Fourteen years after the Exxon Valdez ruptured against a reef in Prince William Sound, fewer than a third of the tankers ferrying crude between Alaska and Puget Sound are equipped with a double hull a safety feature Congress deemed critical to preventing oil spills.
After the 1989 spill, Congress gave companies until 2015 to phase out all single-hull tankers operating in U.S. waters and replace them with thermos-like dual hulls. The idea: If an iceberg, reef or collision punctured a ship's outer shell, the inner core that holds its oily cargo could still stay intact.
But halfway through that phase-out period, only seven of nearly two dozen tankers offloading oil here from Alaska's North Slope have dual hulls. Of those, only two are new. And foreign tankers often more lightly inspected by private shipping organizations than their U.S. counterparts now ferry more petroleum products to and from U.S. ports.
Of the 366 tanker calls to Puget Sound last year, 108 were by ships sailing under foreign flags. Roughly half the world's tanker fleet has not converted to double hulls.
And, among the U.S. fleet, enough companies have put off building new vessels that some shipbuilders fear a last-minute cascade of orders and appeals from some in the oil industry to ease regulations.
U.S. law has required that tankers traveling between U.S. ports be built in the United States. But last fall, U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., slipped a measure into a homeland-security bill that could save some oil carriers millions, allowing them to get waivers to use cheaper, and perhaps older, foreign ships until new tankers are built.
It's unclear if any company will apply for Lott's waiver. In Alaska, Exxon now ExxonMobil is the only major player yet to start building new tankers. Until last fall, the company was still fighting in court to let the Exxon Valdez return to Alaskan waters.
Now, in the wake of another oil-spill disaster off the coast of Spain in November, Europe is moving so quickly to ban aging oil tankers that some industry analysts fear even more of them will head to a market where, for the time being, they're still allowed: the United States. And, despite significant changes in the way tanker traffic is regulated in U.S. waters, the circumstances of that European accident underscore how difficult it can be to keep dangerous ships off the sea.
That ship, the Prestige, had regularly traveled to the United States until it was phased out in 2000, docking in ports from New York to Baltimore and Texas. Coast Guard inspectors boarded it 36 times between 1990 and 2000, each time essentially giving it a clean bill of health. The vessel passed inspection by the United States' most rigorous inspection firm five months before it sank.
"A lot has been done in this country to improve on the quality of tankers calling on U.S. ports," said Sally Lentz, with Ocean Advocates, an environmental watchdog on tankers. "But the threat is still substantial: There are still plenty of substandard ships out there."
It's hard to forget the images from Alaska in the spring of 1989: birds and sea mammals smothered in tarry goo from the 11-million-gallon Exxon spill. Some 1,500 miles of rocky shoreline was black and shiny with oil. Grounded fishermen faced an industry in collapse.
But much has changed since the Valdez ran aground.
On a recent morning, the tanker Polar Endeavour is anchored behind a spit in calm waters off Port Angeles, waiting to offload some of its 37 million gallons of crude to a Ferndale refinery. Its deck stretches out longer than the Space Needle. Below, crude is cradled in a mammoth double hull.
On the bridge, Capt. Mike Dindio flips a steering joystick, showing the vessel's features: dual engines, either of which can run the tanker if the other fails; two independent steering systems; and a powerful bow thruster that can maneuver the ship sideways. Its two hulls are separated by more space than federal law requires.
This $205-million ConocoPhillips ship is among the most advanced tankers ever built. Even critics of Big Oil consider it among the safest crude carriers on the sea.
"The ship is phenomenal," said Rhonda Arvidson, who monitors tankers for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, a watchdog group. "It's so far above and beyond what's required. Half of everything on it can fail, and it can still operate better than an old single-hull ship."
Few dispute that U.S. oil transport is safer than it once was. Oil-spill volumes are a fraction of a decade ago, and some types of shipping such as barges motored by tug boats are almost entirely double-hulled.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has perhaps the world's strictest operating regulations, and a sophisticated vessel-traffic system watches ships near shore. The Coast Guard also follows a complex risk formula based on a ship's age, home nation and the reputation of the private shipping organization that regularly inspects it to determine how vigorously to scrutinize foreign vessels.
"We vet every ship that's coming in here. It doesn't matter if it's foreign or U.S.," said Seattle-based Coast Guard marine inspector John Waters.
Most ships ferrying crude from Alaska also now have double bottoms, which could help in a grounding, though they offer limited additional support in collisions. The tanker group that carries oil-giant BP's crude has five new double-hull ships under construction at a cost of $1 billion. The first is expected to be operating next year.
ConocoPhillips, with two new tankers in operation, expects three more in coming years all ahead of its phase-out schedule.
Yet even the American Petroleum Institute counts only 22 double hulls among the 64 "product tankers" that carry fuel from refineries. Fifty-six of the world's largest and oldest single-hull tankers had to be repaired, en route to the U.S. Gulf Coast last year.
Even in the Northwest, close calls continue.
Through the windows on the Endeavour's bridge is a much older tanker: The 26-year-old Overseas New York, operated by Alaska Tanker Co., has a double bottom, but not a double hull.
Three years ago the New York temporarily lost steering while steaming through Rosario Strait, the most perilous stretch of Puget Sound for tanker traffic. Emergency tugs escorted it to Port Angeles. It was empty at the time.
In December, a fully loaded tanker leaving the Gulf of Alaska accidentally dropped its anchor which typically weighs up to nine tons while the ship was in motion. An anchor can rip open a hull if a ship accidentally crosses over it in shallow water.
It was five months ago that the 26-year-old tanker Prestige sank in a storm more than 100 miles off the Spanish coast carrying 20 million gallons of oil. It soiled hundreds of miles of shoreline, slathered thousands of birds, and destroyed a popular French oyster haven. And the ship still sits beneath two miles of ocean, belching like a geyser, slowly draining a belly of heavy oil.
The Prestige isn't believed to have crashed into anything. It merely broke apart and sank.
The disaster was heightened because no government gave the ship safe harbor after it began leaking. But the vessel had recently passed inspection by a private ship-inspection organization: the American Bureau of Shipping in Houston. ABS's internal investigation suggested the ship began leaking after a structural weakness in its hull was exposed to punishing waves.
"What caused the structural weakness? We have hypothesis, theories," said Stewart Wade, vice president of ABS. Wade said he thinks the tanker was damaged while transferring cargo. Inspectors, he said, couldn't have been expected to notice.
"If a vessel experiences some damage during its operation, and we're not notified to look for it, there's not much we can do," he said.
Coast Guard inspector Winters agreed: "If you look through our records, (the Prestige) didn't have a horrible history. That's the nature of these ships. I could put it through the most rigorous inspection possible, but if it's loaded wrong, it can still break in half."
In response to the spill, European Union members agreed to immediately ban single-hull tankers carrying crude between European ports and to accelerate the phase out of other single-hull vessels. While many of the rules are similar to those Congress approved in this country after the Exxon Valdez disaster, individual countries are pushing for even stricter rules.
As a result, Robert Cowen, senior vice president of the largest U.S. independent operator of oil tankers, said aging vessels no longer welcome in other parts of the world such as in Japan, Korea and now Europe may increasingly come to U.S. waters.
"In the highly competitive world of international shipping, restrictions that bar older tonnage from particular trades necessarily drive substandard (ships) to trades where regulations are more permissive," he told a congressional panel this winter.
To bolster his point, Cowen read the panel a story from the shipping newspaper Lloyd's List:
"A single hull tanker carrying crude oil which had been scheduled to discharge in Spain was diverted to the U.S. because of the present sensitivity of Spain to calls by single-hull tankers."
The Northwest has been slow to wean itself from old, single-hull carriers in part because Alaska's crude production has dropped almost in half from 1.8 million barrels a day a decade ago.
Building new tankers takes years and costs hundreds of millions of dollars, and federal law requires that ships operating between U.S. ports be made in the United States, where labor costs are higher.
With so much at stake, and Alaska's production dwindling, companies put off building new tankers until it was clear just how much oil-transport capacity they'd need. Of the major oil companies operating in Alaska, ExxonMobil has been the slowest to get started.
"Exxon has always been the one we worried about," said Michele Brown, former commissioner of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation. For a long time, "they just hadn't made a move to do anything."
ExxonMobil's wholly owned tanker subsidiary, SeaRiver Maritime, insists the company embraced laws that sprang out of the Exxon Valdez disaster and points out it has earned accolades from the Coast Guard and Washington's voluntary tanker-inspection program. The company's spokesman says it hasn't built new ships because its vessels are still legal, and in good shape.
"When you look at the history ... we have some of the youngest tankers out there," said SeaRiver spokesman Ray Botto. And, in recent months, SeaRiver has contracted with a large shipbuilder to begin designing new tankers.
In the meantime, the oil carrier has replaced two of its small double-hull ships with a large tanker built in 1978. It does not have a double hull.
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company