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November 12, 1989
A six-part Seattle Times special report
Every 14 hours on the average, an oil tanker cruises into Washington state's waters.
Most are laden with Alaskan crude oil, a toxic, viscous substance that can be as lethal to the environment as it is crucial to the economy.
It is the job of a tanker and its crew to make sure the oil remains a resource and not a destroyer.
Sometimes, they fail.
And no wonder: On a typical tanker, only about an inch and a half of steel separates the purple-black crude and the blue-green water of the state's inland sea.
An inch and a half between business as usual and environmental disaster.
"Would you feel safe carrying oil in a plastic bag?" asks Arthur McKenzie, who has studied tankers for five decades. "Well, that's what you've got with one of these ships."
The grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound in March resulted in the nation's worst oil spill and riveted Americans' attention to the potential dangers of tanker traffic.
Most of the attention, both in the news media and in Congress, has been on spill cleanup who should direct it, who should pay for it, who should judge it complete.
Those questions command concern. But as an Atlantic Richfield Co. spill-contingency plan puts it: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the best way to handle oil spills is to prevent their occurrence."
Not only do the thin skins of tankers make them dangerous, so do their inner workings. Unlike most merchant ships, they lack twin propellers, making it harder to stop and maneuver. Maneuverability is further limited by low-horsepower engines.
Thanks to the late Sen. Warren Magnuson, so-called "supertankers" the largest such ships are not allowed on Puget Sound. But even tankers that are permitted carry three times as much oil as the 11 million gallons spilled in Alaska.
The Exxon Valdez spill was, in the opinions of many, inevitable. So, they insist, is a catastrophe in Washington, as long as current conditions continue.
Times reporter Eric Nalder and a team of photographers, artists and editors have spent much of the period since the March spill examining those conditions.
Nalder and photographer Craig Fujii began by riding a tanker from the oil port of Valdez, Alaska, to a Washington refinery at Cherry Point, near Ferndale in Whatcom County. Nalder learned all he could about the ship and its crew, then took that information and launched into a six-month investigation of tanker safety.
He pored over thousands of pages of records, conducted hundreds of interviews and ran computer evaluations of data.
His reporting raised some alarming questions. Among them:
Why is the Coast Guard so reluctant to force safety improvements on tanker companies, while allowing those companies to cut crew sizes beyond what many say is the threshold of safety?
Why have the penalties for being drunk on a ship been lighter than for being drunk behind the wheel of an automobile?
Why are the tankers that regularly visit Washington waters older than much of the world's tanker fleet? What's being done to address the cracked hulls, broken engines and other failures in those tankers?
Why was the evidence for the need for double bottoms - underscored by two accidents in Washington waters ignored for years?
Why doesn't the Coast Guard have the inspectors and investigators it needs to properly police tanker traffic?
If the tanker system is as safe as the industry and the Coast Guard say it is, why in the first eight years of this decade were tankers in the U.S. involved in 468 groundings, 371 collisions, 97 rammings, 55 fires and explosions, and 95 deaths?
This week, The Times will raise those and other questions and present the answers offered by federal and oil-industry officials.
Many of those answers are discomforting. As Coast Guard Vice Adm. Clyde Robbins said, "I'm just fearful that five years from now you will be asking the same questions you are asking now."
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