Industry Mounts Costly Effort to Prevent Another Valdez Oil Spill

by Terry Maxon and Jim Landers
The Dallas Morning News
May 14, 2001

NEW ORLEANS—Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has long been framed as a struggle between national energy needs and the polar wilderness. But when an environmental catastrophe did occur 12 years ago, it wasn't on the frozen tundra.

It was 800 miles south in icy Prince William Sound. The giant tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground, fouling prime tourist and commercial fishing waters with 11 million gallons of crude.

That wasn't Bob Levine's disaster, but a big blue tanker he helped design and build over the last few years is a direct result. The Polar Endeavor, built in a shipyard alongside the Mississippi River, is the latest concept in crude-oil tankers and a conscious application of lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez wreck.

It is also a highly visible symbol of a costly, intense, and decade-long effort to more safely move the vast quantities of volatile and toxic Alaskan oil essential to American industry and ultimately consumers.

The Endeavor, built for Phillips Petroleum Inc., has two hulls—one inside the other and separated by empty space—to reduce the risk of rupture in collisions with reefs, anchors or other hazards. It has independent twin rudders and twin engines to stay the course if one power or steering system fails. And its entire exterior skin is thicker and designed for a long, crack-free life.

Most people agree the Exxon Valdez wasn't done in by its single hull, single rudder, single engine or the thickness of its steel. The crash into Bligh Reef was less complex.

"Stupidity," said Levine. Or, he added in a more kindly way, "human error."

Multiple Safeguards

In the fight to prevent another crude oil calamity, the first line of defense is better vessels—ones that won't rupture as easily, get into trouble so quickly when things go wrong or break up as much in crashes.

But even a ship with all the latest innovations will gush oil if it runs full speed into submerged rocks, hits another ship or slams into a dock hard enough. That's why loaded tankers today leave the huge Alaskan oil port of Valdez escorted by three tugboats with supercharged engines capable of taking over if something goes awry.

It's why all tanker officers take alcohol breath tests before they can leave port, and why the U.S. Coast Guard station at Valdez uses transponders, global positioning satellites and radar to track tankers.

It's why warning lights are now on Bligh Reef, and why ice conditions in the sound are monitored every six hours.

Continued on Next Page >>


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