Is Kachemak safe harbor for towed tanker?

Bay draws safety focus

Posted: Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Concerns about pollution from disabled tankers anchored in safe refuge in Kachemak Bay is generating pressure for greater tanker safety measures in Cook Inlet after a cracked oil tanker was escorted there from Cook Inlet last Friday.

“Kachemak is (Cook Inlet’s) de facto port of refuge,” said Bob Shavelson executive director of Cook Inlet Keeper. “I think people here are very concerned.”

The half-full oil tanker, leased by Tesoro and named the Seabulk Pride, arrived in Kachemak Bay after it was ripped from its loading dock in Cook Inlet in extreme ice and tide conditions and then rescued from where it had grounded on a beach a half mile north of the dock.

Two barrels of fuel spilled from fuel loading hoses when the tanker broke away from its dock, but no further leakages were reported, and initial inspections of the double-hull tanker revealed no damages.

But thorough inspections conducted by divers in Kachemak Bay over the weekend revealed cracks 7 inches and 4 inches long on the Seabulk Pride’s outer hull.

The cracks likely were created by an object, such as a boulder, rather than stress from resting on the beach without water and have not raised concerns about product leaking, said Sara Francis, petty officer for the U.S. Coast Guard.

But even if the beaching had created an oil leak from the Seabulk Pride’s inner hull, it is likely it still would have been brought to Kachemak Bay, but not without first making every effort to relocate oil from the leaking tank and to contain any leaking within as tight a perimeter of the tanker as possible, said Doug Lentsch, general manager for Cook Inlet Spill Prevention and Response Inc., or CISPRI.

“It’s not a decision to be taken lightly,” Lentsch said. “The unified command would do everything in their power to make sure nothing in Kachemak Bay was damaged.”

If a leaking tanker were to seek refuge in Kachemak Bay, the responsible party, the Coast Guard and CISPRI would try to move the tanker’s product to a nonleaking compartment on the tanker, unload it at a dock or unload it onto barges before it arrived in Kachemak Bay, he said.

Despite these assurances, the Seabulk Pride incident has amplified concerns about the use of Kachemak Bay as a safe refuge for disabled tankers.

“If there is any chance of any kind of leakage of oil, it’s a critical habitat area and we have to make up our minds on if we’re going to be an industrial bay or critical habitat,” said Nancy Hillstrand, who runs Coal Point Trading Co. in Homer.

“We can’t afford to damage the nursing grounds of our fisheries.”

But area responders say that because the waters in Cook Inlet are not clear enough for divers to inspect tankers for damage, that tankers disabled in the inlet have no option but to seek safe refuge in the clear, calm, protected waters of Kachemak Bay.

“If you get a damaged tanker they need to go somewhere and this is it,” said Sera Baxter, president of the Seldovia Oil Spill Response Team.

“This is the only port of refuge we have. So let’s do it and let’s do it right.”

The fact that the boat has an outer hull has been lauded, but the Seabulk Pride beaching demonstrates more needs to done to ensure oil spill accidents do not occur, Shavelson said.

It took accidents like the Exxon Valdez spill to overcome the industry resistance to double-hulled tankers, and tanker safety advocates hope the Seabulk Pride accident will bring greater recognition to the need for more safety measures and equipment in Cook Inlet, including suggestions such as requiring tugboat assists and stronger safety regulations.

“This is an example of the kind of positive changes that come after a barge incident,” Shavelson said. “Cook Inlet continues to operate under very old-time rules.”

Tugboat resources available to respond to incidents such as the Seabulk Pride’s are inadequate, he said.

The tugboat that made the difference in pulling the tanker free was a tugboat in the area by chance, he said.

The tugboat, the Pacific Challenger, happened to be pulling a barge in Kachemak Bay when it was called to respond to the the Seabulk Pride beaching, Shavelson said.

According to Francis, the tugboat was originally asked to tug a Seldovia Oil Spill Response Team barge to the scene, but later asked to instead assist two other tugboats in pulling the tanker free when high tide arrived Friday morning.

Shavelson said more work is needed to ensure the necessary resources are always available and not rely on chance.

“Do we leave the protection of our fisheries to fate?” he asked. “I want to commend the Tesoro response team and unified command ... but now it’s important to understand what went right and what went wrong.”

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