Divers are preparing the damaged tanker Exxon Valdez for an ocean voyage to an unknown destination without patching the huge holes torn in its hull when the 987 foot ship hit a reef March 24.
Their work is intended mainly to keep the ship from cracking more and breaking up at sea on its way to dry dock in Portland, Ore., or a port in the Far East. Exxon USA spokesman Karston Rodvik said 105,000 gallons of oil remain on board, but will be removed before the trip.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Clyde Robbins, the federal on scene coordinator for the Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons, said it will take Exxon at least another three weeks to get ready to move the ship.
Robbins also said he has extended the deadline for the cleanup of seal and sea lion birthing areas, which was today, until May 15. He said the original deadline was set at the earliest time the pups could be expected, and that they have not appeared according to that schedule.
Robbins said he was "despondent" after seeing the work on the seal haul out areas last week, but that it has progressed well since then. He hopes work will be done in two or three days.
Before Exxon can move the tanker, it must first persuade the Coast Guard that the inside and outside of the ship are as clean as possible and that the trip will be safe for the crew, Robbins said. He said the danger of pollution from the possible sinking of the ship is limited to the fuel it carries.
Rodvik, of Exxon, was unable to say if the ship will go under its own power or be towed. A state official who was on board said the company does not plan to use the ship's own power plant. But the ship may need a crew aboard to operate equipment to force air into the damaged tanks, said an independent marine architect who studied the vessel.
Olaf Hatlen, a Vancouver, B.C., consultant, was hired by Alaska, Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, which are worried about a second Exxon Valdez spill that could dirty their shores if the ship sinks. He said he believes he is the only independent marine architect to inspect the ship.
Hatlen said he thinks the Exxon Valdez can be safely moved to Portland if the weather is calm and the ship is properly loaded. He said it is impractical to patch the tanker's 20footwide holes in the remote cove on Prince William Sound's Naked Island, where it is now anchored.
The $120 million ship ran aground about 25 miles from Valdez early on March 24. A third mate was in command who was not licensed for the waters under a captain, Joseph Hazelwood, who investigators say was too drunk to legally command the vessel when he was tested 10 hours after the grounding. Exxon moved the ship to Naked Island, 50 miles from Valdez, April 5.
Joe LeBeau, of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, was on board the tanker Saturday for a surprise visit. He said divers working inside tanks emerged with oil on them.
But Don Neet, project manager for Underwater Construction, which is doing the work, refused to describe what the divers are doing because, he said, he is unhappy with the legislature's revision of an oil tax, the Economic Limit Factor, and unfairness of the press to the oil industry in general.
According to LeBeau, Hatlen and a daily Exxon report, the divers are drilling 3inch diameter holes in the ship at the end of some of the cracks in its hull. The holes are intended to keep the cracks from spreading.
Hatlen said one crack extends halfway around the ship's hull, but he said it does not appear to be a hinge which could cause the ship to break in half. Hatlen said the ship can move under the right conditions.
"You can't leave it there indefinitely," he said. "I believe it can be moved safely to go to Portland, Oregon, given the right loading conditions and the right weather conditions."
Hatlen said the tanker must be loaded so that the center floats higher than the bow and stern, concentrating stress on the deck and causing compression rather than more cracking in the damaged underwater areas. If the weather were bad, however, the plan wouldn't work, because waves would lift the bow and stern above the center, pulling apart the cracks underneath, he said.
Hatlen said he has not yet delivered a report on the matter, because Exxon has not said how it plans to do the job, or even what port it expects to use.
LeBeau said several crew members remain on board the ship who were on board at the time of the wreck, although the tanker is under the command of its "fourth or fifth" captain. He said the crew is busy with the work of cleaning out the vessel's tanks. They also must clean a huge black mark that rises from the water line high up on one side of the tanker where oil boiled out of the eight ruptured tanks.
Three salvage vessels and a robot camera are also working, LeBeau said. According to a daily Exxon report, oil has been removed from two tanks and a third is being skimmed.
Jim O'Brien, of Exxon, said a pair of barges are working to remove tainted ballast water from the ship and take it to the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. ballast water treatment plant. LeBeau said the ship is floating noticeably higher.
Exxon has not allowed visits to the tanker and has kept boats too far away to see what is happening on board.
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