Contentious questions fill council meeting on grounded tug

by Hans | January 25th, 2010

There were more questions than answers Friday for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council. The environmental watchdog group was given an update on the grounding of a tugboat in the sound just before Christmas.  

The Pathfinder, operated by Crowley Marine Services, spilled about 6,500 gallons of diesel fuel — not a huge amount. But the ice scout ran aground on Bligh Reef, the same reef that gouged the hull of the supertanker Exxon Valdez in 1989, so the grounding has fallen under close scrutiny.

The Coast Guard is still continuing its investigation, so it may be a while before the full story is known. Even so, advisory council members were hoping to learn more to prevent future mishaps. “The captain had 30 years of sailing experience, and 20 of those were spent in Prince William Sound,” said the council’s Joel Kennedy. The council will have to wait to find out exactly where the captain went wrong. Crowley says it won’t release its findings until after the Coast Guard completes its investigation. “I’m sure the two investigations will probably come to the same conclusion, but we don’t want to taint that if that’s a possibility,” said Crowley’s Walt Tague.

Crowley takes the blame for the grounding, which it says was caused by gross negligence. The captain and the first mate were relieved of duties after the grounding, just two days before Christmas. “All her electronic and engineering equipment were fully operational at the time of the grounding,” Kennedy said.

Council members want to know more about the Coast Guard’s role. Was its tracking station in Valdez monitoring the tug? “Did the traffic center have an opportunity to intervene in this grounding?” Kennedy said. “Now, that’s something that will come out in the investigation. If there was an opportunity to intervene, why didn’t they?” “And if we could stop these things before they start — man, we wouldn’t be here talking about these things,” said Iver Malutin of the Kodiak Village Mayor’s Association.

The council passed a resolution on the ice radar system, which wasn’t working at the time of the grounding. Although the Coast Guard has said this had no impact on the incident, the resolution asks that the radar be used every day once it’s repaired. The ice radar is operated by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, but can be accessed by the tracking station. The council also had questions about the spill response, and whether tugs and tankers should come under the same guidelines. Alyeska’s representative warned members to avoid too much speculation.

“The picture will be very clear once you get the report from the investigation,” said Alyeska’s Arthur Knolle. “I think what you’re doing right now, I could see it’s off track and it’s not going to help anyone.” “Really, we just want to know how something like that could happen,” said Sherri Buretta of the Chugach Alaska Corporation. “But the bigger question is, how we can stop it happening in the future?”

The council also passed a resolution commending the crew of the tanker Kodiak, which had a brief power failure Sunday at the sound’s Hinchinbrook Entrance. Crews of two Crowley tugs were also recognized for towing the Kodiak to safe waters where it could be inspected by the Coast Guard. Council members say the incident is a good example of why response plans are necessary.

Bron: KTUU

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