By WESLEY LOY
Anchorage Daily News
July 27, 2005
The U.S. Coast Guard is taking the blame for what a commander called a procedural error. The commander said the ships, one trailing the other, never came dangerously close to one another and the situation sorted itself out quickly and smoothly.
But a Valdez, Alaska-based oil industry watchdog organization said the miscue raises worries about how tanker traffic is managed in Prince William Sound.
The incident occurred on the morning of July 10 and involved two tankers that had just filled up with oil at the Alyeska tanker dock in Valdez.
As it turned out, both ships sailed on through the Narrows without incident, never coming closer to one another than about two miles, and "there was never any real risk to safety," said Cmdr. Michael Gardiner, who heads the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Valdez. Weather at the time was clear.
But allowing both tankers into the Narrows was a violation of the rules, and Coast Guard staffers in the Vessel Traffic Center have been briefed on preventing a recurrence, Gardiner said.
The primary purpose of the regulations is to make the Narrows essentially a one-way street - with no chance of an empty, inbound tanker crowding or running head-on into a loaded tanker heading out of Valdez.
But the regulation also bars two tankers traveling in the same direction - as the Baytown and Polar Adventure were - from entering the Narrows together, Gardiner said.
The Narrows is a particularly dangerous place for mariners, as maneuvering room is tight and the huge tankers need lots of water to turn or to stop in case of an emergency. At its most narrow point, the waterway is less than a mile wide.
The July 10 event raises worries about tanker traffic in and out of Valdez, said Stan Jones, spokesman for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council. The council was formed by congressional mandate after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. "The fact that the system slipped up is what makes us nervous," Jones said.
The Coast Guard's mistake isn't the only concern, he said. Jones questioned how "all these professional mariners" aboard the two ships and escort tugs didn't sense something was amiss.
Spokesmen for Conoco and for SeaRiver Maritime Inc., Exxon's Houston-based shipping subsidiary, said their crews followed procedures and did as they were told by the Coast Guard.
"I don't think we have anything to add," said Conoco spokeswoman Dawn Patience.
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