When the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef two years ago this week, the Valdez Star was nothing but an idea and a pile of engineering plans.
But by the middle of April, the Valdez Star, the largest oil skimmer ever built, will be berthed in the Prince William Sound city whose name it bears to act quickly in the event of future spills.
The 123-foot, 600-ton vessel left the Goudy and Stevens Shipyard in East Boothbay, Maine, where it was built, in late February. It will steam through the Panama Canal en route to Alaska.
The Valdez Star had been ordered by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. prior to the Exxon Valdez accident on March 24, 1989. The vessel was launched last August and recently completed its sea trials.
The Exxon Valdez spill dumped nearly 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. The oil drenched 1,200 miles of coastline and killed more than 36,000 seabirds and 1,200 otters.
A spill the size of the Exxon Valdez' would be only a few days' work for the Valdez Star and two aluminum oil recovery boats also bought by Alyeska, according to the designer's specifications.
JBF Scientific Co., based in Winchester, Mass., has said the three vessels could collect about 2,500 barrels of oil per hour. At 55 gallons per barrel, that rate would amount to about 140,000 gallons an hour, or 3.3 million gallons gathered in 24 hours.
"I reflect on how unfortunate it was that the Valdez Star was only in its design stage during the first critical first few days of the big spill," JBF engineer Pete Sarnacki told the Valdez Pioneer.
Sarnacki, who was engineer for the Valdez Star, is a former Alyeska employee in its marine operations department.
"Knowing what I do about this technology and having been on the front lines of the spill, I am certain we could have recovered a larger percentage of the spill," Sarnacki told the Pioneer.
The technology behind the Valdez Star is more than 20 years old. JBF has said it developed the Dynamic Inclined Plane method of skimming in 1969, and it sold the first skimmer using the technology to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a year later.
"The device cleans up oil better than anything else currently available," JBF said. The company says it has built more than 100 DIP systems for oil- skimming vessels around the world.
The DIP method gathers oil by forcing it below the water's surface into a tunnel, where the effects of wave motion are lessened. Seven-foot-wide conveyor belts move the oil underwater into a collection well, where it is separated from water and pumped into storage tanks or barges. It can hold about 55,000 gallons on board.
EPA tests showed that a 26-foot skimmer using the DIP method collected between 75 and 95 percent of spilled oil at speeds up to 21|2 knots in seas as high as 21|2 feet. JBF said the Valdez Star's DIP will work as effectively in 6-foot seas.
A second skimmer the same size and capacity as the Valdez Star is being built by Goudy and Stevens for the Clean Sound Cooperative of Puget Sound, Wash.
The Valdez Star's price tag is estimated at $4 to $5 million.
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