Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.'s major owners said Thursday there would be changes in oil spill prevention and cleanup policies at the Valdez terminal and promised more would follow a corporate level task force review.
BP America, Arco and Exxon Corp., who between them own more than 90 percent of the transAlaska pipeline and Valdez terminal, made the announcement the day after Gov. Steve Cowper's threat to close the terminal if changes weren't made. The administration is preparing an order that would close the terminal and may be issued today.
Chuck Webster, a BP spokesman, said Thursday the owner companies' action is not in response to Cowper's threats, but a plan they have been putting together since the accident. Executives with the three major oil companies met with Cowper on Wednesday to go over both sides' ideas, he said.
"The owner companies had most of this put together before they were aware the state was working on an order," Webster said.
The tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground just after midnight March 24 on Bligh Reef, about 25 miles from Alyeska's Valdez facility. But it took some 14 hours for the pipeline company to get cleanup equipment to the scene, even though an oil spill contingency plan approved by the state called for a fivehour response time.
The companies said several new policies will be immediately followed:
* Random drug and alcohol testing will be conducted on all vessels using the Valdez terminal. Webster said each shipping company's testing practices were different, but now all will follow the same procedures.
* Tugs and state licensed pilots will accompany incoming and outgoing ships between the terminal and point beyond Bligh Reef, where the tanker struck. Now, pilots get on and off the ships at Rocky Point, a couple of miles closer to the terminal than the reef. Tugs have never escorted tankers in from the Sound, but a tug does follow loaded tankers out through the harbor and Narrows.
* Alyeska will get more skimmers and more containment booms to add to its existing supply. Even more might be purchased later, depending on the recommendations of the task force.
* Chemical dispersants will be kept on site and available for use in a major spill.
* The shipping consortium will ask the Coast Guard to expand clear radar coverage to Bligh Reef and other locations in Prince William Sound. Now, the Coast Guard says, radar coverage is fuzzy as far out as the reef.
The owners also have instructed Alyeska to cooperate fully with state and federal agencies. "A painful lesson has been learned," the owners said in a prepared statement. "We all must make adjustments as a result of the experience gained."
Even though the owners said their plans were not in response to Cowper, the same three companies responded to the order drafted by the administration.
The companies said in a memorandum that, while they do not agree with all the findings in the draft order they saw Wednesday, "We concur in a need to take immediate steps to improve both short term and long term response capability to oil spills in Alaska."
In general, the oil companies do agree with most of Cowper's demands for more equipment and personnel in the Sound to be dedicated to oil spill cleanup. But they want a clearer definition of what the state means when it says "core" cleanup equipment can not be used for anything but responding to spills.
"For example, contingency plan equipment in the broadest sense includes such equipment in regular use as fishing vessels for boom deployment, helicopters and other aircraft, tugs, etc.," the memo said.
There's only one provision the companies said they cannot meet. The state wants the companies to have equipment available no later than April 30 to respond within two hours to a 10 milliongallon spill.
The companies said they have not been able to find enough equipment to meet the deadline.
"Although we are preserving our rights to challenge or seek modifications to the order, we believe these steps will establish a basis for the state and industry to work together to ensure a more effective response to any future incident," the companies' letter said.
The White House, which opposes a shutdown of the terminal, has asked the Interior Department to check the governor's legal authority.
Interior spokesman Bob Walker said Thursday that the department's solicitor has made a preliminary finding that Cowper does have the authority to close the pipeline to protect health and safety.
"We are waiting to see if this issue is going to be forced," Walker said.
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