Cook Inlet tanker traffic needs escort tugs

When the Exxon Valdez "fetched up hard aground" on Bligh Reef in 1989, it was in the dark of night. A mighty storm was raging in Joe Hazelwood's alcohol-fogged brain. There are many versions of a dark and stormy night, and they all involve risk, and risk prevention.

A crude oil tanker could be transiting Cook Inlet bound for Nikiski on a dark and stormy night. The tanker could lose power. The tanker could, with combined forces of wind and tide, be driven ashore and spring a serious leak.

The shorelines of Cook Inlet are presently at high risk because there is no requirement for tug escorts. There is no way to prevent a laden tanker from being driven ashore on a dark and stormy night if power is lost. An attempt could be made to deploy the anchor, but studies prove this to be an unlikely solution. Tugs are available in Prince William Sound, but they are 24 hours away.

The tug Robert Franco, used as an assist tug for ships docking at the Nikiski terminal could be deployed, but the Robert Franco is not suited for this purpose, and does not have the bollard pull necessary for a successful rescue.

Basically, the Cook Inlet shoreline from Chickaloon to Nanwalek and beyond, including Kachemak Bay, Snug Harbor, Kodiak, and everything in between is at risk of an oil spill. This is a lot of risk. It is a near-certainty that a spill will occur; the question is "when?" How quickly people forget the lessons of the Exxon Valdez.

A Russian container ship carrying hundreds of tons of fuel recently lost power off the Canadian coast near the Queen Charlotte islands. A rescue effort took place over a week or more. Tugs with adequate power were hard to find in the area. Tow lines repeatedly broke. A catastrophe was avoided, but only because the ship was far enough offshore to buy the rescuers time. If this happens in Cook Inlet -- and it will -- a confined geographical area with extraordinary tides and winter ice to contend with, a spill will be unavoidable.

Many times, risks of various types are insured. Vehicle insurance is mandatory. If you have a mortgage on your house, fire insurance is mandatory. Health insurance, life insurance, pet insurance, disability insurance, long-term care insurance. ... Every kind of insurance imaginable is available except for catastrophic oil spill insurance. The only insurance policy of merit in this situation would be mandatory tug escorts with adequate capabilities for a dark and stormy night and a laden oil tanker in Cook Inlet. Prince William Sound requires two escorts per tanker until the tanker passes Hinchinbrook on its way out into the Gulf of Alaska. Cook Inlet? Nothing. No requirement. Chopped liver.


More and more marine activity can be expected in Cook Inlet and Alaska. Soon there may be LNG tankers, perhaps two a day, moving through Cook Inlet to Nikiski. Oil and gas exploration is increasing, with an inevitable increase of industry traffic. As the Arctic Slope is developed, there are no rules in existence for tug escorts there either.

What can be done to address this glaring deficiency?

The public must stand up and be heard. The State of Alaska DEC is not doing its job -- as stated on its website -- of "conserving, improving and protecting Alaska's natural resources and environment." This is a classic case of state underreach. Many complain of federal overreach, but the Alaskan public may have to turn once again to the federal government for protection because the state chronically ignores the blatant hazard.

In Cook Inlet there is a Regional Citizens Advisory Council -- CIRCAC -- whose job, in theory and according to federal law, is to discuss these types of risks relative to crude oil, marine oil, and fuel transportation in Cook Inlet. They recently conducted a risk assessment study for the Inlet, which contains no specific mention of or advocacy for tug escorts. CIRCAC has, for the most part, ignored this issue since it was created in 1992 in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Maybe they should be asked why this risk is allowed to continue. Why is this most obvious and egregious risk being ignored? Where is the leadership from the state, the feds, the U.S. Coast Guard?

Frank Mullen is a commercial fisherman. He lives in Homer.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Frank Mullen

Frank Mullen is a commercial fisherman. He lives in Homer.