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All ahead stop

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published December 30, 2009
pathfinder-tug-12-31-09
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Charly Hengen

None of the fancy technology aboard the 136-foot tug Pathfinder -- not the satellite positioning system, not the radar, not the depth finder capable of sounding depth warnings -- prevented a Dec. 23 collision with Bligh Reef, and Alaskans monitoring oil tanker safety in Prince William Sound say that ought to serve as a warning for everyone concerned about the northern environment.

The Pathfinder grounding, they say, makes it clear Congress needs to reauthorize a requirement all tankers leaving Port Valdez laden with North Slope crude be accompanied by tugs to port and starboard as has been the case since shortly after the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in 1989 and started leaking oil. By the time oil stopped gushing from its cracked hull, there were nearly 11 million gallons in the water and one of the worst environmental disasters in North American history was starting to unfold.

"We think you still need the backup of these escorts,'' Stan Jones, director of external affairs Prince William Sound Regional Citizen's Advisory Council, said this week.

"It's probably the most important thing we can do,'' added Stan Stephens, a charter boat skipper in Valdez for more than 40 years. "Not everyone is going to screw up.''

As Stephens points out, the simple beauty of the so-called "Ship Escort Response Vessel System" implemented in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster is that it requires three key people -- the tanker pilot and the skippers of two tugs -- to screw up for a tanker to hit the reef. Given the almost legendary independence of skippers in Alaska, Stephens said, it is hard to imagine that the captain of a tug to one side of a tanker or the other won't be on the radio pronto wondering what is going on if a tanker even hints at straying form the shipping lane. Most likely, both tug skippers will be on the radio demanding to know what is happening.

Stephens and many others believe these extra eyes aboard the tugs to either side of a tanker trump any sort of technology that might be used to prevent another oil spill. In the case of the Pathfinder, Jones notes, there was only one crew watching what was going on, and though that Crowley Maritime crew was aided by plenty of technology, something still went wrong.

Not only did the navigation systems aboard the tug somehow fail to alert the crew to danger, Jones said, so did the Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Center in Valdez, which is supposed to track tankers and tugs using the shipping lane into and out of Valdez. The center has radar watching the Sound, and the tankers and tugs are supposed to carry "position and identification reporting equipment" to enable the traffic center to track them in much the way air-traffic controllers follow the movement of airplanes fitted with transponders. And yet the Pathfinder somehow strayed off course even farther than the Exxon Valdez. The latter struck bottom in about 35 feet of water. The former had to get so close to the center of the reef that its keel hit the rocks in 17 feet.

"We don't know if they were watching (in the traffic center),'' Jones said, "or if they were watching and didn't do anything. These are both questions we are trying to get answers to. So far, the Coast Guard are playing their cards awfully close to their chest.''

The Coast Guard says it is investigating both the grounding of the Pathfinder and the performance of the Vessel Traffic Center. Jones said the advisory council wholly endorses the former investigation, but has some reservations about the latter. It can be hard for federal agencies to impartially investigate themselves, Jones said.

Meanwhile, as the investigation begins, the advisory council is renewing efforts to make sure the Ship Escort Response Vessel System is kept in place for all tankers leaving Valdez. Legally, the SRVS is required only for single-hull tankers, which are now being phased out of service in favor of safer, double-hulled vessels. Though double-hulled tankers will help prevent oil spills, Jones said, a Coast Guard study after the Exxon Valdez concluded that even if that ship had been double-hulled, millions of gallons of oil would still have poured into Prince William Sound to coat and kill seabirds, otters and other marine life.

"With great assistance from Rep. Don Young,'' Jones said, language requiring the long-term continuation of the SERVS for all tankers was approved earlier this year by the U.S. House of Representatives as part of a budget bill for the Coast Guard. But the SERVS provision is not in the Senate version of that bill. Jones is hopeful that with the support of Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski-(R) and Mark Begich-(D), it will be included.

Jones admits it would be cheaper for oil companies to move North Slope crude without the cost of contracting Crowley Maritime to provide tug escorts, but the money spent on prevention could save a fortune on potential clean-up costs later. Prevention of an oil spill, he said, is better than any possible clean-up effort.

"Our goal is to keep the oil out of the water in the first place,'' Jones said.

Stephens confessed he doesn't understand how the Pathfinder, like the Exxon Valdez, ran aground, but then again he does understand. And in that dichotomy is the lesson.

"We still haven't solved the human factor,'' Stephens said.

Marine accidents share a common thread with aircraft accidents. Many if not most of them, in the end, come down to that problem called "human error" in part or in whole.

"This is really a hard one to understand," Stephens said. "There's just absolutely no justification for it happening, The Coast Guard should have been watching them. We're not going to know until the Coast Guard comes out with its report'' exactly what happened in the Pathfinder case. But, he added, mariners already know what happened to the Exxon Valdez, and it wasn't just that Capt. Joseph Hazelwood had a drinking problem. It was that navigational errors were made by people on the ship's bridge who weren't paying attention.

"It's strictly human error," Stephens said, "being where you're not supposed to be. It's usually human error. There are lessons to be learned from this. The more eyes the better."

If Congress is unwilling to approve a SERVS provision that will keep extra eyes out on the Sound watching over tankers, he said, the state had best step up with a requirement for its own SERVS-style system.

Contact Craig Medred at craig_alaskadispatch.com.

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