Are we better prepared for big Cook Inlet spill?

Crude oil tankers and non crude fuel barges transit Cook Inlet all year round, and no one is prepared for a “worse case” scenario oil spill in Cook Inlet.

Subsequent to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, laws have been written, organizations created, and 25 years worth of meetings and stacks of paper and studies have gathered on shelves.

Are we “readier for a spill” than we were in 1989? Yes. But not much readier.

Here is the scenario that we are NOT ready for:  A fully laden oil tanker is transiting Cook Inlet, destination Nikiski.  It is a dark and stormy night. A 20-foot flood tide and a Southwest 30 wind blowing steadily. Somewhere abeam of the south end of Kalgin Island, the tanker loses power at 2 a.m. Maydays are transmitted, phones ring, men and women in pickup trucks drive to command centers and spill staging areas.

But, nothing can be done to prevent the forces of nature from driving the tanker onto “The Sisters” rocks at Clam Gulch by 4 a.m. Or the beach at Humpy Point or Kalifornsky.  The tanker is damaged and a big oil spill occurs.

There is only one method available to prevent this accident: A tug boat with adequate horsepower should be escorting the tanker. Every time. Every trip up and down the inlet, winter or summer.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 created Citizen Advisory Councils fashioned after a similar system that was in place in Sullom Voe, Scotland. The idea was to provide monitoring and oversight of the industry with a stated goal of oil spill prevention. Congress (in the Act) warned of complacency.

In my view, complacency has arrived, and it is a strong force to behold.

There is a Cook Inlet Citizens Advisory Council in place, created by OPA ’90, and whose job it is to provide oversight and prevention, so that the Exxon Valdez scenario will never happen again. They have not done their job, because they have avoided the tanker escort issue. They should be advocating for this method of prevention, as we as citizens should be.  

In their recent “risk assessment” it is recognized that “self arrest” or anchoring a stricken tanker is not only dicey but an improbable solution.

There are no vessels of opportunity in Cook Inlet with adequate horsepower for the job. Tractor tugs in Prince William Sound, 24 hours away, would be of no use.  CIRCAC has a study on its shelf (the Dickson Report, available on its website) that was done in 1993 that clearly states that anchoring a stricken tanker is not a reliable option and that tug escorts are recommended.

Why is this blatant oversight allowed to exist? In a word, money. Tractor tugs are expensive, and the industry is unwilling to discuss this option seriously. The Cook Inlet Citizens Advisory Council is dominated by its funding interests, has demonstrated that it is more of a lapdog than a watchdog, and the regulators that sit at the table are spineless. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Coast Guard are partners in the complacency because they don’t insist on tanker escorts.  If protection of Cook Inlet coastlines from windrows of oily goo from Chickaloon to Nanwalek and beyond is the goal, our regulators and citizen council are in the process of failing at their jobs, because the chronic risk of an oil tanker losing power on a dark and stormy night is allowed to continue.

CIRCAC recently commissioned a study with regard to risk assessment of oil transportation in Cook Inlet.  Go to www.circac.org, and take a look.

Please submit a comment insisting on tanker escorts. (better hurry though, this window for public comment is only open for nine days through Sept. 26).

It seems like an issue of this import out to deserve a little more time for public comment.

In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez, there was untold amounts of wailing and gnashing of teeth as the multi-year disaster damaged a thousand miles of beaches. This could easily happen again.

Envision an oil plastered Kachemak Bay, oiled beaches up and down Cook Inlet, Snug Harbor, Kamishak, Kodiak.  

Municipalities up and down the Inlet and Kodiak should be sponsoring resolutions asking for tug escorts. The public needs to come out from behind the shroud of complacency and demand tug escorts. If this doesn’t occur, the dead birds and otters and post spill wailing and gnashing of teeth are a potential outcome.

Frank Mullen is a lifelong Alaskan and Cook Inlet fisherman. He served three terms on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. He lives in Homer. Editor’s Note: The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council meets in Homer Sept. 25 and 26 at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.

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