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November 16, 1989
This, experts say, is where Washington's next major oil spill is most likely to happen.
The 883-foot Arco Anchorage is navigating Rosario Strait, a busy shipping lane just two hours from the end of its four-day journey from Valdez, Alaska, to the Cherry Point refinery in Whatcom County a trip the tanker makes every eight days.
Among the hazards, the ship must thread a needle between two submerged obstacles known as Peapod Rocks and Buckeye Shoals. The jagged reefs are a mile apart, a crack compared with the 12-mile-wide waterway in which the Exxon Valdez went aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
The rocks hide beneath as much as 48 feet of innocent water, invisible save for marker beacons. Yet at that depth, they could stab 6 feet into the bottom of this ship.
Studies have identified Rosario Strait as the most dangerous tanker route in the inland waters of Washington state. Yet because of the location of refineries, this is the state's busiest tanker thoroughfare, with more than 500 oil-laden ships sailing through it every year.
If there is ever a major spill here, its toll could be worse than that in Prince William Sound. Rosario Strait is in the middle of the delicate San Juan Islands and just a swift current away from the largest population areas of Washington state and British Columbia. All around it is the region's richest concentration of sea birds, marine mammals, clams, oysters and commercial fish farms.
On this night, conditions are easy. There is no fog nor 60-mph winds, and tides aren't flowing at 5 knots. Fleets of gillnetters aren't dropping their 1,800-foot-long fishing nets at the entrance to the Strait, in front of tankers that take more than a mile to stop.
But pick another night, and one or more of these conditions are bound to exist in Rosario Strait.
And accidents do happen here.
In 1964, Rosario was the scene of the state's deadliest tanker accident when two explosions ripped apart the 504-foot tanker Bunker Hill, killing five of 43 crewmen. The unloaded ship, its tanks destroyed by exploding fumes, sank to the bottom and remains there today.
In 1983, the 811-foot tanker Sohio Intrepid lost power and ended up within 200 feet of the beach on Sinclair Island. Unloaded and riding high, the tanker loomed like an eight-story building. Tugs arrived minutes before it reached the rocks. Even unloaded, it contained oily ballast water and thousands of gallons of engine bunker fuel.
There have been many other cases of engine and steering failures, but luck and skill have usually prevailed.
Rosario Strait is a good setting in which to consider oil companies' arguments for carrying oil through Washington's fragile inland sea. Those are:
Major oil spills are unlikely here because federal law limits the size of tankers that may enter the state's inland waters.
Accidents are unlikely because experienced pilots and tug escorts are required in these waters.
Tankers aren't the main cause of oil pollution in Puget Sound and surrounding waters.
An assessment of those arguments is not likely to make Washingtonians sleep better at night.
ARGUMENT NO. 1: MAJOR SPILLS ARE UNLIKELY BECAUSE OF A SIZE LIMIT ON TANKERS.
Concern about a worldwide rash of tanker accidents in the mid-1970s spurred the Washington state Legislature in 1975 to impose a limit of 125,000 deadweight tons a deadweight ton equals 2,240 pounds on tankers sailing east of Port Angeles into Rosario Strait and Puget Sound.
The Atlantic Richfield Co. appealed, and a federal court quashed the law because a state can't meddle with federal maritime regulations. But the ban remained as a temporary federal rule because of strong public sentiment and adept political maneuvering by Sen. Warren Magnuson. In 1982, the U.S. Department of Transportation made the demarcation line permanent 11 miles east of Port Angeles.
Certainly, it was a victory for those concerned about a major oil spill in Puget Sound. Smaller tankers carry less oil and are more maneuverable than the so-called "supertankers" forbidden from passing over the demarcation line.
But the limit does not preclude a catastrophic spill, says Coast Guard Rear Adm. Robert Kramek, Coast Guard district commander in Seattle.
"I think it gives people a false sense of security," Kramek says. "They think that with a limit on the size of a tanker that you can't have a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez. A vessel that is 125,000 deadweight tons carries three times the crude oil that was spilled by the Exxon Valdez."
A ship the size of the Arco Anchorage 120,000 tons is allowed past Port Angeles and into Rosario Strait. If the Arco Anchorage lost one-fifth of its cargo, as did the Exxon Valdez, that would mean a spill of some 7 million gallons.
Seven million gallons of crude oil is more than enough to ruin this environment.
Christine Gregoire, director of the state Department of Ecology, says a 7 million-gallon spill would overwhelm cleanup resources, and swift currents would spread oil from Canada to Puget Sound. Cleanup costs would be much greater than the amount spent on the Exxon Valdez spill because of the complex nature of Pacific Northwest shorelines, says William Wolferstan, a spill expert for the government of British Columbia.
Industry officials say major spills can be avoided, but they concede that if one happens, it can be devastating. Jerry Aspland, president of Arco's oil-shipping division, says anything bigger than 200,000 gallons is "one helluva spill." The barge Nestucca blackened beaches from Washington to British Columbia last December when it spilled just 231,000 gallons, an amount one-thirtieth the size of a 7 million-gallon spill.
Tonnage limits make little difference if, as studies indicate, the shipping routes are unsafe for any size tanker.
In 1978, environmental and fisheries scientists from the Canadian government studied 27 possible tanker routes in Washington and British Columbia. They analyzed such factors as winds, visibility, currents, width of passage, traffic and required course changes.
They determined that the waterways leading to the Arco refinery at Cherry Point and the BP refinery at Ferndale, both in Whatcom County, are among the riskiest routes in the region. The route to the Shell and Texaco refineries at Anacortes is not much better, where tankers must enter Rosario Strait and then turn right into the equally narrow Guemes Channel.
In 1980, Wolfterstan of the B.C. government took a look at how close tankers must come to the shore on these routes. Cherry Point was the worst, with tankers sailing within a mile of underwater obstacles or the shoreline for 24 miles. Anacortes, with a 14-mile gantlet, was second worst.
Kramek of the Coast Guard says Washingtonians can take comfort that this area has lower tanker accident rates than other harbors that are busier and narrower. But he worries about Rosario nonetheless.
"Just because the water is deep enough, and the channel is wide enough, it doesn't mean they should go through there. We have swift currents. We have rocky bottoms. This isn't a sandy bottom area like Louisiana."
Oil-company executives insist Rosario Strait is safe. But they've been wrong in the past. The oil industry predicted in a 1977 report to the Washington Legislature that there was only one chance of a big tanker spill here in the next 100 years. And they said the volume spilled would be about 107,000 gallons.
A year later, Brian Pinch, a B.C. government statistician, said the chance was more like one in 10 years, and that the volume would be about 206,000 gallons.
Pinch proved the better prognosticator: In 1985, the Arco Anchorage spilled 239,000 gallons into the harbor at Port Angeles.
Pinch, now a stockbroker, no longer predicts shipping disasters. But he says he wouldn't change his bet for another, perhaps larger, spill within 10 years.
"Taking tankers from Port Angeles to places like Cherry Point, Anacortes or Puget Sound is taking an enormous risk. It appalls me," he says.
That hasn't slowed the tanker companies. More than 500 tankers entered Rosario Strait last year, carrying nearly 6 billion gallons of oil. More than half went through Peapod Rocks and Buckeye Shoals, and the rest turned right at Guemes Channel to Anacortes.
More than 70 percent of the tankers entering and leaving Washington state waters use Rosario Strait. The rest go to a refinery in Tacoma, or to storage tanks in Seattle, Edmonds and other locations.
USING A LOOPHOLE
There are other concerns over the size limit.
One is the location of the demarcation line. Although Port Angeles is where the state suffered its largest oil spill, the line banning big tankers is east of the city, placed because the U.S. cannot impose its rules on the international waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Four tankers weighing more than 170,000 deadweight tons have taken advantage of the loophole this year, calling on Port Angeles a total of six times. They traveled 63 miles along the north coast of Washington's Olympic Peninsula without a tug escort or pilot, as allowed by law, until just before they entered the harbor.
What happens when the huge tankers get to Port Angeles is an ironic byproduct of the size limit. The tankers load their oil into barges, which are then towed by tugs through Rosario Strait to the refineries. Barges are less safe than tankers; they don't have the kind of built-in fire protection tankers have, and they often have no escort except the tug towing them.
The state's last two big spills involved barges: in December 1988, when the Nestucca broke loose from its tow and went aground on the coast, spilling 231,000 gallons; and in January of that year, when the MCN-5 tipped over and sank near Anacortes, spilling an estimated 70,000 gallons.
The Coast Guard says about 87 oil barges are operating in Puget Sound, some as large as 400 feet long and carrying as much as 6 million gallons, and less than a dozen having double bottoms or double hulls.
ARGUMENT NO. 2: ACCIDENTS ARE UNLIKELY BECAUSE TUG ESCORTS AND EXPERIENCED PILOTS ARE REQUIRED IN THESE WATERS.
A visitor to the Arco Anchorage can't help but feel assured by the confidence of the men on the bridge.
Even in the wee hours of this morning in Rosario Strait, when Capt. Robert Lawlor is operating on just a three-hour nap, things appear under control. Ship pilot Tim Florian is at his side, giving commands to the helmsman.
Florian isn't part of the crew. He joined the tanker at Port Angeles, as required by state law, to help assure safe passage through inland waters. He's been a mariner for 50 years and a Port Angeles pilot for 14 years. He makes more than $100,000 a year from tanker owners as a private contractor guiding ships in and out of these waters, and has a near spotless record.
Lawlor and Florian have each traveled this route hundreds of times, and they have at their fingertips electronic gadgetry that will sound an alarm when another ship comes within 2 miles, and will instantly gauge its speed and direction.
So what can go wrong here? Plenty.
It takes the practiced eye of Lawlor's boss to see through all this confidence. Aspland, the president of Arco Marine Inc., has been troubled since long before the Exxon Valdez accident by what he views as a lack of teamwork on the bridges of oil tankers.
The captains, he feels, are too autocratic. Pilots are uncertain of their roles: Are they in command? Or do they just advise skippers? The laws and practices don't make it clear enough.
No one in the crew challenged Exxon Valdez Capt. Joseph Hazelwood when he decided to retire to his bunk in the middle of a risky maneuver through the icebergs of Prince William Sound.
No one argued with the pilot of the Arco Anchorage when he maneuvered the ship too far into Port Angeles bay and hit a rock in December 1985. Questioning of decisions happens far too seldom, Aspland says.
Robert Sutherland, the man who skippered the Arco Anchorage when it went aground at Port Angeles in '85, was in command of the Arco Juneau when it slammed into the Carquinez Bridge near Vallejo, Calif., in January 1988, causing more than $1 million in damage.
With a qualified pilot on the bridge, the Arco Juneau was traveling 9 knots in heavy fog with the radar out of adjustment. Fortunately, it wasn't loaded.
Coast Guard hearing records show that in both Arco accidents, there was only sketchy and perfunctory communication between the captain and the pilot before the crunch came. And no one on the bridge challenged the decisions that led to the accidents.
The discipline that followed was equally confusing. In the Arco Anchorage case, the pilot was blamed by the Coast Guard and fined by the state. The skipper, Sutherland, was let off the hook by the Coast Guard but was demoted to chief mate by Arco.
In the Arco Juneau case, Sutherland, who had been promoted to captain again shortly beforehand, was blamed by the Coast Guard, but the pilot was let off.
"The sad part is that if the pilot had been properly trained, and had properly set the radar, they never should have hit that bridge," Aspland says. "It scares me to death . . . people won't challenge the pilot."
16 MAJOR ACCIDENTS
Pilots have a rocky history in Washington state. Their association, now called the Port Angeles Pilots, has held a virtual monopoly since 1935. They are regulated by a governor-appointed commission that has a reputation of being more of an advocate than a disciplinarian. The Legislature held hearings in 1977 and 1986 on complaints that the commission is a paper tiger, but things haven't changed much.
Records show that in the last 11 years, the state's pilots have been involved in 16 major accidents and another 151 more minor incidents in which damage occurred. Yet the Board of Pilotage Commissioners in Olympia has suspended pilots only three times in that 11 years, the longest suspension being 30 days (a 1986 penalty that hasn't been served yet because it is on appeal).
The Legislature gave the commission the power to fine pilots up to $5,000 in 1984, but only one pilot has has been assessed a fine, for $3,500.
The seven-member board, by law, consists of two pilots, two representatives of the maritime industry and two members of the public, plus a chairman, who is currently also the head of the state's ferry system.
But in a move many critics see as a slap to public representation on the board, Gov. Booth Gardner gave one of the public commission seats in November 1985 to Amigo Soriano, a retired pilot who still gets a pension from the Port Angeles Pilots. Soriano is also the brother of Dewey Soriano, longtime president of the Port Angeles Pilots.
The Legislature has never confirmed Amigo Soriano, but he continues to serve. Notably, Amigo Soriano gave the governor a $5,000 campaign contribution last year.
Dan Youmans, a spokesman for the governor, says Soriano was appointed because public members of the commission are required by law to have a concern and knowledge of pilotage issues. "Since he was retired, he could qualify as a citizen member," Youmans said.
Dewey Soriano says the pilots are a highly professional group of experienced mariners. To get a position, they must take a difficult test, he says, and they are dedicated to safety.
But Aspland of Arco wonders sometimes if they are more dedicated to their salaries, which average $110,000 a year.
"Pilots and industry ought to be meeting and talking about safety," Aspland says. "Compensation is the main issue."
Things came to a head with Aspland early this year when he had a heated meeting with the pilots over their training and qualifications. Aspland won't detail what was said, but Dewey Soriano recalls he was "very teed off at us."
As a result, the pilots dug into their own pockets and into the pilotage commission's budget to raise $153,000 so each pilot can train on a tanker simulator in Rhode Island. A simulator allows students to react to all sorts of computer-generated emergencies. All Port Angeles pilots will have simulator training by the end of the year, Dewey Soriano says. Arco captains have been training on simulators for years.
Aspland says he is pleased with what the pilots have done this year, but he would like to see more changes.
"I think we can put in all the equipment we want, and we can put double bottoms on tankers, and we can do this and we can do that," he says. "Somehow, we need to figure out why people do things they do when they are in positions of decision-making."
"There are some very, very good pilots," Aspland says. "But people have set pilots up as the cure-all to everything. They are not."
Nor are tugboat escorts a cure-all.
Every loaded tanker entering Rosario Strait is required to be accompanied by a tug with horsepower equal to 5 percent of a tanker's deadweight tonnage. The tugboat presumably will stop or steer a tanker if it loses power or steering.
They've succeeded on occasion in the past, but two pilots who went to Rhode Island this year for simulator training discovered a risk they hadn't realized before. The simulator's computer indicated that tugboats could be easily overwhelmed, and in some cases capsized, trying to rescue tankers traveling at the speeds common in Rosario Strait as fast as 15 knots.
So this summer for the first time, the speed limit for tankers in the strait was lowered to 11 knots. The speed limit is strictly voluntary, however.
Aspland says tankers didn't slow down before because owners didn't understand the danger and were reluctant to impose a costly slowdown. But he fears that even at 11 knots, a tanker could overwhelm a tugboat, leading to a major accident and possibly a major spill.
"It is very, very dangerous," he says. "People think you buy something with a tug escort, and you do buy something provided that the total transportation system is fit to that tug escort."
ARGUMENT NO. 3: TANKERS AREN'T THE MAIN CAUSE OF OIL POLLUTION IN PUGET SOUND AND SURROUNDING WATERS.
In any discussion of oil spills, oil-industry officials are quick to point out that the most chronic spillers are not tankers and barges, but Navy ships, fishing vessels, other commercial vessels, industrial plants and even people on shore who dump their automobile lubricating oils in storm sewer systems.
Technically, they are correct. But the key word is chronic; it takes just one major tanker spill to outstrip all the routine spills of more than a decade.
If you delete major spills those over 70,000 gallons and add up every reported gallon of oil spilled from every kind of vessel in the waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the coast of Washington since 1973, the total is less than 140,000 gallons.
In a single day, the Arco Anchorage spilled 239,000 gallons.
In a single day, the barge Nestucca spilled 231,000 gallons.
And the potential for a major spill in Washington waters may be much greater than the public realizes. The perils go far beyond intoxicated captains and invisible reefs. Consider just a few:
Earthquakes. This region has been pegged as one of the most likely sites in the nation for a major quake, and temblors represent a serious danger to tankers. A violent quake in the Gulf of Alaska in November 1987 shook the Texaco Florida so hard that its hull fractured, steam, air and water lines burst, and a fire broke out on board.
Lightning. Although not particularly common in the Northwest, it can occur. Lightning struck the Chevron Hawaii in Texas 10 years ago, killing three crewmen and reducing the ship to a smoldering hulk.
Submarines. Navy subs sometimes hide beneath tankers to avoid electronic detection on their journeys in and out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A collision with one particularly one of the nuclear subs based on the Kitsap Peninsula could be doubly disastrous.
Tanker crew members are aware of all these dangers. In tight quarters, says Arco Anchorage chief mate Jeff Portillo, "you can't make any mistakes."
But he adds: "I'm confident in my abilities to handle any situation that comes up."
The line between confidence and cockiness can be a thin one.
Lawlor, the tanker captain, says, simply: "If you have a spill in Puget Sound, you clean it up."
Others, such as environmentalist Fred Felleman, see things differently. Felleman, who keeps track of oil transportation for the coastal counties of Washington state, says petroleum companies treat crude oil as though it were as as harmless as popcorn.
"As long as we keep saying oil isn't bad," Felleman says, "they don't have to carry it in a safer vessel."
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