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Alaska Editorial: Coast Guard proposes regulation to follow law

Posted: August 21, 2013 - 12:02am

The following editorial first ran in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on Aug. 17:

Almost three years ago, Congress told the U.S. Coast Guard to adopt regulations as soon as possible to require two tugboat escorts for double-hull oil tankers in Prince William Sound.

This week, the Coast Guard released its “interim rule” implementing that law effective Sept. 18. Comments on the rule will be taken through Nov. 18.

Perhaps there was little urgency to get this rule done because all oil tankers traveling in the sound have had two tug escorts since 2008. It’s important to get this regulation in place, though. At present, the industry is providing two tugs simply because it’s prudent.

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, Congress required two escort tugs in the sound. However, that rule only applied so long as single-hull oil tankers were used in the Alaska trade. Those tankers were gradually phased out, by law, during the past few decades in favor of double-hull tankers. According to the Coast Guard’s notice published Monday in the Federal Register, “no single-hull vessels have called on (Prince William Sound) since 2009.”

Double-hull tankers are safer, but they aren’t enough to protect the sound from another Exxon Valdez-style disaster. Two tugs are necessary as well.

In the decades since the spill, there have been several close calls in which tankers lost power and drifted toward the rocks. With the help of escort tugs, disaster has been averted.

What if a tug had engine trouble during one of those incidents, though? Also, tugs themselves have been known to hit the rocks. Having a second tug on hand reduces the probability of a tanker ending up on the rocks as well.

“We believe a two vessel escort system is beneficial in the event of equipment failure such as the lost of steering or propulsion,” the Coast Guard said in its notice Monday. “If a tanker becomes disabled, the two escort vessels can influence the speed and course of the tanker, thereby reducing the likelihood of an allision (one vessel running onto another), collision or grounding.”

The agency also said its interim rule would eliminate “confusion within industry by harmonizing the (Code of Federal Regulations) with the (U.S. Code).”

That certainly seems like a good result. There shouldn’t be any confusion: Two tugs are required. The sooner that’s in regulation, the better.

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