Panel discusses tugboat position

Posted: Sunday, February 26, 2006

Advocates for requiring assist tugs for tankers in Cook Inlet questioned the opinions of pilots, tugboat operators and Tesoro representatives during a panel discussion addressing the recent grounding of a Tesoro-leased oil tanker on a Nikiski beach.

“Is it safer for a man to wear suspenders and a belt?” said Tesoro maritime representative Tim Plummer.

Tesoro maintains that assist tugs would do little to bolster oil spill prevention, but raise costs significantly. Although assist tugs would make things safer, they are not necessary, Plummer said.

In addition, Tesoro already is paying for response vessel services in Cook Inlet and imposing additional costs on the business could jeopardize continued operations, said Carl Anderson, owner of Cook Inlet Tug and Barge.

“If you’re going to make them have an assist tug vessel also, you’re doubling their costs,” he said. “And the last thing you want as (Kenai residents) is to lose 200 jobs.”

But the recent grounding is just the latest in a series of incidents that indicate the need for stronger safety standards in the inlet, said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inlet Keeper.

Expert navigational safety assessments such as the Dickson Report have recommended high-powered tug boats to assist vessels loading and unloading in Nikiski, he said.

In a conversation following the panel discussion, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams said although requiring assist tugs might be overkill, he would like to explore the idea further.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all,” he said. “I think I would recommend some form of assist tugs in the area ... . It’s always better to err on the side of safety.”

Friday’s panel discussion recapped events that occurred Feb. 2, when the Tesoro-leased tanker Seabulk Pride was ripped away from its dock in Nikiski by an ice floe as it was loading fuel and drifted a half mile north, where it grounded on a beach.

Although approximately two barrels of product presumably spilled into the inlet when the ice floe struck, the double-hulled tanker was refloated a little more than 24 hours after the grounding without further spillage.

Also slated for discussion was how future incidents like the Seabulk Pride grounding could be prevented. However, some participants pressed panel members to explain who was responsible for the Seabulk Pride grounding.

Panel members said no one entity is likely to be entirely responsible and it is too soon to begin assigning responsibility.

“It’s premature to say who is responsible,” Plummer said. “Right now that’s really pending in the investigation. We’re not trying to dodge anything.”

Participants pressed panelists for details about what was done and should have been done to prevent the incident, as captains and tug boat operators on the panel emphasized the unpredictable nature of ice floes.

“The pilot was on board and saw little or no ice 15 minutes prior to this happening,” said Capt. John Taylor, a member of Southwest Alaska Pilots Association.

Even if a pilot does see an approaching ice floe, the severity of the floe can be nearly impossible to gauge, Anderson said.

“You can’t look at a pan of ice and say this is going to be bad one,” he said.

An ice pan that appears to be large and foreboding, for example, could very well turn out to be soft and mushy on impact, he said. A smaller but much harder ice pan may pack an unexpectedly strong punch, he said.

Since the grounding, U.S. Coast Guard-issued guidelines concerning tanker operations under extreme ice conditions in the inlet have been temporarily amended to include additional precautions.

The guidelines temporarily have been amended so when ice conditions in the inlet are extreme, as they were Feb. 2, and the current is traveling at 4 knots or more, docked tankers will not be allowed to transfer product. When the current is traveling at 5 knots or more, tankers will not be allowed to dock at all.

Due to renewed safety concerns, the changes likely are to become permanent, said Lt. Ken Phillips, supervisor for the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety detachment in Kenai.

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