Despite a Wakeup Call Named Exxon Valdez, Oil Tankers Continue to Foul the World’s Waterways
Moonstone Beach in Rhode Island was once an environmental success story. Despite the state’s abundant coastal development, the protected mix of sandy beach and saltwater ponds attracted striped bass and bluefish in the summer, and northern seabirds in the winter, serving as a nesting site for endangered roseate and least terns. Because it also hosts the critically challenged piping plover, the beach has long been off-limits to humans during breeding season.
Last January, Moonstone Beach was awash not with nesting seabirds but with oil. A tugboat fire on Block Island Sound forced the abandonment of a single-hulled barge carrying four million gallons of diesel oil. The next morning, the beach was littered with thousands of dead lobsters and struggling, grease-coated birds. In spite of a frantic cleanup effort, the slick forced the state to close more than 250 square miles to fishing.
More than 100 fouled birds were rescued, but fewer than 20 survived. And of the 828,000 gallons of oil spilled, a mere 16 percent, or 129, 000 gallons, were recovered. Oil recovery experts say that’s not bad—most cleanups net just a little more than half of that. A gloomy oil spill assessment report prepared for Greenpeace in 1991 concludes, “The world needs to understand that large oil spills have never been cleaned up to any significant extent, and they are unlikely ever to be cleaned up.” Steve Kretzmann, a Greenpeace energy campaigner, believes that some marginal improvements can be made in oil recovery with new technology, but adds, “The issue isn’t how do we prevent oil spills; rather, how do we get away from using oil.”
The cleanup failure is not widely understood. “Part of the public disappointment stems from an expectation that science can handle everything,” says Fred Massie of Save the Bay, a Rhode Island environmental group that marshaled 1,000 volunteers to aid the Block Island Sound cleanup. “Some people think that nature and disasters are controllable with our current technology—but they’re not.”
In fact, since the Valdez spill in 1989, much oil has been spilled by a supposedly reformed oil tanker industry. In 1992, a tanker struck rocks off a Spanish fishing port. Foul weather made cleanup impossible, and the oil was set ablaze. A month later, another tanker spilled 21 million gallons of crude off the Shetland Islands. The resulting slick was caught up in a hurricane, dispersing it across a wide area.
Just a month after the January 1996 Rhode Island spill, the supertanker Sea Empress grounded near the coast of Wales, spilling more than 20 million gallons of oil into the Celtic Sea. Again, a shortage of equipment and rough weather prohibited an effective cleanup. And in March, a barge broke up in Texas’ Galveston Bay, gushing a two-mile ribon of oil from its 714,000-gallon contents.
The Rhode Island spill may have been partly caused by negligence and poor design (a vital fire-suppression switch was located near the fire-prone engine room) that should have been caught in a routine inspection—if tugs were inspected. Unfortunately, says the Coast Guard’s Lieutenant Tim Pavilonis, tugs are governed by minimal safety standards, leaving them with less regulation than sportfishing charter boats. “The bottom line is that they have a strong lobby,” says Pavilonis.
That lobby is now engaged in fighting a pair of bills introduced by two Rhode Island Democrats, Patrick Kennedy and Jack Reed. H.R. 2916 and H.R. 3014 would stiffen tugboat regulation, require more effective fire-prevention equipment and increase operator licensing requirements. “It’s frightening that more stringent regulations haven’t been in place in the past,” Kennedy says.
Even the barge industry admits that there’s a problem. Jack Morgan, director of public affairs for American Waterways Operators, says, “We feel barge safety overall is improving, but we’d like to see all relevant parties working together to preserve the waterways.”
The Oil Protection Act of 1990, passed in the wake of the Valdez spill, was supposed to have cleaned up the industry’s act and regulate supertankers. Instead, critics say that the new law—which requires the oil industry to pay spill damage costs for supertankers—has had unintended results. Instead of cleaning up the tankers, many of the oil carriers shifted their operations to the lightly-regulated tugboat/barge combinations—with sometimes disastrous results. In addition, says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Act’s “key prevention and response measures have not been implemented or have been watered down….As a result, the public still faces serious risks of oil spills.”
Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups that includes NRDC, the American Oceans Campaign and Friends of the Earth is charging that the Coast Guard’s proposed rules for reducing oil spills from single-hulled barges and tankers are inadequate. “The proposals amount to little more than minor changes to current industry practice, ” the groups wrote in a joint statement.
The coalition notes that more than 90 percent of the oil entering U.S. ports is carried in dangerous single-hulled tankers, and that even by the year 2005 only 25 percent of the tanker fleet will be of the safer double-hulled type. The danger of spills from these tankers, says NRDC in a report entitled Safety at Bay, is increasing because many operating vessels have structural deficiences (including “paper-thin plating, missing vents and hatches…and unsatisfactory repairs”) and cruise in heavily trafficked waters.
Ironically, although oil spills from tankers and barges attract the most public attention, they are not the largest source of spilled petroleum in the world’s oceans. According to Greenpeace’s report, more than double the tonnage of oil in the water comes from municipal and industrial waste runoff. Tanker accidents, the report says, account for only six percent of the oil routinely dumped into the marine environment. Safer tankers, then, will hardly solve the problem. As Greenpeace concludes, “The world will not be fueled by oil forever, and the sooner we develop these other approaches to energy use, the less harm will be done by careless use of oil.”