Ship Out of Shape

A patched-up oil tanker piques local fears.

WASN'T IT THE sort of damaged oil tanker that spill-wary local authorities ought to at least know was sailing into town? Last month, off Long Beach, Calif., the SeaRiver Long Beach, sister of the Exxon Valdez, took a 22-by-10-inch gash below the waterline, apparently from a wayward anchor chain. With a temporary, rubber-gasketed patch clamped over the hole, it then steamed up to San Francisco, dropped off its load of crude, and chugged to Port Angeles on Washington's Olympic Peninsula for a permanent repair.

Both the U.S. Coast Guard, which approved and oversaw this arrangement, and Exxon/SeaRiver have insisted there was nothing unsafe about it. After all, the hole was only in a ballast tank, a few feet from a fuel hold. And divers had to install the temporary patch because the bow couldn't be lifted above the waterline to weld it up properly while the ship was loaded.

But this begs two questions: Why did Exxon send the tanker up the famously stormy winter coasts of Oregon and Washington with a stop-gap repair, instead of getting it fully shipshape in San Francisco? And if Exxon and the Coast Guard felt so confident about that decision, why didn't they notify local governments, as it appears they're supposed to?

THESE QUESTIONS came to a head at last week's meeting of the Puget Sound Harbor Safety and Security Committee, a monthly industry/agency gathering usually known for cordial consensus. But a small spark flew when Coast Guard representative John Dwyer recounted the SeaRiver Long Beach's little odyssey. Dwyer acknowledged getting some flack for not notifying the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Port Angeles, and other spill-anxious entities of the ship's condition. But, he explained, "it was overall a safe operation. And we had talked with DOE," the Department of Ecology, the state's spill-prevention agency.

Yes, said Norm Davis, supervisor of Ecology's Puget Sound Field Office and its delegate to the harbor committee—but only after his office called the Coast Guard after getting a nervous call from the Marine Sanctuary asking why this tanker was tilting so strangely. It's doubly ironic that Exxon, whose name is forever wedded to the Valdez spill, didn't disclose that its tanker had a hole in its belly. In 1999, Ecology gave the only "Exceptional Compliance" award it's ever bestowed on an oil company to Exxon/SeaRiver for meeting or exceeding all 31 state tanker-safety standards. One of those standards, which Exxon stipulated it would follow, is to "notify the state of any . . . breach of structure or watertight integrity of a bulkhead or hull prior to entering Washington waters."

Exxon/SeaRiver didn't respond to messages requesting comment. Coast Guard Lt. Lee Boone says that with "a satisfactory temporary repair performed," the Guard didn't see the need to report "something we felt was not a safety concern." Indeed, though California marine-protection advocates have ballyhooed the incident, it didn't come close to causing disaster. But Davis fears another sort of damage—to the bonds of trust that prevent disasters. "There's a real need for openness and confidence, if someday Port Angeles or another community could be called upon to become a port of refuge for a ship that is leaking oil," he says. Lose that trust, and "Port Angeles might not say 'OK.'"

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