Tug requirement considered after tanker grounding

Posted: Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The grounding of an oil tanker in Cook Inlet on Feb. 2 has renewed attention on tanker safety improvements, particular the proposal to require tugboat assists for tankers, but some have said safety recommendations are misguided.

Members of the Southwest Alaska Pilots Association have said tugboat assists are intended to help boats dock and undock, a procedure that Cook Inlet pilots have performed again and again without incident and without tugboat assists. Tugboat assists, they say, cost a minimum of $9,000 a day and would not prevent spills from occurring. But advocates say tugboats should be part of the cost of doing business in Cook Inlet.

The call for a tugboat assist requirement has persisted for more than a decade despite marine pilot insistence that it would not prevent spills.

In 1992 Dickinson Report drawn up for the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council by a shipping expert from the Shetland Islands oil terminal at Sullom Voe recommended high-powered assistant tugboats to help vessels loading and unloading in the Nikiski port.

A member of the marine pilot’s association contacted Monday declined to speak on record, and other members could not be reached.

“It’s going to put them in a very difficult position to answer those questions,” said Doug Lentsh, general manager for Cook Inlet Spill Response Inc. “It’s their livelihood.”

A CIRCAC transcript of a forum on navigation safety in Cook Inlet that took place in 1999 sheds some light on why marine pilots might not support the call for an assistant tugboat requirement in Cook Inlet.

According to the transcript, Capt. Ed Murphy said other relatively inexpensive technology would improve safety more than a costly requirement for assistant tugboats and that no oil had been spilled due to assistant tugboat inavailability.

In the transcript Murphy also is reported as having said that “pilots are frustrated with both the environmental community and industry because solutions are proposed without consulting the ship masters and pilots who know more about the Inlet than anyone, with the possible exception of the commercial fishermen.”

Paul Shadura, a commercial fisherman and executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said marine pilots’ self-confidence is endangering the inlet.

“I think that they think they are so good they don’t need anybody else,” Shadura said. “No one person is supposed to be responsible for an oil accident in Alaska. There’s supposed to be checks and balances to prevent that from happening.”

The beach along which the Seabulk Pride grounded after an ice floe ripped the tanker from the Nikiski dock where it had been loading fuel for Tesoro is the most productive beach in inlet and cause for great concern among commercial fishermen, Shadura said.

Part of the pilots resistance to a tugboat assist requirement may be due to the oil industry, he said.

“They do pay the bill, don’t they?” he said. “They do pay the pilots.”

At the forum on Cook Inlet navigational safety in 1999, Lentsch suggested that if the oil industry thought a tugboat assist requirement would be an effective way to prevent spills, they would support them.

Since the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 the oil industry has developed a strong interest in spill prevention over spill response, he said.

Lawmakers authored the Oil Pollution Act with the intent of making oil spills so expensive for the oil industry that they would do all they could to prevent them, Lentsch said.

“Their intent was right on the mark and it’s working,” he said.

Since the law has been in place, the size and number of spills has decreased, he said.

Lentsch said before solutions are decided upon, the problem that led to the Seabulk Pride grounding must be determined, and the problem might not call for a tugboat assist requirement as a solution.

“If they were critical to the operation, they would be here,” he said.

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