotlights to navigate through the ice.
But the ferry's crew was neither asked about nor offered information on ice conditions before the Exxon Valdez steamed out of port, he said. Neither the crew nor the Coast Guard had the most recent information on ice conditions.
The board also came down hard on the state for moving the posting of state approved pilots aboard tankers from Cape Hinchinbrook back to Rocky Point. Rocky Point is north of Bligh Reef, 18 miles from the port of Valdez; Hinchinbrook is at the mouth of the Sound, about 40 miles south of the reef. The decision to move came upon the advice of the Alaska Pilots Association after a pilot vessel sank at Hinchinbrook in 1980.
Had a state pilot been aboard the Exxon Valdez on March 24, 1989, the grounding would not have occurred, NTSB staff said.
But while some members wanted to single out the state, the board's final probable cause finding cited only the "lack of effective pilotage services." It did not mention the state.
One of the board's conclusions, however, criticized the move of the pilot's station as being unsupported by "adequate analysis and review by the State of Alaska."
Since the disaster, the Hinchinbrook to Valdez pilot requirement has been reinstituted.
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