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Problems plague BP oil tankers
Anchorage Daily News


February 08, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- BP's new fleet of oil tankers, already dogged by cracked rudders and missing anchors, now has a new glitch.

Fleet managers have been forced to replace deck fixtures called mooring bitts on three of four ships after tests showed they were defective and one violently broke down.




Mooring bitts are stout metal posts around which ropes are lashed for tugging on ships or securing them to a dock.

On Sept. 12, the tanker Alaskan Navigator was approaching the dock in Valdez when a bitt on the starboard bow broke off as a tug boat pulled on a mooring line, according to people with the U.S. Coast Guard, the ship's operator and a Valdez-based oil-industry watchdog group.

When it broke, the heavy iron bitt shot over the side of the ship and plunked into the water.

Fortunately, no one was in the way when the bitt broke loose, said Cmdr. Michael Gardiner, captain of the port for the Coast Guard in Valdez.

"If you were standing near it, it probably would have scared you pretty good," he said. "It was a pretty big piece of metal flying through the air."

The ship's operator, Alaska Tanker Co. of Beaverton, Ore., used X-rays and other tests to determine that the failed bitt plus dozens more on three ships were defective and needed to be replaced.

The bitt problem is the latest bobble for the new fleet of $250 million double-hull tankers, the first of which began carrying North Slope crude oil to West Coast refineries in the summer of 2004.

In spring 2005, two of the ships - built in a San Diego shipyard - were laid up for weeks after cracks were discovered in their rudders.

And in December, two ships, including the Alaskan Navigator, each lost a 16-ton anchor - they simply broke off - as the tankers sailed across the rough Gulf of Alaska with loads of oil.

Managers with Alaska Tanker Co., whose ships carry oil exclusively for BP, said the rudders have been repaired and the anchors that cracked and fell into the sea have been replaced.

Anil Mathur, president of the tanker company, said the string of problems has been a disappointment. But he added that he believes the ships are fundamentally safe.

"If I did not, we would not be running them," he said.

John Devens of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, a congressionally sanctioned and industry-funded watchdog group, called the glitches "troubling."

The new double-hull ships built by another oil company, Conoco Phillips, don't seem to be having the same kind of problems, he said.

The oil companies were required to replace their single-hull oil tankers with double hulls after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989. Today, the shipping revolution is all but complete as most every ship now calling on Valdez has a double hull, a feature believed to reduce the risk of a catastrophic release of oil should, for example, a ship run aground on rocks.

In BP's defense, Devens said the company under federal law had to build its new ships in a U.S. shipyard and those yards don't have the same experience or modern construction techniques as much busier Asian yards.

"The facility that built the BP tankers, it would seem obvious that some of the materials they used were substandard," Devens said. "We don't blame BP for it."

The critical navigational, power and safety systems on BP's tankers have performed well, Gardiner said, and the company should be proud of the ships despite the problems with the bitts and other hardware.

"I don't think you would consider the whole class of vessels to be lemons," Gardiner said. "Anytime you have a new class of vessels, there's going to be things that you don't find until you actually get out and operate the vessel."

An Alaska Tanker Co. e-mail provided by the Regional Citizens' Advisory Council detailed an unexpected engine shutdown on the Alaskan Navigator - the same ship that lost the mooring bitt - as the vessel left the dock Nov. 28 at Cherry Point, Wash.

The vessel "was not in danger" and the source of the problem was fixed, the e-mail says. Afterward, the company set a new policy that any maneuvering tanker must have at least three of its four engines running, not just two.

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