When the Exxon Valdez tanker grounded at Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, it launched a round of technological and regulatory changes that transformed the way the Coast Guard and oil shippers do their job.
Even before tankers head out from the Valdez Marine Terminal to begin their journey down to Lower 48 refineries, they face a slew of new requirements and restrictions.
Now, each laden tanker leaving the terminal is shadowed by a tugboat -- to help steer in case the tanker gets in trouble -- and an escort vessel that scouts for ice or other threats and can respond to spills.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which manages the pipeline for its seven owner oil companies, has added vessels to escort oil-laden tankers out of Alaska waters. The company has beefed up its stock of oil-spill response equipment, including a fleet of "skimming vessels" that can recover about 55,000 barrels of oiled water per hour and chemicals that break up oil on the water's surface. Cleanup crews are trained extensively and drilled frequently.
The U.S. Coast Guard installed a $7 million system to electronically track tankers' locations, and added a second person to each shift to monitor shipping traffic.
Tanker navigation specialists, called pilots, accompany the tankers to Bligh Reef, farther south than before.
Large tankers operate under stricter weather conditions. They travel one knot slower through the Valdez Narrows than before and must tether a tugboat behind if winds exceed 20 knots. The port closes to large tanker traffic if winds hit 30 knots.
Alyeska Pipeline designed procedures to catch drunken crew members before they board a ship. Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, who skippered the Exxon Valdez, was charged but later acquitted of drunkenness.
And to add another layer of scrutiny, the U.S. Congress formed the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council as a watchdog for oil shipping.
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