Voices of the Peninsula: Cook Inlet navigation – safe as can be?

  • By Robert Archibald
  • Sunday, October 19, 2014 6:34pm
  • Opinion

Most people don’t think about the safety of marine navigation in Cook Inlet. They didn’t before the Exxon Valdez, and they still don’t, because it’s not an issue that normally comes up at the family breakfast table or the local coffee shop.

Oil spill prevention is complicated, distant stuff. But when a spill occurs, it’s everybody’s business.

I’d like to share my thoughts about the safety of navigation in Cook Inlet from my experience with over 48 years at sea, and 27 years as a Chief Engineer.

I first started work in Cook Inlet in the summer of 1965. The first Oil Platform, Shell A, was up and drilling, and the Pan American Oil Platform B was under construction. There was lots of activity and excitement in the area as new plans for oil development progressed.

Since then, I can recall lots of near misses, oil spills, pipeline leaks and vessels sinking. I’ve also seen the addition of more oil and gas platforms, more docks and more pipelines. Commercial ship traffic has grown along with the state population, and today, with generous tax incentives to induce oil and gas development — and the prospect of more LNG ships and other vessel traffic on the horizon — Cook Inlet is clearly a water body requiring basic navigational safeguards.

Today we have modern ships operating in Cook Inlet with professional crews. The use of Marine Pilots further kicks up the safety factor. But as the past has shown, there are numerous examples of machinery failures due to fires, mechanical breakdown, automation failure or lack of crew training which have resulted in vessels losing power. As an engineer who has logged thousands of hours working around boat engines, I know Murphy’s Law can strike at any time and any place.

Recently, the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council (CIRCAC), the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) and the Coast Guard released the draft Cook Inlet Risk Assessment. The report includes some positive aspects, including the recommendation for a pipeline across the inlet to lower tanker spill risks. But it also refuses to recognize that tug escorts for laden tankers is the best way to reduce spill risks, and instead calls for more study around the issue of “self arrest.”

“Self Arrest” refers to the practice of dropping and dragging an anchor to slow or stop a vessel which has lost power. Cook Inlet is unique in bathymetry, bottom type and current speed. Throw into the mix fixed oil platforms, shoals, pipelines and power lines, and the argument that a disabled vessel can self-arrest anywhere becomes questionable. Throw in winter conditions with ice flows, heavy winds and high seas and the situation becomes worse.

My experience in the Inlet is that the bottom varies greatly with some areas that are good holding bottom and others which are rock or smooth bottom that anchors will not hold. To make the assumption that this can be a safe alternative for the entire Inlet is, in my opinion, a dangerous statement. This has been pointed out by past studies, including the 1992 Dickson Report and information from Risk Assessment’s own consultant, Glosten Associates.

As a practical note, any mariner who has been involved in setting anchors for oil exploration operations in the Inlet, be it for Mobile Offshore Drilling Units (MODU) or pipe-laying barges, knows the difficulties in getting anchors to set. Imagine the stresses at play if you drop anchors on a laden tanker with no power moving with the current at 6 knots in heavy ice. Dropping anchors on a ship making way is always a dangerous operation and has caused fatalities and injuries.

In Prince William Sound, two escort and oil response tugs escort laden tankers, and they have prevented serious problems when engine or steering troubles have developed in the past. These tugs also have firefighting capabilities with foam systems and spray rails for close in operation to a ship on fire. There are no such vessels in the Cook Inlet area.

Cook Inlet deserves as much protection as Prince William Sound. A funding system must be developed by all shippers to finance a response-escort system.

Alaska is on the verge of developing a large LNG export industry with the major facilities in Cook Inlet. This will increase shipping traffic significantly. The time is past due for all regulators and stakeholders to address the need for tug escorts to protect the Cook Inlet area, its people and the mariners who crew these ships.

Robert Archibald is a retired Chief Engineer. He lives in Homer.

More in Opinion

This Aug. 3, 2021, photo shows Juneau International Airport.  The Federal Aviation Administration shared recommendations on Thursday for improving aviation safety in the state. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: How the FAA will improve the margin of aviation safety in Alaska

Alaska depends on aviation more than any other state…

Central Peninsula Hospital is seen in Soldotna on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: Perspective of an educator in a ‘high-risk’ group, part 2

During some of the darkest days of my time in ICU, it was obvious where we all live is a special place.

Lawmakers havereturned to the Alaska State Capitol for a fourth special session. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Revenues should be determined before more PFD spending

The governor believes the dividend drives the entire calculation. Sadly, he has it backwards

Ronnie Leach. (Photo provided)
Point of View: For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, #weareresilient

At the onset of COVID-19, we expanded our services in a way to ensure COVID-19 consciousness.

Rep. Don Young talks during a June 2021 interview with the Empire. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion:Where’s Don Young when America needs him?

Once upon a time, avoiding political controversy was completely out of character for Young.

Peter Zuyus
Voices of the Peninsula: Seniors appreciate vaccination efforts

To those who have worked to encourage vaccination we say: Be proud, you are, in fact, saving lives.

Jackson Blackwell (courtesy photo)
Voices of the Peninsula: Carbon dividends are the bipartisan climate solution

By levying a gradually increasing price on carbon, U.S. emissions will be slashed by 50% in 15 years.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Dunleavy: Facts Matter

Political opportunists care more about spreading political untruths than accepting the facts.

Steve Hughes. (Photo provided)
Voices of the Peninsula: We are all victims of COVID-19

It is disturbing to hear, as a triage nurse, the many reasons cited for not getting a vaccine that are based on misinformation.

teaser
Opinion: LGBTQ+ Alaskans deserve respect and dignity

Like every state that lacks equality, we need federal protection.

Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships. (logo provided)
Point of View: September is National Recovery Month

The biggest challenge when talking about recovery is the truth that one… Continue reading

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is seen in this Dec. 19, 2019 file photo. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
Opinion: Alaska will greatly benefit from historic infrastructure bill

I was able to add many provisions to our bipartisan bill that are targeted to help Alaska.