A Coast Guard report concludes that if the tanker Exxon Valdez had been built with a double bottom, more than half the 11 million gallons dumped into Prince William Sound March 24 might not have been spilled.
The Coast Guard study, released by a House Interior Committee panel Wednesday, was ordered after the tanker's grounding on Bligh Reef created the worst oilspill disaster in U.S. history.
Under what the Coast Guard described as the most "realistic" design an 11.5footdeep double bottom the size of the spill would have been reduced by at least 25 percent and at most 60 percent.
In addition, the report said a double bottom would have slowed the leakage of oil from the ruptured tanker, giving crews more time to respond with oilcontainment equipment.
But the Coast Guard report said that building tankers with double bottoms makes them more vulnerable to leakage when involved in collisions.
Using calculations based on a worstcase collision involving the Exxon Valdez, the report said the tanker, as built, would lose about 4.6 million gallons. With an 11.5foot double bottom, it would lose about 6.9 million gallons a 50percent increase.
The report, first mentioned by Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost at a July 20 Senate hearing, is certain to add to the controversy over the use of double bottoms on U.S. tankers and especially in the Alaska oil trade. The National Academy of Sciences is conducting an independent study.
The oil industry has been a strong opponent of governmentrequired double bottoms, even though they were promised when Congress was weighing authorization of the transAlaska pipeline.
"This new evidence from the Coast Guard strongly suggests that the oil industry intervened to torpedo safe tanker design criteria for the Alaska oil trade," Rep. George Miller, DCalif., said in a statement Wednesday.
"If the industry had complied with its own pledges during development of the Alaska pipeline system, the size of the Exxon Valdez spill could have been much smaller and its impact on the environment much reduced," said Miller, chairman of the House Interior Committee's water, power and offshore energy resources subcommittee that released the report.
At both the Senate hearing July 20 and one last week by Miller's subcommittee, Coast Guard officials said a double bottom would add only about 5 percent to a tanker's cost.
That would have increased the cost of Exxon Valdez by less than $7 million. Exxon has already spent about $650 million cleaning up the spilled oil.
Coast Guard Vice Admiral Clyde Lusk said last week that adding double bottoms could make tankers less stable.
"On the Exxon Valdez, on exactly how (that accident) happened, it would have reduced the size of the spill," Lusk said. But Lusk said "a tremendous amount of water" also may have leaked into the vessel, causing it to sink or capsize.
But Commander Robert Henry of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Center said Wednesday that the 11.5foot doublehull design was drawn to meet Coast Guard damage stability requirements.
Another design, calling for a 19foot double hull, would have resulted in no leakage from the Exxon Valdez incident but 25 percent more leakage during a worstcase collision, the report said.
Henry said the 11.5foot design was the most realistic "because it is the one that met all Coast Guard regulations for damage stability," which he said included remaining upright and afloat.
At the House hearing last week, Alaska Rep. Don Young, the ranking Republican on the Interior Committee, said he was skeptical about the need for double bottoms and the result of the Coast Guard study.
"Don't play around with bottoms until you know what you're talking about," Young said. "This constant theme that double bottoms would have prevented this (Prince William Sound spill) simply isn't true."
Fifteen years ago, however, when the House was debating the Alaska pipeline, Young was among those citing the use of double bottoms as the extra measure of safety that would be employed in the Alaska trade.
"Do you know what kind of tankers we are building right now?" Young said in an exchange with Rep. Les Aspin, DWis.
"Big, enormous ones which, when they run aground, there are going to be enormous oil spills," Aspin replied.
"Who says?" Young replied. "They are double hulled and have flowing wing rudders."
In 1972, then Interior Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton told a congressional committee that tankers used in the Alaska trade would be equipped with double bottoms.
"Newly constructed American flag vessels carrying oil from Port Valdez to United States ports will be required to have segregated ballast systems incorporating double bottoms," Morton pledged.
But that requirement was stymied a year later and again in 1978 when the United States ran into opposition at a meeting of the International Maritime Consultative Organization.
The Coast Guard has long maintained that it cannot impose stricter rules on domestic tankers than the international organization would accept for worldwide tanker fleets.
Opposition to an international requirement was led in part by the oil industry, which lobbied against it.
According to a summary of the Exxon Corp.'s position in advance of the 1978 meeting, the company said it "opposes mandatory double bottoms for all new tankers."
"Under certain circumstances double bottoms would complicate successful salvage operations," the company said. "In cases of serious major groundings, double bottoms will not prevent spillage. The possibility of gas escaping into the space between cargo tank bottoms and the vessel's bottom poses a potential hazard to personnel."
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