Tug’s accident raises questions
• Advisory council wants to know how spill prevention strategy failed
by Naomi Klouda
Photo provided - The tug Pathfinder, 136 feet in length, is surrounded by absorbent booms to soak up spilled diesel fuel after the vessel hit Bligh Reef on Dec. 23.
The final drawing down of tanks aboard a tug boat that spilled an estimated 33,500 gallons of diesel fuel after hitting Bligh Reef on Dec. 23 was expected to be completed by Tuesday. However, officials say they have not yet determined what caused the grounding on Alaska’s well-marked navigational hazard.
The Pathfinder tugboat spilled fuel into Alaska’s Prince William Sound after hitting the same reef hit by the Exxon Valdez in an oil disaster 20 years ago. The tug is now ported in Valdez, while a unified command comprising the U.S. Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Crowley Maritime officials supervise the spill response effort, said the Department of Environmental Conservation’s John Engles.
Crews were at work Monday to determine how much diesel fuel spilled into the bay. The actual amount won’t be known until later this week while water, which is mixed with the fuel, settles, Engle said.
“As they take fuel off the vessel, the gaugers will come in and calculate how much was released,” Engles said. “This is how they determine what was spilled. It is paid for by Crowley, who is having it done by a third party.”
According to early reports from a state press release issued on Christmas Eve, two of the tug’s tanks containing an estimated 33,500 gallons of diesel fuel were damaged in the grounding. That left 93,000 gallons of fuel in six other tanks that were not damaged.
After the collision – on rocks marked by lights and a board sign – diesel fuel sheens of one mile and three miles spread across the waters on two separate occasions. Officials said no animals were injured and the fuel didn’t reach land.
The boat is part of a ship escort service created after the Exxon Valdez spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of oil in 1989.
Cook Inletkeeper Executive Director Bob Shavelson said he is keeping an eye on the situation. He remains skeptical that such a sizable spill won’t cause harm, possibly even running in currents toward Kachemak Bay.
“They haven’t discussed a third possibility: that the oil is dispersed into the water column testing regime – that’s at a different depth,” Shavelson said. “It’s very difficult to track these spills – and to know whether they are cleaned up.”
Shavelson said the authorities have a tendency to say there’s been a spill, but that there is no impact and everything is fine now.
“They make their assertions without the information to back them up,” he said.
Shavelson said Cook Inletkeeper has been at work trying to convince state and federal entities to require the two-tug escort for tankers in Cook Inlet.
“You can’t look past the way the response is being handled – Cook Inlet gets short-thrifted when it comes to pollution and response,” he said. “With the Pathfinder, with the Drift River incident, you see very different levels of attention and detail to the response effort.”
At Drift River, a tank farm of crude oil owned by Chevron caused fear of an environmental disaster during the spring, when Mount Redoubt rumbled. On Monday, the Alaska Volcano Observatory again raised the volcano’s code to yellow as small earthquakes rattled through the region.
Steve Lewis, president of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Council, issued a statement after the Pathfinder’s mishap. He said “like most Alaskans, we at the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council are baffled as to how the Pathfinder managed to hit perhaps the most famous navigational hazard in the world—Bligh Reef—in conditions of relatively mild weather.”
The matter raises questions about the safety of oil industry operations in the Sound, and about how well the painful lessons of the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 have been learned by today’s mariners, he wrote.
Engles said Bligh Reef is marked with a light and a large sign sticking up out of water to mark it as a navigational hazard.
“If it weren’t for that, you wouldn’t know it was there just below the water surface,” he said. “It’s a shallow reef, not a pinnacle. It extends from Reef Island and is a portion of the bedrock.”
The diesel fuel that has been recollected was picked up by absorbent booms and other means, with the rest dispersing into the current, Engles said.
“The rest can’t be picked up. When it goes into the water column, it becomes less and less concentrated,” he explained. “Diesel fuel is considered non persistent, but that doesn’t hold true in the cold waters we have in Alaska. It’s fairly toxic. That’s why we like to pick it up as quickly as we can.”
The Coast Guard is currently investigating why and how the spill occurred. And while it may take a while to get the results, Engles said he is expecting the probe to be a “fairly detailed” one.