Angry fisherman blocked entry to the Valdez oil terminal for a second day, leaving three empty oil tankers stranded in Prince William Sound and four more scheduled to arrive by today. About 65 fishing boats gathered Saturday in Jack Bay just outside the Valdez Narrows, a skinny passageway tankers must pass through to reach the oil terminal. The boats moved to the bay after the Coast Guard declared the Narrows a safe-passage zone. But the boats could easily move into position to block passage if a tanker should return, Coast Guard Petty Officer Don Atwell said.
The British Petroleum-owned tanker Atigun Pass came within five miles of the flotilla Saturday morning but turned around. Also waiting in the Sound were the tankers Arco Alaska and the SeaRiver Baton Rouge, operated for Exxon. Two more BP tankers, another Arco ship and the SeaRiver New Orleans, also operated for Exxon, are scheduled to arrive by today.
Fisherman are demanding that Exxon representatives meet with them to discuss private claims resulting from the 1989 oil spill. Nearly 11 million gallons leaked into the Sound after the tanker Exxon Valdez hit a charted reef. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The fishermen blame this year's weak pink salmon and herring runs on the spill.
Exxon needs to face up to their negligence, said Rick Steiner, a Cordova- based fisherman aiding the protesters.
"Fisherman are going under economically," he said. "It's now or never."
Steiner said that by blocking tankers, the fishermen can "enlist the assistance" of BP and Arco "to bring Exxon to the table." Representatives from BP and Arco will meet with fishermen this morning, he said.
Gov. Wally Hickel met with seven protesting fishermen in Valdez on Saturday. He promised them lower interest rates on their loans and that more oil-settlement money will be spent on rehabilitation of the area. He also arranged a meeting with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt this morning at the fishermen's requrest. But beyond that, he said, there was little the state could do.
"They feel it's sort of the end of the road. I don't think they want to be confrontational, but they want Exxon to do something," he said.
Hickel said Saturday he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Exxon executives to meet with the fishermen. The company seemed to think that talking with the fishermen would hurt its chances in court, he said.
Jim Sheeren, an Exxon spokesman in Houston, said the fishermen's concerns were "being addressed through the legal system" and "there was nothing further they could do."
He would not say whether Exxon would consider meeting with the fishermen.
Torie Baker, who fishes commercially in the Sound, said the blockade will continue until Exxon representatives meet with her group.
"We need acknowledgment from Exxon that they will negotiate in good faith. We feel we've been stonewalled and we've been in a downward spiral for five years," she said. "The ball is in their court."
So far, the blockade has not affected operation of the terminal, said Marnie Isaacs, spokeswoman for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. The last oil tanker to take on a load of crude at the terminal left Friday night. She refused to say whether continuation of the blockade could force a slowdown in production from the North Slope.
An average of 1.6 million barrels of oil a day arrive at the terminal from the Slope's operation, with up to three ships a day taking on the oil. Without the ships, the terminal will have to rely on storage tanks, which can hold 8.7 million barrels. Some of those are already filled, she said.
Anchorage-based Alyeska runs the trans-Alaska pipeline and the Valdez tanker port. It is owned by seven major oil companies, including BP, Arco and Exxon.
Two Coast Guard ships continued to stand guard over the fishing boats late Saturday. The federal agency has not taken any direct action against the boats.
"The reason we are not going out and making boardings and arrests is because it is the policy of the Coast Guard to not escalate the situation," spokesman Atwell said. "But if they are consistently in violation of laws then the Coast Guard could take action."
Agency officials have, however, taken down names and numbers of boats that were in the Narrows after being warned they were violating a safety zone, Atwell said. Fishermen could be charged with willful violation of "a captain of the port order."
"Willful violation" is considered a criminal offense and punishable by a fine up to $250,000 and six years in jail, Atwell said.
Hickel said he would not comment on whether the state would take steps to stop the blockade if it continued.
"I think it's a tough situation," he said. "We reached out as far as we could and now we'll see how it plays out."