My turn: State should blow up Bligh Reef

Posted: Sunday, January 10, 2010

On a Web site that's updated every half hour, you can check the wind speed, temperature, gusts and barometric pressure at the Bligh Reef Light in Prince William Sound. Maybe the light was turned off along with the radar when the tug, Pathfinder, grounded on Bligh Reef a week ago Wednesday.

The Exxon Valdez grounding in 1989 was a mind-altering experience. As chairman of the Valdez Port Commission during construction of the Alyeska Terminal, we heard the U.S. Coast Guard and shipping companies guarantee the world's safest transportation system in Port Valdez.

When 11 million gallons of thick crude floated and coated Valdez Arm and its inhabitants, the Exxon Valdez changed the way Alaskans viewed the oil industry. Twenty years later, the 136-foot Pathfinder, patrolling the Port of Valdez, ran aground on Bligh Reef again and ripped off the scabs from the Exxon Valdez. You can feel the anger.

Instead of Port Valdez having radar on all traffic, we now learn that Valdez radar was off for months due to computer glitches. The Coast Guard did not fund or require anyone else to repair the radar necessary to report dangers. The Coast Guard is our first line of defense, and is tasked with safe transportation through Port Valdez.

That system required the Coast Guard in Valdez to watch all traffic coming in or out of Valdez harbor, just like an air traffic controller watches so a Super Cub doesn't bring down an incoming 747 in their flight path. Supertankers don't stop on a dime, after all.

This is not a technology problem. We view terrorists in Iraq deserts and identify them by satellite. Why couldn't we see a 136-foot boat in Prince William Sound? Didn't the Coast Guard see Pathfinder heading too close to the reef? Why didn't they warn it? Instead of the Coast Guard investigating the accident, the Coast Guard should be investigated to see why its most basic safety systems failed.

Incredibly, this tug with 20 years of experience guiding others safely through the Valdez Arm did not use basic equipment to avoid Bligh Reef. It could have checked the depth finder or his shipboard radar to avoid the rocks. Human error has always been and always will be the largest risk factor in oil shipping.

The facts are that the Coast Guard failed to assure safe travel in Valdez Arm and the oil industry paid for a safe transportation system it did not receive. Today, Alaskans do not have the protection from oil transportation we thought we had.

Bligh Reef should be at the bottom of Valdez Arm, not the top. Blow it up. Clear the lane. When you compare the environmental degradation of a spill and those pathetic pictures of the oiled and dying otters to demolition, when you understand that this is the third grounding on Bligh Reef (Alaska Steamship Company's Olympia was the first in 1910), we have to take a different approach with a permanent solution.

Underwater demolition may be able to take out the upper tiers of Bligh Reef, assuring safe passage. David Mallars is a master diver and owner of Alaska Divers and Underwater Salvage, Inc. in Eagle River. I discussed the problems with him and appreciate his expertise. Although not familiar with the specific structure of Bligh Reef, David told me that demolition of a reef is not that tough. The toughest part would be in government permitting since blowing up the reef could demolish all within a one half-mile radius. We should weigh those consequences and act to protect Valdez Arm.

We obviously cannot protect Prince William Sound independent of human imperfections. After all, as Mallars said, "The score is Bligh Reef, 3, humans 0." Let's get the radar back on. Let's make sure the light is working. No more coffee breaks close to the rocks. Time for Bligh Reef to meet Davey Jones.

• Jim Crawford is a third-generation Alaskan and the former deputy executive director of Alaska State Housing Authority, the predecessor to AHFC. He is an Anchorage real estate broker and developer. He can be reached at

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