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VALDEZ - Let the scientists and poets debate whether the oil spill forever changed Prince William Sound. In matters of tanker safety, everyone would have to agree that the changes since 1989 have been immense.
The new era was evident from the moment the tanker Delaware Trader pulled away from the pipeline terminal dock in Valdez on a recent afternoon.
Under an untroubled blue sky, the world's most powerful tractor tug guided the stern of the small tanker to deeper water. The tug Nanuq, specially built for the Valdez operation and only a few weeks old, had to pull gingerly on the line tied to the Delaware Trader, because its unusual 10,000-horsepower propulsion system could tear the mooring bits off the tanker's steel deck.
The Delaware Trader started south, sailing past an anchored emergency barge ready to off-load up to 3 million gallons of crude if a tanker is damaged. Nearby waited a bigger barge, piled high with skimming equipment to outfit fishing vessels for near-shore response to a spill.
"That thing has more spill response equipment than some countries," said Vince Mitchell, manager of escort vessels for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., watching from the quiet, glassy pilot house of the tug.
Four other barges, carrying skimmers and boom for offshore work, were anchored elsewhere around the Sound. A decade ago, when the Exxon Valdez hit the rocks, the only such barge on hand was on shore, unloaded and buried in snow.
Today, those barges - like the state-of-the-art tug Nanuq - are part of what state and federal regulators call "the safest system in the world" for shipping oil.
"You could almost call it overkill, but I don't believe in overkill," said David Alvestad, the Nanuq's chief mate, who could look down on the stern deck of the tanker from the bridge on the tug. "You've got to have these backup systems in case one part of the system goes down."
The Delaware Trader, carrying 14 million gallons of oil on charter to Atlantic Richfield Co., is small for the Valdez trade. Tankers three times as large also ply the Valdez Narrows.
The 153-foot Nanuq was tethered to the stern of the Delaware Trader like a dog on a slack blue leash. It's another post-1989 innovation, designed to provide instant steering if the tanker loses power during the transit's crux move through Valdez Narrows. The tractor tug, with a movable propulsion system mounted near the center of hull rather than fixed propellers at the rear, is designed to swivel on a dime and shove itself sideways, redirecting a ship's stern with a high-tech polyethylene line capable of holding a million pounds.
Back in 1989, a small conventional tug followed tankers at a distance, carrying no spill equipment and turning back after the Narrows. The Exxon Valdez had been alone when it veered out of the tanker lanes and collided with Bligh Reef.
Now the Delaware Trader was accompanied not only by the Nanuq but by a second response tug, the Sea Venture. Standing by in nearby Jack Bay was a third vessel, equipped with boom and skimmers in case of trouble. Two other laden response vessels waited farther out in the Sound, ready to mark the tanker's progress across open water once the Nanuq let go near Bligh Reef and turned around. The Sea Venture would follow all the way to Hinchinbrook Entrance, the tanker gateway to Prince William Sound, before saying goodbye and heading back to guide another tanker.
Watching over the whole seven-hour transit was a new satellite-monitoring system run by the Coast Guard, wholly unlike the limited radar that lost sight of the Exxon Valdez as it left port on that drizzly night in 1989.
Where the Coast Guard watch used to huddle over radar scopes in a cave-like room, an expanded staff now sits in a well-lighted office back in Valdez - there is even a window looking out toward the water - watching traffic cross Prince William Sound on large computer screens. Using global position system satellites, the computers track the precise locations of all ships and escort vessels near the tanker lanes.
The new-look tanker system of 1999 is the result of many factors: tough new anti-pollution laws, more aggressive regulation, continuing public pressure and heightened industry anxieties over the costs of oil spills.
Contrary to predictions that post-spill vigilance would inevitably slacken with time - as it had before the spill - marine oil protections in Prince William Sound have continued to grow stronger because of this unique combination of factors, according to a university study of the system. The university study and other research into spill prevention is being presented at a symposium in Anchorage that runs through Friday at the Egan Convention Center.
In particular, the study, by University of Wisconsin researcher George Busenberg, singles out the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council as an effective "sentinel against the atrophy of vigilance in the Sound."
The world's safest oil-transport system is not foolproof, everybody involved says. Accidents can still occur because of human error or some bizarre or unanticipated event - or, more probably, a chain of small mistakes that leads to catastrophe.
But industry has improved its odds since the Exxon Valdez spill exposed a system that demanded too little and delivered even less. Where Alyeska used to spend about $1 million a year on prevention and response before the spill, the company now spends $60 million annually, has invested nearly $100 million in equipment and has 300 employees assigned to its Ship Escort/Response Vessel System, known as SERVS.
In fact, so many changes have been imposed to protect the environment since the Exxon Valdez oil spill that the protections may be adding up to a kind of environmental impact of their own.
The sentinel tugboats at remote anchorages, the standby response barges at Naked Island and Port Etches, the supply depots at hatcheries and the array of radio repeaters are helping turn the watery wilderness of Prince William Sound into an industrial zone stocked with reminders of the accident, said Rick Steiner, a scientist with the University of Alaska's Marine Advisory Program. Steiner's criticism of past industry complacency helped bring about many of the changes.
"A lot of people from Cordova don't like going down to Port Etches to deer hunt any more, with all those lights and noise and vessels there," Steiner said. "There's an intrusive psychological impact to it all. We are always in disaster preparation mode now."
TUG BRINGS AN EDGE
The Nanuq, Alyeska's new $15 million tractor tug, is a bright symbol of how much things have changed in Prince William Sound. But it would be simplistic to say that the tug represents a stunning turnaround in oil industry attitudes.
After all, citizen advocates were calling for tractor tugs as long ago as 1991, saying they were proven technology elsewhere in the world. If the industry now says the tugs are making the Sound safer - and even Alyeska expects them to save some $2 million a year in operating costs by replacing less versatile tugs - why did it take industry so long to bring them to Valdez?
Nor can it be said the tug is emblematic of tougher new federal and state laws, notes university researcher Busenberg. No law specifically directed industry to bring in powerful sidewinding tugs, and it took years before regulators agreed that the tugs represented the undefined "best available technology" required by state law.
Instead, the tug can best be seen as a symbol of the new multiparty process that has steadily improved safety since the Exxon Valdez spill. In particular, it highlights the role played by a post-spill citizens watchdog group, which kept pushing for the tractor tugs until regulators and the industry came around.
"It's a check and balance that had to be put into place, because every other check and balance is subject to money and lobbying," said Regional Citizens Advisory Council president Stan Stephens, a Valdez tour boat operator. "If you take away the citizens, then big money wins."
Stephens returned from a visit to North Sea oil facilities in 1991 singing the praises of the tractor tugs, only to be met by resistance from industry. But the RCAC persevered through several long studies of tanker safety in the Sound. Finally, two years ago, the Knowles administration came down full-force in favor of the tugs, the industry said it was convinced, and the order went out to the shipyards.
Supporters of the citizen council, including some industry officials, say the tractor tug saga is an example of the post-Exxon Valdez process. It's cumbersome, time-consuming, occasionally adversarial - and it works.
"We talk about a vessel, but this is also about people working together," said Gov. Tony Knowles at the Nanuq's dedication ceremony in Valdez last month. He described the tug's procurement as an example of "partnering" between the state, the industry and the private watchdog group.
Busenberg said the citizen group's role is key because its single focus is safety and because it can detect gaps that appear between the fragmented responsibilities of regulatory agencies.
Helping push the changes, Busenberg said, was the lasting symbolism of the Exxon Valdez spill, which made industry and government more willing to listen to the citizen group set up under the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
The industry's change of attitude didn't come overnight. Even after the Exxon spill, Stephens and other Valdez residents were being secretly investigated by Alyeska security personnel trying to plug company information leaks. But now the oil companies are ready to work with outsiders, Stephens said.
"Ten years ago, you couldn't even have a conversation with the oil industry," he said. "If you said anything a little bit negative, they shut you off. Today the conversation is wide open."
Stephens said that while the industry continues to be driven by the bottom line, Alyeska's owner-companies - principally British Petroleum, Arco and Exxon - have put new kinds of managers in charge of the Valdez operation, starting at the top with Bob Malone, Alyeska's president since 1996.
"I think he lies awake at night worrying about whether they're going to damage the environment," Stephens said of Malone.
Malone said the oil companies learned from the mistakes in 1989, even as a younger generation brought new attitudes to industry leadership roles.
"It's easy to say, 'If you're left unchecked, you'll backslide.' I don't think that's fair if you look at what industry up here has been willing to do," said Malone, 47. "I don't think people ought to take what we say at face value. But I think the facts speak to it. I can say go down there and look at the boats."
DISPUTES STILL FESTER
For all the mutual admiration being spread around the Sound these days, areas of disagreement remain.
In a dispute reminiscent of the long fight over tractor tugs, industry and RCAC are arguing over what kind of rescue boat to station near Hinchinbrook Entrance. If a tanker loses power in high seas and powerful currents at the entrance, the sentinel tug is supposed to be able to keep it from going on the rocks.
Industry wants to keep the boat it brought to Hinchinbrook in 1997: the 220-foot, 11,200-horsepower Gulf Service, which they said was the world's largest U.S.-built "ocean rescue" tug. But the watchdog group says that since state law requires "best available technology," the industry ought to be building a new state-of-the-art tractor tug for Hinchinbrook.
The state and industry are preparing a study of the likeliest rescue scenarios and the relative merits of the different boats.
An even bigger dispute is developing over double-hull tankers, which studies show would further reduce the chances of a catastrophic oil spill - and would have reduced the amount spilled from the Exxon Valdez.
Congress required a phase-out of older tankers and introduction of double hulls as part of its major post-Exxon oil pollution law of 1990. Now oil companies are pressing the Coast Guard to extend the life of existing tankers by allowing them to carry water instead of oil in the side tanks, improvising a sort of double hull without having to build new ships.
Critics at RCAC and elsewhere say that would circumvent the intent of Congress to bring new, state-of-the-art ships to the Sound.
"Ten years after, there are still no new boats in the trade, with all the extreme concern about tanker safety," said Steiner, the scientist with the University of Alaska's Marine Advisory Program. Beyond the differences over spill-prevention technology, disagreements remain over what to do after a major spill - especially what priority to give to the use of chemical dispersants as opposed to mechanical clean-up options.
Regulators are still accused sometimes of not being tough enough on industry.
Such criticisms are muted compared to 1989, when federal and state complacency received a big share of blame for the Exxon spill. Funded by a special post-spill tax on industry - which is not subject to budget cuts by the Legislature - the state Department of Environmental Conservation has 22 employees dedicated to spill response today, compared to only five in 1989.
Even so, the DEC found itself sued several years ago by commercial fishermen for not being attentive enough to "downstream" spill-response plans that would go into effect after any oil escapes Prince William Sound. The state settled the complaints last year with promises to do more.
"We need to do more drills and inspections on the water," said DEC Commissioner Michele Brown.
The Coast Guard's tanker-monitoring system is light years advanced from 1989, but some critics still complain that the agency is too close to the oil industry. The revolving door between regulator and industry, criticized at the time of the spill, continues to spin: Three of the top Coast Guard officials in Valdez since 1989 have gone to work for oil shippers, including Greg Jones, current head of Alyeska's SERVS program.
Officials with RCAC praise Jones' work with Alyeska, saying he has been an advocate for safety inside industry. But Stephens and others said the expectation of landing a job with industry can't help being on the minds of Coast Guard port captains as they weigh decisions affecting company bottom lines.
"You just can't let things like that weigh on you. You have to do what's right for the country," said Capt. Ron Morris, current captain of the port in Valdez. He conceded that conflicts do sometimes come up when Coast Guard officers near retirement, forcing officers to recuse themselves from important decisions.
The RCAC is still smarting over criticism leveled by Morris during the group's recertification process last year when its government charter was up for renewal. Morris said some council members were undermining the positive relations with industry by being overtly distrustful of industry's motives. While praising much of the council's work, Morris recommended that it be reined in by adding another oversight committee between RCAC and industry.
"That's not their role," Stephens said. "We are also supposed to be making sure the Coast Guard is not complacent."
Industry critic Steiner said Morris colluded with Arco in drawing up his critique, but Morris said he merely checked with industry contacts to improve his memory of past events involving RCAC.
The recent steep slide in oil prices puts new pressure on the industry at a time of industrywide layoffs. In January, Alyeska laid off five workers responsible for spill response at the Valdez terminal.
"Cheap oil is dangerous oil," said Tom Copeland, who represents some environmental interests on the RCAC board. He said low oil prices in late 1988 led to cutbacks in preparedness before the Exxon spill.
The recent layoffs came only weeks after a surprise state drill found Alyeska staff unprepared to operate an oil storage barge properly. A second drill, called right after the layoffs were announced, found adequate numbers of response personnel on hand, but some of them were improperly trained, according to the state DEC.
Alyeska officials considered the latter problems mostly a matter of paperwork but conceded they had to do more work on handling the oil barges. Indeed, they passed a second test on barge operation Feb. 24.
The laid-off employees were responsible mainly for maintenance, and reorganization will ensure that neither maintenance or response efforts suffer as a result, Jones said.
Even so, the whole sequence - coming on the eve of the Exxon Valdez anniversary - was embarrassing for industry.
"I'd be lying to you if I didn't say the timing was horrible," said Alyeska president Malone. He said Alyeska had consolidated its work force in recent years and planned no more layoffs of response workers.
FRIGHTS STIR CHANGES
Some safety measures, such as booms placed around tankers while they load at the terminal, were put in place immediately after the spill in 1989. (A response crew once spent four hours inside the booms trying to mop up a mysterious slick that turned out to be corned beef drippings poured over the side by a tanker's cook, according to Alyeska's Mitchell.)
But many of the most important safety improvements came slowly, as a result of detailed studies, arguments in committee meetings - and a few close calls.
Early in the morning of Oct. 20, 1992, the tanker Kenai veered out of the shipping lane toward Middle Rock, the Valdez Arm's best-known hazard. As Coast Guard watchmen stared nervously at their screens, the escort tug on duty nosed into the side of the tanker. Finally, the Kenai's crew realized the problem was with their steering indicator, not the steering itself. They got the tanker pointed back toward the sea.
Could the escort tug have prevented a disaster by itself? Maybe not, according to a disabled tanker towing study undertaken at RCAC's insistence and released in 1994.
The study concluded that the escort tugs that had given everyone peace of mind since the Exxon spill would not be able to tie up towing lines in some emergency conditions. Nor were they powerful enough to stop the tankers at the speeds they were traveling. Alyeska began tethering its tugs from the time they left the terminal, and slowed the tankers in the Narrows from six knots to five.
RCAC said tractor tugs would best solve the problems, but industry proposed instead a second, areawide study.
Meanwhile, two more scary incidents brought about further changes.
In 1994 the tanker Overseas Ohio suffered a 20-foot gash after striking an iceberg in the dark. The ship was carrying no oil at the time as it crossed the Sound for the Valdez terminal. But in the aftermath, industry began sending ice escorts ahead of laden tankers to prowl for icebergs in the tanker lanes.
Then in 1995 the tanker Kenai had another close call, straying out of the tanker lanes to within less than half a ship's length of a charted shoal. Surprisingly, neither escort vessel called the tanker on the radio to ask what was going on. Shippers and marine pilots agreed that escort vessel operators should forego the usual deference to tanker pilots and speak up as soon as a tanker crosses out of safe territory.
"The incident really sent some signals to us that the prevention system isn't working near as well as we thought," said a state regulator at the time.
The areawide risk assessment study, finally completed in 1996, resulted in more changes and added further incentive for bringing in tractor tugs. Finally Alyeska agreed, commissioning the Nanuq and a sister boat, the Tan'erliq, which is due to arrive in April.
Alyeska critics say the oil companies kept studying tractor tugs through the 1990s as a delaying tactic. "The longer they delay it, the less expensive it is to them," said Steiner.
Malone agreed that money was a consideration. He said Alyeska waited until it was time to replace the tug fleet, comparing the process to buying a new car.
"I didn't rush out and buy a new car as soon as air bags came along," said Malone. "But when it came time to get a new car, I got the best one I could find."
More changes are in store. Alyeska has commissioned three new escort vessels to accompany tankers along with the tractor tugs. The new vessels, due next year, are designed to be more effective at quick oil-spill response.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, may decide to remove the existing two-lane traffic separation through Valdez Arm, replacing it with a single wide channel so that tankers have more flexibility to evade shoals and ice, said Morris. And the familiar dogleg in the middle of the Sound, drawn in the 1970s to route tankers around a crab pot fishery, may be straightened because crab fishermen no longer use the area, Morris said.
Other post-1989 changes already in place have set new high-wind operating limits and improved crew safety by insisting on well-rested shifts, more officers on the tanker bridge and alcohol testing before a tanker departs.
RCAC's executive director, former Valdez Mayor John Devens, said that all the changes make him confident that the Exxon Valdez accident could never be repeated.
"There are too many eyes. It would be hard to make a hard left and pile up on the rocks again. But other things can happen," Devens said. "There's always the human factor. We constantly wonder, is there anything out there we're not thinking of?"
Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at email@example.com.