ANCHORAGE - An oil tanker that needed a tow last week because of engine problems was cleared to leave Prince William Sound over the weekend and headed for a West Coast refinery.
Now Rick Steiner and his organization, the Coastal Coalition, are asking the U.S. Coast Guard to bar the tanker from returning to the sound.
"This tanker has a rap sheet a mile long," said Steiner, citing the ship's record of steering, engine and other problems since the early 1990s.
Steiner, in a letter to Cmdr. Mark Swanson, head of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Valdez, asked the Kenai be banned from the Sound. Steiner, a marine biologist, has been an outspoken critic of the oil industry since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
"This vessel has had far too many problems that could have resulted in a catastrophic discharge of oil in Alaska coastal waters, is obviously poorly managed, and should simply not be allowed to sail in Alaska, or anywhere else for that matter," Steiner wrote.
The president of the company that operates the Kenai and nine other tankers that haul North Slope crude oil for BP defended the ship as superbly staffed and maintained. And Swanson said the Coast Guard has found no problems with the ship.
"It's in full compliance with everything," Swanson said.
On Thursday, two escort tugs had to take the 869-foot Kenai in tow after the crew heard a deep rumbling noise in the engine room at Hinchinbrook Entrance, which is where the Sound opens to the Pacific Ocean. The double-hulled ship, built in 1979, was loaded with nearly 798,000 barrels of oil.
The problem was a plugged steam turbine drain line, which was easily cleaned out, said Anil Mathur, chief executive of Alaska Tanker Co. of Beaverton, Ore. Though it was not a problem that could disable the ship, Mathur said, the captain felt the right thing to do was shut down power and get a tow.
The Kenai is sound and well-run, he said.
"If it weren't, we wouldn't run it," he said.
But Steiner points to at least 36 "reportable marine casualties" listed by the Coast Guard since 1991.
In November 1996, it veered off course in the treacherous Valdez Narrows and passed less than half a ship's length from a charted shoal. In 1992, the tanker had to be pushed away from rocks after it had a steering problem in the Narrows.