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Alaska Prepares For Vessel Disasters

Zoe Sobel/KUCB


On one of the nicest days of the summer, the Coast Guard cutter Morgenthau needs help. The boat is playing the role of distressed vessel. A local tug slowly approaches its bow while crew members ready theEmergency Tow System. Horns blare and bang. One end of the rope is on the tug and the other on the Morgenthau. On both sides, people scramble to secure the lines for towing.

Coast Guard Lt. Andres Ayure is coordinating the drill. He says the practice helps ensure everything is in working order.

“If you don’t exercise it yearly, then with some time, some of these components could start decaying or start to break down,” Ayure said. “We wouldn’t find out until we have an actual emergency, which is not when we want to find out.”

The city purchased its first Emergency Towing System after the 2004 grounding of the Selendang Ayu. When that ship split in half in rough seas off Unalaska’s coast, six people died and thousands of gallons of oil spilled in sensitive coastal habitat

If you ask conservation biologist Rick Steiner, it’s only a matter of time before the next disaster.

“After that you’ll see all these politicians and people running around in their orange suits, clipboards and hardhats saying we need to do something better,” Steiner said. “All of that will be useless at that point.”

As a member of the Shipping Safety Partnership, Steiner has helped institute some improvements in boating safety since the Selendang Ayu’s grounding. The Marine Exchange of Alaska has added more than 100 monitors to track boats 24 hours a day. Last year, the International Maritime Organization approved shipping bufferzonesin the Aleutians to keep vessels further from shore.

But Steiner says there’s still a lot to do. He wants better navigation aids, increased financial liability for shippers, and, most important, all-weather rescue tugs.


Credit Zoe Sobel/KUCB
Members of the Coast Guard secure the Emergency Towing System.

“Let’s say you get this portable tow package on the bow of a disabled tanker out at Shemya,” he said. “What then? You don’t have an adequate rescue tug of open ocean, powerful thrust and capability to actually hook it and render ‘a save’ in most scenarios.”

Steiner says the smaller, less busy Prince William Sound has 11 tugs. He’d be happy with three for the Aleutians and he wants to use the $5 billion Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to pay for them.

It’s impossible to eliminate all risk, but Steiner says preventative measures, like buying tugs, would be economical. Oil spills are expensive to clean up and not very effective.

Ed Page knows about the cost of oil spills firsthand. He spent 30 years in the Coast Guard, three of those cleaning up the Exxon Valdez spill.

“Three years, $2 billion, 10,000 people, picked up 10 percent,” Page said. “That’s not a very good return on investment. So you want to say it’s difficult, yeah, that’s almost an understatement. It’s almost an exercise in futility. You got to give it a shot. Picking up 10 percent is better than picking up nothing, but still, prevention is clearly the way to go. There’s no doubt.”

Cleaning up spills in the Aleutians or the Arctic would be even more costly.

Now Page heads up the Marine Exchange of Alaska which works to improve safety by monitoring the locations of vessels in Alaskan waters. He says the size of Alaska’s monitoring network is massive — 1.5 million square miles — larger than anywhere else in the world.

The statewide tracking system provides automatic alerts anytime a ship slows down or gets too close to shore.

But now Page says, larger vessels, some bigger than the Empire State Building, are traversing Alaskan waters. And he says, there are no boats powerful enough to save them.

“They’ve got 18,000 containers and they carry a tremendous amount of oil,” he said. “If you took the containers off the deck and lined them on the dock end-to-end, they would go 60 miles. If that vessel gets in trouble, there’s nobody who can give them a hand.”

The boats are too big to stop in Alaskan ports. Page says they’re only passing through, just like the Selendang Ayu.

The task of improving maritime safety is ongoing. Page says now they’re working on a new device — a parachute ship arrestor — that would work like a huge sea anchor to slow down and stabilize distressed vessels — providing more time for repairs or a rescue.

Zoë Sobel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2019. She returned to KUCB after a year living in Nepal and Malaysia as a Luce Scholar. She then returned to KUCB as a ProPublica reporter August of 2020 through August of 2021.