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ANCHORAGE - A radar system that scans Prince William Sound oil tanker lanes for dangerous icebergs has begun transmitting images to shipping managers in Valdez.
The experimental system began operations last week. When fully operational in a few years the system will include a marine radar system on Reef Island and a new signal processor to give the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and the U.S. Coast Guard full-time warning of floating ice.
"It's got pretty good clarity," said Rhonda Arvidson, the project manager with the Prince William Sound Citizens' Advisory Council. "You could clearly see the ships and the escorts and you could see the boat wake."
The ice hazard comes from the Columbia Glacier. Depending on wind and tide, icebergs as big as houses can drift into tanker lanes. The radar system, on a cliff-bound island about 30 miles south of Valdez, sweeps the lanes and mouth of Columbia Bay.
The Exxon Valdez was trying to avoid reported ice when it struck Bligh Reef and dumped 11 million gallons into the sound in 1989. An empty, inbound tanker sustained $1 million in damage in 1994 when it smashed into an iceberg. Scientists say the Columbia Glacier will continue to disintegrate for decades.
"It's a very handy tool," added duty officer Jerry Saylors, at Alyeska's Ship Escort-Response Vessel System in Valdez, speaking about the new radar. "But I would not rely on this system alone without a visual backup. No mariner would."
Getting the new system to send microwave signals to Alyeska's Valdez-based vessel monitoring office climaxed years of effort and more than $2 million in donated help.
The citizens group collaborated with state and federal agencies, the Coast Guard and U.S. Army, Alyeska, Prince William Sound Community College, and Cordova's Oil Spill Recovery Institute. The Center for Cold Oceans Resources Engineering of Newfoundland developed the new processor, at a cost of about $300,000.
Since the system began operating last week, Saylors said none of the five oil tankers departing Valdez had faced any significant ice.
But ice was a problem earlier in 2002, Arvidson said.
Over the past year, Alyeska has sent tugs or helicopters on 79 missions to scout for ice in oil tanker lanes, Saylors said. The Coast Guard has had to reroute tankers to avoid ice.