Navigating regulations: Tanker grounding shows need to improve inlet navigation safety

Voices Of The Peninsula

Posted: Tuesday, February 14, 2006

In 1999, we at the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council (CIRCAC) wrote in an op-ed column that the grounding of the Exxon Valdez had resulted in a major overhaul of the oil transportation system in Prince William Sound and that the prevention measures in place there had significantly reduced the likelihood of an oil spill. We also emphasized that regulators had not focused the same kind of attention on Cook Inlet; that marine traffic in Cook Inlet lacked the best available technology and tug presence protecting tankers in the Sound; and most disturbingly, that it was as though there had to be a catastrophic spill in Cook Inlet before prevention measures were given serious consideration.

No incident in recent history has underscored the relevance of that 1999 call to action than the grounding of the Seabulk Pride in Nikiski on Feb. 2. Heavy ice flow in the Inlet ripped the 574-foot tanker from its 16 mooring lines while it loaded fuel from the KPL dock and in only eight minutes pushed it north approximately one half mile before leaving it high and dry with its prop and bow out of the water at low tide. Calm weather, a sandy, gently sloping beach, proximity to facilities, and a double-hull protecting its cargo gave responders an opportunity to save the vessel from almost certain catastrophe.

That residents in Cook Inlet could be threatened with a disaster on par with the Exxon Valdez so many years later is a reminder that we must continue to improve spill prevention safeguards in the Inlet.

The threat in Cook Inlet is not just from oil tanker traffic since they comprise only a small percentage of the marine transportation business in the Inlet. The recent incident involving the soy bean freighter Selandang Ayu which ran aground near Dutch Harbor spilling 300,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel is a sad example of the damage that can be caused by a non-tank vessel.

CIRCAC believes we need a comprehensive review of navigational safety in Cook Inlet and as a prologue to that discussion we are hosting a panel at our quarterly meeting Feb. 24 at the Kenai Aquaculture Building that will include representatives from Tesoro, ADEC, U.S. Coast Guard, and others familiar with the Seabulk Pride incident. We are also planning a Forum on Navigational Risk for Cook Inlet aimed at the need for a risk assessment and will include an even broader group of stakeholders from the area for that discussion. The public’s attendance at the panel discussion and involvement in the subsequent forum is critical to its success.

By all accounts, Tesoro Alaska, the company that leased the Seabulk Pride, responded to the incident as they have in many oil spill drills over the years. They swarmed Unified Command headquartered at CISPRI in Nikiski and sent resources into the field to attempt to free the tanker all within the first few hours of the incident. Their response, often cited as the standard for the oil industry in the region, is a tribute to the preparation required of companies in the years after the Exxon Valdez, a product of the intent of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. We are certain that their practice in oil spill drills played a significant role in their saving the tanker from catastrophic failure.

Yet, this was the latest in a string of close calls for various companies over the years that requires that we institute stronger prevention measures. Tug assistance was one of the primary topics of discussion at the September 1999 “Safety of Navigation Forum” that CIRCAC sponsored in Kenai. Stakeholders from Kachemak Bay and the greater Cook Inlet area were active participants in the panel and expressed their concerns about the lack of a response/assist vessel in Lower Cook Inlet among other issues. The forum concluded that a risk assessment was necessary for Cook Inlet to determine what resources were needed for prevention and response. Links to a copy of the 1999 forum proceedings are available in our web library at Those responsible for vessel safety must complete a detailed assessment of the risks, asking the hard questions the answers to which will create safeguards that keep tankers off beaches and oil out of the water.

Safeguards include minimizing risk to areas downstream of an incident and finding shelter for a vessel in distress. CIRCAC would add “Potential Places of Refuge” or PPOR to the discussion surrounding incidents like the Seabulk Pride grounding. The objective of PPOR is to identify docking, anchoring, mooring and grounding locations that may be selected to assist vessels in distress and avert disaster to a broader area. Because Kachemak Bay is often the best and in some cases the only option for large vessels in Cook Inlet, that discussion must include the concerns of the residents in that region.

During the past two years, ADEC has been working to identify PPOR sites in Prince William Sound and Kodiak. In fact, CIRCAC, PWSRCAC and other members of the Kodiak PPOR workgroup are scheduled to meet next month to identify places of refuge in that area. CIRCAC is also helping fund a project to make similar advances for Cook Inlet that will include Kachemak Bay. This work is essential to minimize risk to the area and make the most of response efforts.

Please join us for the panel discussion on February 24 and watch for our announcement of the Forum on Navigational Risk in the near future. If you have any questions or would like more information on these subjects, please contact our offices at (907) 283-7222 or visit our web site at

Michael Munger is the Executive Director of the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, an independent, non-profit organization whose mission is to provide an opportunity for the citizens of Cook Inlet to participate in promoting marine transportation safety and the safe operations of on-shore and off-shore oil facilities of Cook Inlet.

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