Tough Times in Tanker Town

Abstract: Recent marine oil spills bring calls for more liability and citizen panels to watch over transport operations.

Analysis: On the day after Thanksgiving, the Athos I, Greek registry tanker, began to leak as tugboats were guiding it to a pier on the Delaware River in southern New Jersey near Philadelphia. The crew notified the Coast Guard and began transferring oil from a leaking tank to another tank on board.

The tank was pumped out and the leak stopped within an hour. The crew’s fast action may have limited the discharge to 30,000 gallons. Later estimates raised that to 42,000 gallons and a final estimate from the Coast Guard may not be made for some time. The affected area was initially estimated at 20 miles along the river between southern New Jersey and Philadelphia. Later estimates increased that to 40 miles. The figures are still uncertain. Damage to wildlife was substantial.

Though miniscule compared to the 11 million gallons the Exxon Valdez dumped in 1989 to affect 1,500 miles of shoreline around Price William Sound in Alaska, the spill still had a substantial effect on the densely populated area.

Nuclear Plants to Shutdown

Workers readied booms to block the oil from flowing up tidal rivers and estuaries along the Delaware, but high winds developed before they could be set. As a result, two nuclear power plants in southern New Jersey planned shutdowns Friday. The operator, PSEG Nuclear, said it feared oil from the spill might reach water intake valves that provide coolant for their reactors and clog them. River passage was closed to commercial and recreational traffic while the spill was being cleaned up.

Divers found a six-foot gash in the Athos I single hull, but could not explain the cause. Later a second gash was found. There is no rocky bottom in the river. Additional searches produced no other sources. A 20-foot-diameter propeller, lost by a channel dredge, was the only suspect. Divers are still rechecking the river bottom.

Single Hull Vessels

Reports from the site said the Athos I was carrying 325,000 barrels of oil from Venezuela. At the cleanup site, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) focused on the fact that the Athos I is a single hull tanker. Such vessels are by law to be phased out in favor of double-hulled tankers, some by 2010, some by 2015. Lautenberg wants to immediately eliminate limits on their liability.

'Oil companies that have decided not to change to safer double hulled vessels should not be immune from paying the entire cost when one of their ships dumps thousands of gallons of oil into our rivers,' Lautenberg said. Double hulls were mandated in U.S. waters soon after the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 imposed double hull requirements and phasing out single-hull oil tankers between 2010 and 2015.

Lautenberg said the removal of limits is necessary because many in the shipping industry have not even ordered double bottoms. Under current law, liability is capped at $1200 per gross ton. This is too low to cover the costs of cleanup and the costs to businesses hurt by the spill, according to Lautenberg. At $1200 per gross ton, Athos I liability would be limited to $45,474,000 say estimates from Landenberg’s office.

Puget Sound Mystery

On the opposite end of the U.S., in Puget Sound, another small oil spill commands attention. One night in October, a departing vessel left an oily slick in Dalco Passage between Tacoma and Vashon Island. At daybreak and after the fog lifted, authorities found the slick extended from the Tacoma Narrows to Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island. No source was found.

The public in the area is irate, regarding the incident like that of a burglar or sneak thief. The Coast Guard, with samples of the slick, went collecting oil samples from vessels known to have passed through the waters the night of the spill. If found, owners face criminal prosecution for the spill and for leaving the area without reporting it. A federal grand jury began to subpoena testimony.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke appointed an Oil Spill Early Action Task Force to look into delay of the response to the spill until after dawn. One of the first people to talk to the task force was John Devens, who was mayor of Valdez, Alaska, when the oil tanker crashed, spreading the 11 million gallons of crude oil.

He said Puget Sound authorities were as ill prepared to respond to a spill as they had been in Valdez in 1989.

At the time, Alaskans had little say in oil-spill prevention and cleanup. Today, Devens is executive director of what he calls an 'anti-complacency system'— the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council. The council, which operates with a $2.7 million annual budget, is advisory only. It includes a variety of community and business leaders but nobody from the oil industry.

'We say the people living in the area have the most to lose,' Devens told the Oil Spill Early Action Task Force 'You need an organization that puts the priorities of the citizens as the top priority.'

Writing in the Seattle Times, Devens said, 'Since 1989, many safety improvements have been made to the oil-transportation system in Prince William Sound — better radar, better tankers and an elaborate escort system, to name a few.

'And I am part of what I consider an equally important post-Exxon Valdez innovation: the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council. Our group formed shortly after the spill to guarantee a forceful voice for citizens in the oil-transportation decisions that so directly affect them. I have been executive director of the council for the past seven years.

'Our main job is to prevent a resurgence of the complacency that allowed the Exxon Valdez to happen. We scrutinize every facet of crude-oil transportation in Prince William Sound: contingency planning, prevention measures, response readiness, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and its fleet of escort tugs, the oil tankers and the companies that run them, the oil terminal in Valdez, and regulators such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Many safety improvements here resulted from advocacy by our group, and many others were strengthened by our involvement in their development.'

Devens said nothing can guarantee against another catastrophic spill, but he believes citizen oversight has been crucial in reducing risks in Prince William Sound. 'Citizens never let up. They stay in place as industry and agency personnel rotate through the system. Unlike regulators and elected officials, citizens are relatively immune to being lobbied or 'captured' by the industry they oversee. And, perhaps most importantly, citizens have the most to lose from a catastrophic spill.'

It takes many things to make such a system work but Devens emphasizes independence and guaranteed funding.

'The governing board must consist entirely of citizens. No company or agency should have a voting seat. And board members must be chosen by the communities and interest groups they represent, not appointed by an elected official, an agency head, or an industry executive.

'Guaranteed funding is also essential, and it should be paid by the cost-causer — that is, the shipping industry being overseen — not by the communities at risk from shipping operations. Overseeing a complex shipping system is expensive, requiring a professional staff and frequent recourse to hired experts for technical analysis and advice. We have a staff of 17 and a yearly budget of about $3 million.

Running a Tight Ship?

So with prospects of increased liability for single hull vessels and possibilities of increased surveillance of operations, these are tough times for tanker operators. It can all be treated as just business and analyzed by risk management, of course. But the problem is no longer entirely business and financial. A very large factor now is emotional: the public doesn’t want to see any more oily sea gulls and slimed beaches. And it’s tired of calculating the costs of cleanups. The situation appears to call for a maritime cure – maybe starting with some quality programs – what sailors call running a tight ship.