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 image available under the Creative Commons license shows the outline of the state of Alaska filled with the pattern of the state flag.
Opinion: Bringing broadband to all Alaskans

Too many Alaskans face barriers accessing the internet.

This photo shows a stack of pocket constitutions at the Alaska State Capitol. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Join us in voting against a constitutional convention

Voting no on a constitutional convention is vital to the well-being and stability of our state.

Michael O’Meara.
Point of View: Tell BOEM how you feel

It seems like BOEM should prioritize input from people most likely to be affected if leases are sold

The State of Alaska, Department of Administration, Office of Information Technology webpage. (Screenshot/oit.alaska.gov)
Cloud migration now underway will strengthen, enhance State IT systems

At the most basic level, cloud computing is the delivery of computing services remotely

Jessica Cook, left, and Les Gara stand in The Peninsula Clarion’s offices on Thursday, June 30, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Alaska Voices: Better schools for a better economy

We need leaders who care about our children’s futures

A resident casts their vote in the regular municipal election Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Voices of the Peninsula: This is our borough and city

By Therese Lewandowski Another election already? Yes! This is our local elections… Continue reading

The Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation building is seen in Juneau, Alaska, in March 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)
Opinion: APFC keeps steady keel during turbulent year

FY2022 was a challenging year for all investors

Homer Foundation
Point of View: Nonprofits provide essential services not provided by cities

By our count, nonprofits provide more than 100 jobs to our communities

t
Opinion: Don’t get scammed like I nearly did

I should have just turned off the computer.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce campaigns for governor as he walks in the 65th annual Soldotna Progress Days Parade on Saturday, July 23, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. Pierce resigned as borough mayor effective Sept. 30, 2022, to focus on his gubernatorial campaign. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: ‘It has been an honor to serve’

Borough mayor gives send-off ahead of departure

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announces Friday, July 15, 2022, that 2022 most PFD payments will be distributed on Sept. 20, 2022. (Screenshot)
Opinion: A historic PFD still leaves work to be done

It is important to remember the dividend is not, and has never been, a welfare payment