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November 13, 1989
Engineers and mechanics scramble down metal stairways into the engine room. High above on the bridge, the chief mate flips a switch and releases control of the ship's speed to the engine room. The velocity drops from 16 knots to just above 6.
This is not a drill, and for a long time no one on the bridge knows what's wrong.
They do know from experience, though, that a 120,000-ton tanker won't steer properly in rolling seas if it's going slower than 6 knots. Speed provides the force against which the massive rudder turns; without it, the ship will be a giant steel can bobbing around at King Neptune's mercy.
The tug escorts that were required in the sound are no longer with the tanker; if the ship loses power, it could be left to drift for hours.
Chief mate Jeff Portillo, an old hand, says calmly, "If it was anything major, the engines would be stopped."
He's right. Five hours after the alarm sounds, the ship is back at 16 knots. The problem was insignificant: a ground wire broke, causing the alarm to falsely indicate a problem in the ship's boilers. The tanker has backup alarms, but chief engineer Paul Preziose kept the boilers operating at a low level until the faulty alarm was fixed.
Preziose doesn't always delay voyages for minor problems. He is carrying $14 million worth of crude oil, on a ship that costs nearly $3,000 an hour to operate, on a schedule requiring a visit to Washington state every eight days.
"It's like an airliner," Preziose says of his vessel. "If it's not moving, it's not making money."
This time, safety took precedence over the Arco Anchorage's high operating costs and tight schedule. But it isn't always that way on oil tankers.
In fact, it is clear that tanker companies as a rule have gone only as far as the law requires, and that safety routinely takes a back seat to profits.
One need not look any further than the waters of Puget Sound for examples:
In 1972, a panel of experts devised a list of safety features they said should be required of all unescorted tankers entering Washington waters. Seventeen years later, there are tug escorts, but none of the tankers that visit the state regularly have all of the safety features, and most lack several of them.
Three Exxon tankers that visit Washington state waters regularly have only one source of power, a single steam boiler an enormously risky condition, tanker captains and Coast Guard officials agree. Two of the ships went dead in Pacific Northwest waters three times in the past two years. Exxon wants to cut the engine-room crews on these same ships.
In the past four years, cracks have appeared in the hulls of more than half the aging tankers that regularly visit Puget Sound. Some tankers have fractured several times. The cracks are believed to be caused by the bending and sagging of the tankers in ferocious Gulf of Alaska storms. One split twice in the gulf in 1987, spilling 1.3 million gallons that was never recovered.
SAFETY BY TREATY
Not that safety has been entirely ignored. Preziose and other officers of the Arco Anchorage proudly point to their ship's many backup systems: multiple radars, generators, wiring systems and steering controls. Indeed, several safety features have been added to tankers in the past decade.
But nearly all have been the result of international treaties. History shows that without such treaties, tanker owners are reluctant to pay for costly safety upgrades not required for everyone in the business.
Even many in the industry acknowledge those requirements have been less than they could, and probably should, be.
The primary safety watchdog, the U.S. Coast Guard, has long taken the position that this country's merchant marine, a strategic resource, must be protected from low-cost foreign competition by avoiding strict requirements on equipment. So decisions on modernization and safety have largely been left to international treaty organizations and tanker owners.
With that freedom, the owners have tried to squeeze as much as they can out of older ships. Many older ships have been upgraded, but most of the improvements required by international treaties apply only to tankers manufactured after 1980; 70 percent of the tankers in active duty around the world were built before then.
Norwegian shipping company executive Erik Kruse warned an audience in New York five months before the Exxon Valdez accident that the world tanker fleet was becoming obsolete, largely as a result of a 14-year downturn in the oil business. He pointed out that the average tanker was 15 years old, an age at which tankers were scrapped before the oil bust. He said tanker owners, faced with high shipbuilding costs, feel "we must push the life of a ship up to perhaps 20 or more years."
Twenty years is the average age of tankers that regularly visit Washington state refineries, according to industry and Coast Guard records.
It wouldn't have been that way if Edward Wenk and Charles Thorne had had their way nearly 20 years ago. Wenk and Thorne, both Washington state engineers, were members of a committee of 17 engineers, physicists, oceanographers, Navy officers and other experts who issued a report in 1972 listing safety features they felt tankers needed when sailing in Washington state waters. The panel asked for:
Bow thrusters, which allow a pilot to move a ship backward and side to side at slow speeds.
Double bottoms and double walls on fuel and cargo tanks.
Engines that produce 1 horsepower for every 2 1/2 tons of total ship weight, so that the ship would have enough power to stop quickly in an emergency.
Two working radars.
Escorts for ships that don't have these features.
International treaty requires that every ship have twin radars, and escorts are required east of Port Angeles. But a review of industry publications and Coast Guard documents shows that the 19 tankers that visit Washington state more than 10 times a year have few of the other items.
None of those tankers has twin propellers or bow thrusters.
Only two have double bottoms and double sides.
Only seven of the 19 tankers have enough horsepower to meet the panel's recommendation, and those that do are all relatively small. The Arco Anchorage and other big tankers typically have half the horsepower recommended by the panel.
Wenk, a nationally recognized naval engineer from the University of Washington and an adviser to three U.S. presidents, says the Coast Guard is too wrapped up in the notion of protecting American shipping interests to properly regulate them.
Wenk, who chaired the committee that made the 1972 recommendations, says the maritime system in the U.S. today is an "error-inducing system," not an accident-preventing system.
Since the Exxon Valdez spill in March, a lot of attention and rhetoric has focused on a proposed requirement that tankers have double bottoms or double hulls. But Thorne and Wenk feel the other safety factors their panel recommended, most of which deal with maneuverability, are just as important.
As Thorne points out, a ship's ability to avoid hitting rocks is at least as crucial as its ability to survive the impact.
Following is an examination of other safety factors:
PROPELLERS AND BOW THRUSTERS
The five-bladed propeller of the Arco Anchorage is nearly as tall as a three-story building. The nut holding it on to the ship weighs more than a ton. With each turn, the propeller advances the ship as much as 22 feet.
You might think such a colossal piece of equipment could stop the tanker on a dime, or at least on a quarter. Think again.
At normal speed, the fully loaded Arco Anchorage which is longer than most skycrapers are high and is as heavy as 9,000 Greyhound buses needs more than a mile to stop in an emergency. And having only one propeller, albeit huge, is a drawback.
The ship will stop fastest if it can turn in a circle. But turning is often not possible, especially in congested inland waters such as Puget Sound.
So during a typical crash stop, the crew would throw the engine into full reverse and the helmsman would wag the huge rudder back and forth to assist the propeller in creating drag. The engine and propeller would undergo tremendous strain, enough to break something. Meanwhile, the ship would be unsteerable.
Thorne says that with two propellers, the captain could vary the speed of one and thus be able to steer a little even in a crash stop. Also, another engine and propeller would provide insurance if something broke.
"Why do they permit these risky, vulnerable ships to have less than two engines and two screws (propellers)?" Thorne asks.
A 1975 report by the Office of Technology Assessment, an arm of Congress, says twin propellers add about 8 percent to the cost of building a ship but greatly enhance maneuverability and efficiency. Most merchant ships other than tankers have them.
Tanker consultant Arthur McKenzie says tanker owners don't feel the expense is worth the gain, and it is a dead issue.
Another item mentioned in the 1972 report was bow thrusters. Most tanker officers and engineers dismiss them as devices that help the ship dock, and nothing more. Thorne says they would help in cases where a ship is in trouble and is forced to maneuver at slow speeds.
Most tankers are steam-powered, their engines driven by a boiler fueled by bunker oil. Newer ones are diesel-powered.
Most steam-powered tankers, such as the Arco Anchorage, have two boilers, and others have auxiliary boilers that would allow them to limp home.
But in the early 1970s, the Coast Guard allowed several U.S. ships to be built with single boilers. Three of those ships are Exxon tankers that still visit Puget Sound regularly.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Robert Kramek, commander of the 13th Coast Guard District based in Seattle, recently ordered his inspectors to pay special attention to the Exxon ships, especially two that lost power three times on visits to the Pacific Northwest.
"I don't feel warm and fuzzy when these ships lose their boilers and they have no alternate means of propulsion," Kramek says.
When the tankers lose their boilers, they lose not only propulsion, but also steering and sometimes all lights, radars and electrical power.
Many diesel-engine tankers have only one source of power, too, but engineers say their power plants are much more reliable than boilers.
Chief engineer Preziose says he wouldn't lose sleep with a boiler problem on the double-boiler Arco Anchorage but would be tremendously concerned on a single-boiler ship. His first engineer, Elmo Wolford, says he would never sail on one.
Their concerns seem well-founded. Crews on single-boiler tankers that visit Washington state have reported several boiler failures to the Coast Guard in the last four years, records show.
On April 26 of this year, the Exxon Philadelphia, fully loaded with about 23 million gallons of crude oil, lost all propulsion and electrical power for seven hours before being rescued by a tug 10 miles west of the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The failure started with a broken oil pump. Oil contaminated a water line, the line overheated and broke, and water sprayed into the boiler, extinguishing its fire.
The Coast Guard report says the alarm that would have warned of the trouble wasn't working. An Exxon crewman from another ship, who asked not to be identified, says it is common knowledge in the company's fleet that the alarm had been shut off because it was sounding without cause and bothering the crew - a charge Coast Guard investigators say they are unaware of and Exxon refuses to respond to.
The Exxon Philadelphia had another power failure 15 months earlier, in January 1988, off the coast of Oregon. In that case, a bearing froze when debris blocked its supply of lubrication. The problem cascaded to a series of machinery breakdowns that shut off all power on the ship for more than an hour and a half.
On Sept. 15 of this year, the single-boiler Exxon San Francisco was sailing past Port Angeles when its engine and generators failed briefly. The lights went off on the bridge and the radars blinked out just as the tanker was overtaking another ship during twilight at 18 knots, a Coast Guard report shows. The tanker was empty, heading for Alaska.
That problem started with the failure of an electrical device the size of a pencil eraser and worth less than a dollar.
"Whenever there is a problem on a vessel, generally it is something small because the big things get noticed and fixed," says Robert Peacock, a pilot who sailed seven years on the tanker route between Alaska and Washington.
"Having single-boiler ships is crazy," he says. "I don't know why the Coast Guard allowed it. Obviously it started with economics. But after a short time, they saw it was a problem."
Exxon refuses to discuss its single-boiler ships. But internal company memorandums obtained from the Exxon Seaman's Union show that Exxon has asked the Coast Guard to cut engine-room crews on the company's three single-boiler tankers. Exxon has even required its ship captains and chief engineers to cut overtime in the single-boiler engine rooms to bolster the case for cutting manpower.
The company proposes operating single-boiler engine rooms with no one on duty at night and an alarm system hooked to a computer as a nursemaid.
Failure of the guts of a ship isn't the only thing that worries experts. Failure of the skin is another.
Giant ships such as the Arco Anchorage bend in the waves. The real mammoths, the largest four times the size of the Arco Anchorage, bend as much as 3 feet from stem to stern.
Occasionally when they bend, they snap. The 661-foot-long Texaco Oklahoma cracked in half and sank when it was slammed by a huge wave in March 1971 off the coast of North Carolina. Twenty-eight crewmen were lost when they were swept off a life raft by a huge wave of black oil and water. The tanker spilled 9 million gallons of oil.
A 1975 report by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment said that tankers sinking because of structural failures spilled 25 million gallons of oil a year from 1969 through 1972.
A 1982 Exxon Corp. report said industry inspections had failed to pinpoint weaknesses caused by corrosion on tanker hulls just 10 years old. It noted that hull sides were cracking, and said the situation raised serious questions about the condition of the rest of the fleet, especially larger tankers. It also noted that Exxon's newer, Japanese-built ships had thinner steel than its older, European-built vessels.
Those reports haven't been updated since. But three Coast Guard lieutenant commanders conducting a survey of hull failures on U.S.-flagged tankers and freighters last year came up with another disturbing figure:
While tankers serving the Trans-Alaska Pipeline made up only 13 percent of the entire U.S. merchant marine fleet, they accounted for 52 percent of all structural failures among all types of ships in the nation.
Half the Alaska tankers that fractured were ships that regularly visit Washington state. In fact, more than two-thirds of the tankers that visit Washington waters more than 10 times a year have sustained hull fractures in the past four years, according to Coast Guard records. None of those have double bottoms.
In the Gulf of Alaska, the toll on ships is staggering from winds that rage up to 100 mph and waves that surround and pound every exposed piece of steel on the deck of a loaded tanker.
Coast Guard inspectors say hairline cracks so small they aren't reported to the Coast Guard are often the beginning of larger cracks that can quickly overwhelm a ship. Last year's survey suggested that these cracks might be reported more often, but it noted that manpower costs of doing so would be high.
Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., is conducting a follow-up study this year to determine whether design flaws are affecting Alaska tankers. One of the researchers, Lt. Bill Marhoffer, says so many tiny "nuisance fractures" are found during hull exams that it is difficult to find a pattern in the cracking.
"It is hard to see the forest for the trees," he says.
The Coast Guard report on hull fractures didn't find much correlation with age, but the earlier Office of Technology Assessment report said a ship older than 15 years has three times the probability of structural failure as one less than 10 years old. That finding is disturbing because the average age of the tanker fleet that calls most often on Washington state is 20 years.
Even when safety changes are made on tankers, they aren't always perfect. Fire prevention is an example.
Crude oil is highly explosive. Tanker owners were required by a 1978 international treaty to install a device to keep oxygen out of oil tanks. The device, an inert-gas system, cools and cleans the engine exhaust and then pumps it into the sealed cargo tanks to replace oxygen. Crude oil can't burn without oxygen.
Arco Anchorage Capt. Robert Lawlor says the inert-gas system has made "floating bomb" an obsolete description for oil tankers. He calls it "the best thing that ever happened."
But McKenzie, the tanker consultant, says Lawlor's faith in the inert-gas system is all too common and "one of the most dangerous myths that abound in our industry today."
He points out that 25 tankers with inert-gas systems have exploded or burned since 1975, killing nearly 40 people. Many blasts occurred during tank cleaning, when a ship is most vulnerable to explosions of crude-oil vapor.
McKenzie, who teaches a class on the subject, says inert-gas systems do more than lull captains into a false sense of security. For instance, some oxygen is present when inert gas is being blown into a tank. The inert gas itself generates static electricity. All it would take to create a spark would be a metal object, like the measuring tapes tanker crew members lower into tanks.
But McKenzie says that even though it is not perfect, the inert-gas system has greatly reduced the number of fires and explosions aboard tankers.
In 1978, when inert-gas systems were mandated by international treaty, they cost $1 million on a ship the size of the Arco Anchorage, according to a report by naval architects.
Such serious safety measures cost a lot of money, and history would indicate that tanker companies are unlikely to adopt them unless they are forced to.
Harry Keefe, a marine insurance executive in New York, says he was a firm believer in letting the free market dictate conditions in the maritime industry until he saw the worldwide effect on ship safety. Now he has a new thesis:
"Totally free markets will pursue profits by reducing expenses to a point of no return when it comes to safety."
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