More than 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil poured through the punctured steel hull of a tanker grounded on a wellcharted reef in Prince William Sound on Friday, unleashing the largest crude oil spill ever to foul U.S. waters.
The Exxon Valdez, one of the newest tankers in Exxon Shipping Co.'s fleet, ran aground shortly after midnight on Bligh Reef, about 25 miles from the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. shipping terminal. Navigation charts show the reef to be about three miles from the outbound shipping lane.
Frank Iarossi, president of Exxon Shipping, blamed the disaster on "human error," but declined to go into specifics.
"At this stage we don't understand the sequence of events," he said. "As far as we could tell, everything on the ship was operational. There was no rudder failure. There was no power failure. I think we would need to address the actions (of crew members)."
The fully laden tanker was on its way to a refinery in Long Beach, Calif., when it struck the reef, which Valdezarea boaters call the bestknown hazard in the sound. By sundown Friday, people who had flown over the ship estimated the oil slick to be roughly eight miles long and four miles wide, stretching southwest into the middle of the Sound.
The disaster threatened to wreak havoc in one of continent's richest marine environments just as herring were returning to spawn and juvenile salmon were migrating from the rivers where they hatched.
State and federal officials have just begun to assess the danger that the oil poses to the Sound's rich abundance of migratory birds and marine mammals, including fin, orca, minke and humpback whales.
Scientists and officials were debating whether they should attempt to control the spill with chemical dispersants. While the chemicals could help save the lives of marine mammals and birds, they could kill whole schools of fish and contaminate herring roe laid in kelp.
At a press conference Friday evening, Exxon officials said their first priority would be to try to limit the damage, and then to investigate what caused the accident.
Exxon spokesman Tom Cirigliano said the captain of the vessel was being interviewed late Friday. Both Iarossi and Cirigliano said they did not know who was at the helm of the ship at the time it went aground.
Don Cornett, head of Exxon's Alaska office, said it was his understanding that the captain was not on the bridge.
Weather was calm Thursday night and all day Friday.
Coast Guard and Exxon officials said the tanker's officers had navigated out of the southbound lane because they believed it contained drifting ice from Columbia Glacier. Iarossi said the ship had received Coast Guard permission to move from the southbound lane to the harborbound lane, but he did not know what caused the ship to move outside even the second lane.
Iarossi said five of the storage tanks were clearly ruptured, three more possibly damaged, and 11 were still full and undamaged. Three other tanks were filled with ballast, he said.
Both Exxon officials and a Coast Guard spokesman said the ship does not appear to be in danger of breaking up. It was still aground Friday night, Iarossi said.
Valdez Coast Guard Cmdr. Stephen McCall said Friday that his agency was puzzled by the accident. "We know that she left without a hitch from the terminal," he said. "All her equipment was operating properly."
In the midst of the disastrous spill, another Exxon tanker, the Baton Rouge, was authorized to dump its oily ballast water into Prince William Sound to empty its tanks so it could take on the Valdez's cargo of crude oil. But the Baton Rouge remained on standby as officials debated how to accomplish the procedure.
As of Friday night, the plan was to get half of what's left in the tanker loaded onto the Baton Rouge and a second tanker waiting south of the scene, the Exxon San Francisco. When that occurs, the Valdez should be able to move off the shoal on its own, Iarossi said.
The Exxon spokesman said he did not know whether the Valdez had left port on schedule.
Coast Guard Lt. Ed Wieliczkiewiez said the Valdez was lying in an eastwest direction, when it should have been traveling south.
"We don't know why it's like that," he said.
He said the ship was at the outer edge of the area that can be monitored by radar from Valdez marine control. He said the ship was not being tracked Thursday night by radar because there were no other vessels nearby and no danger of a shiptoship collision.
The pilot who steered the tanker out of the port area and through the narrows a threequartermilewide stretch of treacherous waterway just outside the harbor already had been dropped off, McCall said.
The tanker was under the command of Exxon Capt. Joe Hazlewood, who has been with the company 20 years and has skippered vessels in and out of Valdez for about 12 years, Cirigliano said.
The Valdez was carrying about 53 million gallons 1.26 million barrels of crude, according to Coast Guard and Exxon officials.
At least 150,000 barrels immediately ran from ruptures in three starboard cargo tanks, and the oil continued to leak throughout much of the early morning at the rate of 20,000 gallons an hour, the Coast Guard said.
The crude coated icebergs black. Sea lions sought the high ground of buoys.
State environmental officials estimated the spill at about 265,000 barrels or 11.3 million gallons late Friday afternoon.
The 987foot Valdez, which needs 55 feet of water when fully loaded to stay afloat, notified the Coast Guard at 12:28 a.m. that it had run atop the 36foot shoal, said Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer John Gonzales. Coast Guard and state Department of Environmental Conservation officials immediately went out to the ship, some of them staying on the vessel through the rest of the day.
The spill first was reported to be a halfmile long. By morning light, when at least 200,000 barrels had spilled, the slick had grown to an amoebalike creature some five to six miles long and one to three miles wide. The tides that swirl through that area of the sound kept changing the slick's shape, but also worked to keep most of the oil from moving on out into the Gulf of Alaska.
Exxon was marshaling its international oil spill team on Friday, flying in 40 of its people from the Lower 48 to take control of the cleanup effort. Those specialists ranged from fish biologists to cleanup experts, said Cornett.
The company also expected a cargo plane, loaded with oil spill cleanup equipment, to arrive today from England, Cornett said.
The company planned to remove as much of the Valdez's cargo to the Baton Rouge as the smaller tanker could hold about 415,000 barrels.
Then Exxon hoped to refloat the stranded vessel and move it to a safe harbor for temporary repairs.
The Coast Guard closed Port Valdez to tanker traffic at about 8 a.m. Friday, leaving two tankers stranded at their berths, said Tom Brennan of Alyeska.
The pipeline company reduced the volume of oil running through the transAlaska pipeline from two million barrels a day to 1.2 million barrels, Brennan said.
He said the company had about eight million barrels of storage capacity at the terminal and at spots along the pipeline and on the North Slope, giving the company about six days before it starts running out of places to put the oil.
Brennan said the Coast Guard planned to keep the port closed until the tanker has been floated off the reef.
Columbia Glacier, about 40 miles long and four miles wide at tidewater, is the largest of the 20 active calving glaciers in western Prince William Sound.
For the past seven or eight years it has been in rapid retreat, dropping more and bigger icebergs off its face faster than it can produce new ice. However, few of these icebergs, and even fewer large ones, ever get into the shipping lanes in Valdez Arm.
Large icebergs get trapped in a twomile wide band of shallow water in front of the glacier. Only those smaller than about 50 feet long can get out, and most drift west, not east toward Bligh Island, according to U.S. Geological Survey glaciologist Larry Mayo.
"When they do go into Valdez Arm," Mayo said, "their size ranges from little tiny ice cubes to to bergs (of) . . . 20 to 30 feet in length. That's relatively small in the world of glaciers."
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