Cook Inlet navigation: Is it really safe as can be?

Most people don’t think about the safety of marine navigation in Cook Inlet. They didn’t before the Exxon Valdez, and they still don’t, because it’s not an issue that normally comes up at the family breakfast table or the local coffee shop.

Oil spill prevention is complicated, distant stuff. But when a spill occurs, it’s everybody’s business.

I’d like to share my thoughts about the safety of navigation in Cook Inlet from my experience with more than 48 years at sea, and 27 years as a chief engineer.

I first started work in Cook Inlet in the summer of 1965. The first oil platform, Shell A, was up and drilling, and the Pan American Oil Platform B was under construction. There was lots of activity and excitement in the area as new plans for oil development progressed.

Since then, I can recall lots of near misses, oil spills, pipeline leaks and vessels sinking. I’ve also seen the addition of more oil and gas platforms, more docks and more pipelines. Commercial ship traffic has grown along with the state population, and today, with generous tax incentives to induce oil and gas development — and the prospect of more LNG ships and other vessel traffic on the horizon — Cook Inlet is clearly a water body requiring basic navigational safeguards.

Today we have modern ships operating in Cook Inlet with professional crews. The use of marine pilots further kicks up the safety factor. But as the past has shown, there are numerous examples of machinery failures due to fires, mechanical breakdown, automation failure or lack of crew training which have resulted in vessels losing power. As an engineer who has logged thousands of hours working around boat engines, I know Murphy’s Law can strike at any time and any place.

Recently, the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council (CIRCAC), the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) and the Coast Guard released the draft Cook Inlet Risk Assessment. The report includes some positive aspects, including the recommendation for a pipeline across the inlet to lower tanker spill risks. But it also refuses to recognize that tug escorts for laden tankers is the best way to reduce spill risks, and instead calls for more study around the issue of “self arrest.”

“Self Arrest” refers to the practice of dropping and dragging an anchor to slow or stop a vessel which has lost power. Cook Inlet is unique in bathymetry, bottom type and current speed. Throw into the mix fixed oil platforms, shoals, pipelines and power lines, and the argument that a disabled vessel can self-arrest anywhere becomes questionable. Throw in winter conditions with ice floes, heavy winds and high seas and the situation becomes worse.

My experience in Cook Inlet is that the bottom varies greatly with some areas that are good holding bottom and others which are rock or smooth bottom that anchors will not hold. To make the assumption that this can be a safe alternative for the entire inlet is, in my opinion, a dangerous statement. This has been pointed out by past studies, including the 1992 Dickson Report and information from Risk Assessment’s own consultant, Glosten Associates.

As a practical note, any mariner who has been involved in setting anchors for oil exploration operations in the inlet, be it for mobil offshore drilling units (MODU) or pipe-laying barges, knows the difficulties in getting anchors to set. 

Imagine the stresses at play if you drop anchors on a laden tanker with no power moving with the current at six knots in heavy ice. Dropping anchors on a ship making way is always a dangerous operation and has caused fatalities and injuries.

In Prince William Sound, two escort and oil response tugs escort laden tankers, and they have prevented serious problems when engine or steering troubles have developed in the past. These tugs also have fire-fighting capabilities with foam systems and spray rails for close in operation to a ship on fire. There are no such vessels in the Cook Inlet area.

Cook Inlet deserves as much protection as Prince William Sound. A funding system must be developed by all shippers to finance a response-escort system.

Alaska is on the verge of developing a large LNG export industry with the major facilities in Cook Inlet. This will increase shipping traffic significantly. The time is past due for all regulators and stakeholders to address the need for tug escorts to protect the Cook Inlet area, its people and the mariners who crew these ships.

Robert Archibald is a retired chief engineer. He lives in Homer.

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