Oil shipping companies announced Monday new steps they will take to make shipment of oil out of Alaska to Lower 48 refineries safer.
The changes will include placing a powerful tugboat in Prince William Sound to help disabled tankers to safety and to upgrade other vessels that escort tankers out of Alaska waters.
The changes stem from a $2 million study of how to improve the shipping of oil from the Valdez tanker port, one of the largest oil ports in the world.
Although industry and watchdog group representatives hailed the changes, others criticized the study process for not including more public involvement.
The 18-month-long ''risk-assessment'' study was commissioned by oil shippers and the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, an oil-industry watchdog group.
After the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster that spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, shipping companies and the Coast Guard beefed up measures for shipping oil more safely and cleaning it up more quickly should a spill occur.
Those safety procedures include a high-tech system to track where tankers are at all times and more tugboats to escort tankers. Such measures have reduced the risks of an oil spill by 75 percent, said John Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis and Disaster Management, Research and Education at George Washington University. Harrald led the team of maritime consultants and experts that conducted the study. The changes announced Monday will reduce that margin of risk by another 75 percent, he said.
''1989, with the changes in place today in the system, would not have happened,'' said Ron Morris, U.S. Coast Guard captain of the port in Valdez.
Shipping companies will chip in the $500,000 needed per year to charter a high-powered tug to assist any wayward tankers in the area from central Prince William Sound out to the Gulf of Alaska, said Roger Gale, vice president of BP Oil Shipping Co. The shipping companies expect to have that tug in place early next year, he said.
Shippers and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which runs the tanker port, will develop a plan to upgrade the current fleet of tugs, with at least two being replaced in the next few years, said Gale. If tests of a different kind of escort vessel called a ''tractor tug'' show its performance is superior to current vessels, the companies will adopt the new tugs ''as soon as possible.''
Other recommendations call for studying a proposal to station escort vessels at key areas in central Prince William Sound instead of having vessels continuously accompany the tankers; revising management procedures to reduce the risk of human error; and better tracking of fishing vessel and tanker traffic. The researchers also conducted safety audits of each shipping company, but would not release those findings publicly, Harrald said.
But the Oil Spill Region Environmental Coalition, a group of several Alaska-based conservation organizations, detailed its objections in a letter to the National Research Council's Marine Board, which will be evaluating the risk assessment study.
The study's authors should have held public hearings and released a draft report for comment, said Patti Saunders, from the Alaska Center for the Environment, one of the environmental coalition members.
The victims of an oil spill are the public, said Tom Copeland, and they should have a say in the development and outcome of the report. Copeland is a member of the Alaska Center for the Environment and the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, which are both members of the environmental coalition. Copeland will testify in front of the Marine Board regarding the lack of formal public review.
Tex Edwards, RCAC board chairman, defended the study and the process, saying that the researchers conducted numerous interviews and traveled to many communities to get public input. But the group, which needed to evaluate sensitive information such as a company's shipping record, could not share such private data with the public.
''We literally asked the shippers to raise their skirts,'' he said. ''It was a scientific study. It wasn't a town meeting.''
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