Shipping companies say they plan some major safety upgrades for tanker operations in portions of Prince William Sound.That announcement comes a month after the release of a study saying Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. isn't capable of keeping a stricken, laden tanker from grounding in Valdez Narrows.
"When adopted, these recommendations will enhance the safety of tanker navigation, minimize the potential for vessel casualties and improve emergency response and oil spill effectiveness," the Prince William Sound Tanker Association said.
The recommendations include being ready to "tether" or attach a tugboat to the rear of each loaded tanker to help steer them through the narrows.
Tankers also would slow from the current speed limit of 6 knots to 5 knots as they negotiate the narrows.
That 1-knot reduction would increase by 50 percent a conventional tug's capability to push a powerless tanker, in the process helping to divert a possible grounding, the shippers said.
The tanker association is made up primarily of British Petroleum, Arco and SeaRiver Maritime, Exxon's shipping company. Combined, they carry nearly 25 percent of the nation's domestically produced crude oil from the Alyeska Marine Terminal in Valdez to refineries in the Lower 48.
Shippers and Alyeska are calling the changes voluntary.
But tanker companies are faced with a number of strict, new oil shipping regulations that would have forced many of the safety improvements. Those are to become law Nov.17.
The shipping company changes follow the release of a Disabled Tanker Towing Study done by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council and tankerindustry representatives.
The study is based on a number of computer simulations exploring the effectiveness of Alyeska's current escort fleet in a variety of worst-case situations.
The study concluded, among other things, that Alyeska's Ship Escort Response Vessel tugs would not be able to keep a tanker from grounding in the narrows during a hard-over rudder failure at 6 knots.
Gary Richardson, who manages Alyeska's response vessels, told the Valdez Vanguard that he will be meeting with shippers and regulators to determine the most efficient and safest method for tethering tugs and that he may have a system ready to go before the Nov. 17 deadline.
But he said the Coast Guard regulations are not the force driving the changes.
"If, while we wait for the regs to come along, something happens, people would ask, 'Why, if you knew that improvements could be made, did you not do it earlier?"' Richardson said.
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