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Op-Ed: Dual Escort Tugs are Essential to Protect Prince William Sound and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Region from Another Major Spill

By Al Burch and Walter Parker

Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council

The Exxon Valdez oil spill fouled 1,300 miles of Alaska's coastline, killed thousands of seabirds and marine mammals, closed fisheries—some of which have still not reopened—and inflicted social and economic devastation upon people of communities throughout Prince William Sound and adjoining waters. Many of the spill's effects linger 21 years later.

The Exxon spill triggered policy changes in state and federal law to help make sure nothing like it could happen again, at least not in our state. That led to major changes in how crude oil is transported through the Sound.

Two of the most important innovations were a requirement that each single-hulled oil-laden tanker in the Sound be accompanied by two escort vessels and a requirement that all oil tankers in U.S. waters employ double hulls by 2015. (The Exxon Valdez had only a single hull.)

Research and experience both show that the two-tug requirement for single-hulled tankers was a key and effective response to the Exxon spill.  To now see that requirement applied to double-hulled tankers by law, to ensure that current practice continues, is vitally important to the people most affected by the 1989 oil spill.

The escort tugs have been repeatedly called upon for help when tankers have run into trouble and have provided assurance to people of the region that another large oil spill is far less likely. Early this year, when a loaded ExxonMobil tanker lost power on its way out of the Sound while in the confined waters of Hinchinbrook Entrance, its two escort tugs promptly came to its aid and helped prevent a potential oil spill.

The people of the Gulf of Mexico have recently witnessed first-hand what can happen when penny-wise and pound-foolish safety shortcuts are allowed, when complacency is permitted to creep in, and when effective oversight is lacking.  It is tragic that these lessons from the Exxon spill had to be relearned elsewhere.

Legislation to require continuation of the current practice of dual escort tugs for all tankers in the Sound, including double-hulled tankers, is pending in Congress. It was sponsored by Senator Murkowski, Senator Begich, and Congressman Young and has been endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News and other newspapers, by the entire Alaska Legislature on a bipartisan basis, by the people of the region affected by the Exxon spill, by numerous cities and boroughs, and by countless other individuals and organizations in Alaska.

Double hulls certainly improve safety, but they're not panaceas. Dual escort vessels are as close to fail-safe mechanisms as we can devise and are imperative for keeping Alaska waters safe. They ensure that additional eyes, ears and minds are focused on keeping the tankers off the rocks and the oil in the cargo holds.

Congressman Don Young put it this way a few years ago: "Why would anyone want to weaken the marine oil transport system we have in place now in Valdez, which is the safest in the world?"

We, along with fellow citizens throughout the Exxon spill region, agree completely with that assessment and we call upon Congress to enact the dual escort provision by passing the Coast Guard authorization bill when the congressional recess ends in September. Congress could do nothing more effective to protect Alaska's waters, its fish and wildlife resources, and the lives and livelihoods of people living in the region from another major oil spill.

Al Burch is a commercial fisherman from Kodiak and is executive director of the Alaska White Fish Trawlers Association. Walter Parker chaired the Alaska Oil Spill Commission after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Both are board members of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council.

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