Cook Inlet fishermen, businesses, and residents can breathe a collective sigh of relief the grounded tanker Seabulk Pride did not spill its nearly 5 million gallons of oil products into the region’s rich and productive fish habitat. Two things saved Cook Inlet from a near-disaster: the Seabulk Pride’s double hull, which protected it from damage, and a competent response effort by the spill responders who re-floated the tanker.
This near-miss, however, is the latest wake-up call for the U.S. Coast Guard, the state, and Cook Inlet’s oil and gas industry to bring the Inlet’s navigational safeguards up to par with other U.S. ports, including Prince William Sound and Puget Sound. Serious questions such as why vessels were allowed to continue loading in such hazardous ice and tide conditions, and why adequate tug boats and offloading (or lightering) barges were not immediately available need to be investigated and remedied.
The Seabulk Pride drama began in the early morning of February 2 when heavy ice floes and high tides ripped the vessel from its mooring at the Tesoro Refinery dock in Nikiski. Approximately 200 gallons of product spilled, with around 75 gallons entering the water. According to state and federal agencies, the tanker’s engines could not be started in the 5-8 minutes it took the vessel to drift a half mile and run aground in the heart of Cook Inlet salmon fisheries. The only nearby assist boats were unable to stop the vessel from going aground or to pull it free once it hit the shallows. Additionally, the Coast Guard issued “extreme ice” rules just three days prior to the Seabulk Pride grounding, yet it did not shut down loading operations on the day of the incident, as it did during similar extreme ice and tide conditions in January 2000.
While the Seabulk Pride incident was alarming, it comes as no surprise. Cook Inlet boasts notoriously rough and icy waters, and vessel/ice interactions have resulted in numerous incidents and casualties over the years. In fact, an expert report (the “Dickson Report’) recognized these extreme risks in 1992, and specifically recommended high-powered tug boats to assist vessels loading and unloading in Nikiski. Yet the most powerful tug available to responders during the critical hours of this incident was the Pacific Challenger, an ocean-going tug that just happened to be in Kachemak Bay on other business.
Should we really leave Cook Inlet’s fisheries to the whims of chance? While some clamor for more studies or additional risk assessments, the fact is, we know there’s a problem in Cook Inlet. Now we simply need to find the conviction to get high-powered tug boats like those used in Prince William Sound and Puget Sound permanently stationed at the Nikiski docks.
Furthermore, we need to recognize that damaged tankers and other vessels must seek out ice-free harbors or bays for inspections and repairs in the wake of an incident. In Cook Inlet in the winter, damaged vessels really have only one safe haven: Kachemak Bay, where the Seabulk Pride anchored after its re-floating. But Kachemak Bay is also a state Critical Habitat Area, as well as a National Estuarine Research Reserve. As a result, this area needs to be formally designated as a Port of Refuge for stricken vessels, which means making certain that provisions are in place to protect our rich coastal resources while also boosting the local economy. This includes stationing a high-powered emergency assist tug in Kachemak Bay, enhancing local spill response equipment, supporting local spill responders (such as the SOS Team in Seldovia), and improving local vessel repair capabilities.
Double-hulled tankers opposed by shippers and producers due to cost concerns are being phased-in as a result of a federal law passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This requirement helped Cook Inlet dodge an oily bullet from the Seabulk Pride. Now we need an independent oversight investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board to understand why the Seabulk Pride incident occurred, and strengthened navigational safeguards to ensure it won’t happen again. Because we dodged a bullet this time; next time, we may not be so lucky.
Bob Shavelson is the executive director of Cook Inlet Keeper, a citizen-based nonprofit organization with offices in Anchorage and Homer. As part of its mission to protect the Cook Inlet watershed and the life it sustains, Keeper focuses on various oil pollution and transportation issues.
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