Tankers and Spills

I am an officer in the American Merchant Marine, and I am also an environmentalist. I have sailed on a crude oil tanker, and protested against nuclear proliferation. If there can be any balance between modern existence and maintaining our environment, I am certainly among those trying to find it.

We live in a society where we want to have our cake, and eat it, too. Tankers operate simply because of the demand for oil. If we as a society desire this particular commodity, then we must also accept the responsibility associated with thetransportation of this product. Therefore, we must also demand that oil be transported as safely and efficiently as possible.

Merchant Mariners operate commercial vessels, such as tankers, container ships, research vessels, and cable laying ships. Working on American vessels, we are subject to state, federal, and international laws pertaining to shipping. After the spill caused by the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 1990) was created. Will O.P.A. 1990 prevent another Exxon Valdez? Not a chance. It was written by legislators as a knee jerk reaction to the Exxon Valdez. Perhaps a brief description of tanker life would be worthwhile. As a cadet, I sailed aboard a moderately sized tanker of 120,000 dead weight tons, known as a VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier), which carries crude oil from Alaska to Washington and California. It is 883 feet long, 138 feet wide, and the tanks are 73 feet deep. It carries 850,000 barrels of oil (42 gallonsper barrel). Large tankers can carry as much as 2,000,000 barrels of oil, and are so large that they may load and discharge at off-shore platforms, because they are simply too large toenter a port. Ships of this size have problems which most people would never consider. Looking along the main deck, you can actually see the vessel twist and flex. This will eventually lead to cracks in the ships structure. Loading a vessel of this size is quite an event. In Valdez, we loaded at 90,000 barrels per hour, and were in and out of port in about 13 hours. It is a high stress situation, typically being overseen on the vessel by one or two licensed of ficers, and two or three unlicensed sailors. Why do we push the limits of technology and human endurance like this? Economy of scale. You want the most for your dollar, and shipping companies want to keep as much of that dollar as possible.

So what does all of this have to do with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990? The two major results of O.P.A. 1990 call for double hulls on tankers and restrict s the number of hours that crew members can work in a day. Double hulls on tankers will not prevent a major catastrophe. A double hulled tanker has a void, or empty, space of several feet between the hull and tanks. The theory is that if a ship runs aground, the outer hull may be penetrated, but the inner hull, containing the oil, will remain intact. Before I continue, here is an important fact to keep in mind: a cargo tank completely full of oil is quite safe, because there is not enough oxygen in the tank to support combustion. A tank containing oxygen and oil vapors is quite hazardous, because in the correct ratio, an extremely explosive atmosphere is created. This explosive mixture is avoided in cargo tanks by displacing any oxygen in the cargo tanks with flue gas (exhaust) from the ships engine, which is inert. The void spaces on ships are not full of inert gas, they are full of air, which contains the oxygen required for combustion. Consider the following scenario: A large tank vessel develops a crack in one of its tanks, allowing oil and oil vapor to leak into the void space, which is inspected only periodically. Suppose that over a period of weeks or months, a considerable amount of vapor may accumulate in this space. The tanker runs aground, creating sparks where the hull is penetrated. Clearly, this is the recipe for a devastating explosion, fire, and oil spill. The void space is now a tremendous liability. By the way, this will happen at some point.

Cargo ships do not have double hulls, because they do not carry a cargo of oil. Do not forget, however, that they carry fuel, and lots of it, in spaces called double bottoms and wing tanks. Double bottoms are bounded on top by the bottom of the cargo holds, and below by the ships hull, while wing tanks are on the ships sides. The ship I work on now, a cable laying ship, is only 480 feet long, yet carries 13,000 barrels, or 54 6,000 gallons, of fuel oil. Does my ship not require a double hull because its officers are more responsible than tanker officers? I don=A1t think so. Remember, O.P.A. 1990 is knee jerk legislation focused only on the tanker industry because that was the media focus at the time. I will always remember watching the news one day as we were discharging oil in Long Beach, California, the summer after the spill, and seeing a story about the spill. A reporter was interviewing a person sunbathing on the beach, whose solution to prevent future spills was to create additional regulations for the tanker industry. I have no qualms about new regulations which will protect the environment. I do, however, have difficulty with regulations which do not effectively increase the safety of merchant ships, and along the way add additional work for the mariner and operating expense to each ship.

This brings us to working hours and crew size. There are typically about 24 crew members on a ship, which breaks down to ten in the deck department, seven in the engineering department, three or four in the stewards department, two utilities, who work with the deck or engine department as required, and one radio officer. It considering what is demanded of them: they must operate and maintain a vessel that may be 1,200 feet long. Chipping, painting, cooking, cleaning, navigating, operating engines the size of city buses. Years ago, ships sailed with crews of 30 to 40 people, on ships which were smaller and much simpler to operate. Today, with fewer people, each crew member must take on additional responsibilities, while working within the new constraints of O.P.A. 1990. A seaman may now only work 12 hours per day, which may seem like plenty of time. However, eight hours of that time is spent on watch, either navigating or operating the power plant, during which time one must focus exclusively on the safe operation of the vessel. In the four remaining hours, officers are faced with such items as life boat inspections, fire station inspections, nautical chart corrections, tank cleaning, equipment maintenance, and on and on. On some ships, added to the list are ordering food, linen, etc., because the Chief Steward has been eliminated from the crew. Is compromising the operational safety of a large vessel worth the money saved by the elimination of a few jobs? The unfortunate reality is that what is actually more important to ship operators than crew and environmental safety is profit margin. Even as we attempt to address the problem of stress and exhaustion aboard ships, operators are reducing crew size and ships budgets. O.P.A. =A190 was created with much fanfare, while crew size is being reduced very quietly. The oil spilled by the Valdez has been cleaned up, and ship safety is no longer above the fold on the front page.

A recent study indicates that there are now fewer than 450 American flagged vessels over 300 gross tons, and that number is shrinking quickly. Quite simply, this is occurring because there are several nations which allow ships to be operated much less expensively than the United States. Their regulations are less stringent, and wages are much lower. Every American mariner has a story about meeting a foreign flagged ship in the middle of the ocean which so blatantly ignores the international rules regarding right of way that the officer conning the foreign vessel must surely have either been asleep or incompetent. There is truth to the phrase "you get what you pay for." Yes, American ships are more expensive to operate, and yes, with humans operating ships there will always be human error. However, American ships are operated by crews which are among the best trained and most contentious in the world. Certainly, we operate under the most stringent regulations in the world, and while not all of them are sensible, most of them are. While we have some influence over foreign vessels in American waters, we have none in international waters, and what makes its way over the side of a foreign vessel 20 miles off shore will surely find its way to our beaches. What we must decide, as a society, is if inexpensive gasoline and heating oil is worth compromising the environment for.

Joseph Gross is Chief Mate on the C/S Global Sentinel.

Copyright 1995 Joseph Gross