Prince William Sound spill barges lack capacity

Tanker operators issue 'notice of nonreadiness'

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Five oil-spill response barges stationed in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez oil spill have less capacity than originally specified.

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Tanker operators for oil companies BP, Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil and others disclosed in a "notice of nonreadiness" to the state Thursday that barges can hold about 68,700 barrels or nearly 2.9 million gallons less than previously thought. The barges would play a critical role in the event of a large spill, serving as holding tanks for oil and oily water.

The new information trims the holding capacity of the five barges by 10 to 15 percent, said Betty Schorr, industry preparedness program manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

State pollution regulators are mulling whether to hit the ship operators with a violation or fine.

"It's an urgent issue and we are taking action," Schorr said.

The DEC and state lawyers are reviewing the barge capacity shortfall, and might cite the tanker operators Monday with a notice of violation, Schorr said. A civil fine could follow.

"That is a possibility if they're found out of compliance," she said.

Tanker operators said a consultant discovered the capacity shortfall while reviewing the performance of oil-skimming and other equipment on the barges.

Part of the error came from not accounting for the weight of spill cleanup equipment on the decks of the barges, Schorr said.

The tanker companies did the right thing and notified DEC officials, said Anil Mathur, president of Alaska Tanker Co., a Beaverton, Ore., company that hauls North Slope crude oil for BP.

Despite the lower barge capacity, Mathur said tanker operators don't believe they've violated state law on oil spill response preparedness.

"No change in equipment has occurred," Alaska Tanker Co. manager Capt. Tom Colby wrote in the Thursday letter to DEC. "Rather, in the course of efforts to improve our barge system, we unexpectedly discovered that an assumption with respect to barge storage capacity was inaccurate. Out of an abundance of caution we disclosed this information to the department."

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