Marine expert: Safety not ‘rocket science’

Posted: Friday, March 03, 2006

The Kenai Peninsula dodged a bullet when the Seabulk Pride ran aground near Nikiski last month and was successfully refloated without a major oil spill. The risk of such future disasters can be reduced by 80 to 90 percent, marine safety expert Rick Steiner said last week.

“This isn’t rocket science,” he said. “It’s boats and water.”

A professor with the Marine Advisory Program of the University of Alaska, Steiner spoke Monday evening to a crowd of about 55 people at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center for the annual meeting of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society. His talk, “Cook Inlet on the Rocks,” looked at the risks of heavy cargo traffic through Cook Inlet and along the Great Circle Route through the Aleutian Islands.

Steiner is a member of the Shipping Safety Partnership, a group of environmental organizations, Native corporations, fishing groups and others promoting shipping safety in the North Pacific. He cited the Selendang Ayu grounding as an example of the lack of safeguards on the Great Circle Route and compared spill prevention and response there and in Cook Inlet with that of Prince William Sound.

The Selendang Ayu went adrift and broke up because the ship’s chief engineer shut down its engine during a winter storm. Six crew died and were lost at sea, and the spill of fuel oil was the largest in 15 years.

“They rolled the dice and this is what happened,” he said.

A powerful, ocean-going tug could have saved the Selendang Ayu. The Aleutian chain lacks a tug that could respond to another drifting vessel — or will until next month.

“I said it doesn’t take rocket science,” Steiner said. “Well, actually, it does.”

In April, the tug Dove arrives in Adak as an escort for the Sea-based X-band Radar platform being stationed as part of the Missile Defense System.

With the proposed Pebble Mine near Iliamna, a proposed coal mine at the Beluga coal fields and an expanded Port of Anchorage, the inlet could see a dramatic increase in traffic.

About 3,000 ships yearly take the Great Circle Route, with eight to nine a day going through Unimak Pass. In comparison, about a tanker a day passes through Prince William Sound, with 10 vessels in the Ship Escort Response Vessel Systems, or SERVS. That system includes two 10,192-horsepower tractor tugs, three prevention-response tugs and other docking tugs and response barges at an annual cost of $60 million. SERVS is paid from the tariff fees collected on trans-Alaska pipeline shipped oil.

Steiner cited SERVS as a model for spill prevention and response.

“They got it right after the catastrophic (Exxon Valdez) spill,” he said.

Steiner noted that although SERVS’ price tag might seem high, compared with the $10 billion he said the Exxon Valdez spill cost, the price is a bargain.

To make Cook Inlet and the Aleutians safe, Steiner suggested two things: vessel tracking and ocean-going tugs.

Under the Marine Transportation Safety Act, most large ships going through U.S. waters were required to have an Automatic Identification System, or AIS, by the end of 2004. The U.S. Coast Guard is writing regulations to cover more vessels, generally to any ship 65 feet or longer.

AIS provides near real-time navigational information, but is based on VHF-FM radio and is line of sight. The Coast Guard has contracted for a satellite AIS receiver to be launched in June, said Angela McArdle of Coast Guard Public Affairs, Washington, D.C. The Coast Guard estimates full AIS capability by 2013.

Steiner said it was important that the Coast Guard track any cargo ship in U.S. waters.

“Even from just a Homeland Security risk, wouldn’t the U.S. government want to know?” he asked.

Tugs can help dock ships, keep vessels in shipping lanes, assist in the event a ship loses power or steering and as an initial response vessel. All of those components are in SERVS, he said.

“This is costly stuff, but it’s costlier if you don’t have it,” Steiner said.

Risk assessments for Cook Inlet and the Aleutians need to be done — and have been done, Steiner said. To figure out exactly what those shipping zones need might require a more detailed risk assessment, but Steiner advised not waiting to take action.

“The time to get in front of this is now,” he said.

Cook Inlet also shouldn’t wait until a catastrophic, Exxon Valdez size spill happens.

“The risk is there. You know about the risk. You don’t need to wait for the Exxon Valdez,” Steiner said. “The system is broken. You know it needs to be fixed.”

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