Tanker tugged free from shoreline

Posted: Friday, February 03, 2006

An oil tanker that broke loose of its moorings, spilled two barrels of fuel into Cook Inlet and then grounded early Thursday morning, was safely pulled back into the water Friday morning.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the owners of the tanker, Seabulk Tankers Inc., were preparing to refloat the 601-foot tanker during high tide Thursday night, but when the tide arrived decided it would be safer to delay action until Friday morning's high tide.

"They went through the checklist and said we're not ready," said Kip Knudson a spokesperson for Tesoro.

The tanker, Seabulk Pride, chartered to Tesoro has double-hull and the capacity to carry 342,000 42-gallon barrels of oil. When an ice floe struck the Seabulk Pride and broke the tanker loose from its moorings it was carrying 116,225 barrels.

Resting on the ground stresses the hull of the tanker and the Coast Guard and Seabulk Tankers Inc. did not want to allow too many tide cycles to pass before they refloated it, said Coast Guard Capt. Mark DeVries at a press conference on Friday. At 5:25 a.m. on Thursday an ice floe ripped the Seabulk Pride away from the Tesoro Refinery loading dock, snapping all 16 of the moorings that were holding the tanker in place as it loaded fuel in Nikiski. The tanker then drifted a half mile north until it grounded on the beach.

The accident occurred just days after the Coast Guard issued Extreme Ice Rules for vessels traveling through Upper Cook Inlet. There were 34 people on board when the tanker broke loose, including two pilots, and no injuries were reported, but whether the Extreme Ice Rules were followed is still being investigated.

At Friday morning's press conference the Coast Guard played a video recording of the tanker being pulled from shore by three tug boats at 8:20 a.m. Friday.

So far no damage to the tanker or its hull has been observed. As of Friday afternoon the tanker was being escorted by six tug and response vessels to Katchemak Bay to be anchored and thoroughly inspected by divers. And the tanker was expected to arrive in safe refuge near Homer between 6 and 7 p.m. Friday.

"We just want to be prepared for any possible contingency," said Sarah Simpson, vice president of corporate communications for Tesoro. All docks in the Nikiski port have been closed until preventative steps are in place to ensure a similar accident will not reoccur, she said.

The next ship was due to arrive to the port Saturday, but is likely to be delayed due to the closure, DeVries said.

The Tesoro refinery is still operating, but at a reduced capacity, Simpson said. The accident has renewed calls for increased navigational safeguards in Cook Inlet and, in particular, tug boat assists.

Heavy winter ice can become particularly dangerous in the Cook Inlet due to its notoriously strong, fast tides, but in contrast to Prince William Sound and Puget Sound, Cook Inlet safety standards do not require tug boat assist availability for tankers.

"We dodged a big bullet here and this should be a wake up call that Cook Inlet navigational safety needs to move into the 21st century," said Bob Shavelson, Executive Director of Cook Inlet Keeper.



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