The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating a minor collision after a new tugboat dented an oil tanker during a docking procedure at the Valdez Marine Terminal on Wednesday, an accident that comes amid heightened scrutiny as a new spill-prevention contractor introduces its crews and equipment to Prince William Sound.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is helping with the investigation, said Geoff Merrell, DEC's state on-scene coordinator. Regulators want to ensure the accident is not indicative of a larger problem, such as possible design flaws in the new tugs, said Merrell.
"It's probably not the case, but we do need to do our due diligence," Merrell said.
The DEC on Tuesday had just approved the new tug, the Ingot, for docking operations, said Donna Schantz, head of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council. Schantz said the incident happened in calm weather and raises questions about whether the incoming crews need more time to become proficient on the new tugs.
Edison Chouest is in the process of taking over a 10-year contract from longtime operator Crowley Marine to provide tanker-escort and spill-prevention duties at the terminal where North Slope crude oil is loaded onto tankers.
The official transition date is Sunday. Edison is replacing Crowley's 250-person workforce with its own crews, and has built several tugs and barges for the job at its Lower 48 shipyards.
Early Wednesday morning, the Edison Chouest crew on the 105-foot Ingot struck the double-hulled 600-foot tanker Florida, while helping the tanker dock at the terminal, Merrell said.
The impact left what investigators are calling a "sizable" dent, but no one was injured, Merrell said.
Michelle Egan, a spokeswoman with terminal operator Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which hired Edison, said officials with the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping inspected the double-hulled tanker after the accident. They allowed the tanker to load oil and sail as originally planned.
"When coming alongside the tanker, there was a hard landing," Egan said in an email, adding that contact is necessary as part of the docking process. "This caused an inset (dent) to the tanker shell."
The "metal-to-metal contact" left a dent in the tanker about 20 inches long, 6 inches wide, and 3 inches deep, she said.
“Alyeska is investigating and reviewing procedures,” she said.
The incident was unusual, given that it led to inspections of the damage before the tanker could take crude oil, said Schantz, with the advisory council, created by Congress after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
She said Edison's newly arriving tugs and other gear represent significant improvements in prevention and response capability. But she said the transition may be happening too quickly.
The DEC on Friday approved the overall transition to Edison. DEC is now individually reviewing vessels.
Edison did not immediately provide comment Thursday evening.
Merrell said tug accidents have happened before. He said Wednesday's incident could be crew error that's correctable, part of a learning curve. Or it could be something more.
"If this incident brings to light some mechanical problem on the tug we were previously unaware of, we may have to re-evaluate" the approval, he said.