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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Trouble with Tankers

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks about the continuing risks of long-distance oil transportation with Eric Nalder, a reporter with the Seattle Times and author of the new book, Tankers Full of Trouble. Nalder says that despite new legislation passed after the Valdez spill, large scale oil spills remain a danger due to the vast amounts of oil being transported and the flimsiness of tankers.


CURWOOD: The immediate wake of the Exxon Valdez tragedy did make some national changes. In 1990, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Prevention Act, which among other things requires double hulls on new tankers, and rapid response teams to be on constant standby alert for spills. Late last year, such teams passed their first real test when workers quickly contained a 100,000 gallon spill just off some of Puerto Rico's most famous beaches. But for some, the threat of massive oil spills has changed little. Eric Nalder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Seattle Times, has ridden a supertanker out of Valdez and written a book about his experience. He says better cleanup capacity isn't really the answer.

NALDER: The improvement of cleanup capacity, the building of more skimmers - it's kind of a futile gesture. Because once you get about a million gallons of oil in the water there's almost nothing you can do to, to control it.

CURWOOD: If the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 had been in force before the Exxon Valdez set sail on that fateful day, would it, the outcome been any different?

NALDER: I don't think so, no. The ship itself would have today, as it still has today, had only a single hull. The ship actually hit the rocks with such force, a double hull, which is required in this Act, might not have made a difference anyway. And there isn't really anything in the regulation that would have changed the way the crew operates.

CURWOOD: I spent a good while going through your book, and I came away from this that you must have the opinion that really no tanker, really, is safe enough. Is that a fair assessment?

NALDER: It's a fair assessment. I mean, any time you're carrying that much oil - in this case the ship I was aboard was carrying 35 million gallons of oil, other tankers carry much more than that - you've got a potential for accidents or spills or major spills. You know, as I say in the book, you know, a world that guzzles 30,000 gallons of oil a second makes no peace with any shoreline including our own. And I think between the time of the Exxon Valdez accident in March of 1989 and the ride that I took aboard an oil tanker for this book, which was in January of 1992, worldwide there were some, I think it was 84 tankers that spilled large amounts of oil, a total of 65 million gallons of oil. In sounding as pessimistic as I do here, it's not to say we can't do better. In fact there are many, many things we can do that would go much farther in preventing spills.

CURWOOD: All right; give us some examples, please.

NALDER: Well, I think one of the most important is to take a look at and make changes in the way we operate these ships. The vast majority of accidents at least involve or begin with human error. The crews of these vessels ought to be checked out by regulators on the vessel they're operating, just the way they do with airplane crews. That doesn't happen in the world of ships. I think also the ships need to be better built. Starting just after World War II, the owners of these oil tankers built larger ships with proportionately less steel. And frankly, they were fragile ships. You know, you learn, you really learn something, and I did on this vessel, when you ride an oil tanker into the teeth of a 70-mile-an-hour wind and into 40-foot seas, you think that you're on a vessel, being 900-1000 feet long, that is very powerful. That has, that's not vulnerable to nature, until you meet something like that. As you stand on the bridge you can see the ship bending. Bending like a twig, up and down, against the force of these waves. And the sound of the ship groaning is a terrible, terrible sound; I mean you literally can hear the ship in pain, all of the joints grinding. I tell the story of one ship that was hammered by a 90-foot wave and cracked down the side, spilling nearly a million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Alaska. This happens all the time. And the industry literally watched this happen for decades, and continued to reduce the steel in these ships. And nobody really paid attention to the carnage, until recently when they're starting to do studies and saying, "Hey wait a minute, these ships seem to be breaking apart in the waves. Maybe we'd better build them a little differently." But the rules are still not good enough.

CURWOOD: Eric Nalder is a reporter for the Seattle Times and author of the new book, Tankers Full of Trouble. Thanks very much for talking with us.

NALDER: Well thank you very much; I've enjoyed it.



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