Seabulk Tankers, Tesoro Alaska settle claims over Cook Inlet grounding

Tesoro Alaska and Seabulk Tankers will pay about $430,000 to settle claims stemming from a 2006 grounding and gasoline spill in Cook Inlet, the Alaska attorney general’s office has announced.

The 46,000-dwt tanker Seabulk Pride was carrying nearly 5 million gallons of petroleum products when flowing ice caused it to break away from a Nikiski dock as it was being loaded. Snapped cargo lines resulted in a spill of 84 gallons of gasoline onto the ship’s deck and into Cook Inlet. The ship then grounded on a nearby beach. The hull was damaged, but cargo tanks were not breached.

“To operate tankers in state waters, and to load or unload oil, a vessel has to have an oil spill contingency plan, said Breck Tostevin, senior assistant attorney general for Alaska. “In this case in Cook Inlet, Tesoro Alaska had a contingency plan approved by (the Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC) and Seabulk was operating under the terms of that contingency plan.â€

The lion’s share of the settlement, $360,000, is an assessment of what Seabulk saved by not complying with crew readiness provisions in that plan. Other components include an oil spill civil assessment of $5,000, and $64,870 in reimbursement for the state response and investigation. Tesoro also agreed to produce a training video costing at least $35,000.

“The state brought the case because it was concerned about the violation of the pollution prevention requirements,†Tostevin said, “and obviously, if a tanker goes aground, it threatens a larger spill.â€

The Feb. 2, 2006, incident began when fast-moving ice enveloped the ship, forcing it away from the dock. Tesoro said engines were operational, but the crew could not control the tanker in the onrushing tide. But the state said broken mooring lines fouled the propeller, preventing the crew from starting the engine. It also claimed there was no captain on the bridge, the engine room was unmanned and operations were not in a state of immediate readiness.

In a report made public by the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, Tesoro said the incident was due in part to a hand-spliced line weakened by repeated dockings and a ship’s line showing signs of wear.

In late 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard tightened ice rules for the region, requiring moored vessels to maintain propulsion systems on “immediate standby†during severe ice conditions. The following January, Seabulk Pride nearly separated from its moorings a second time when thick ice broke a mooring line at the same dock. The crew was able to maintain control of the remaining lines using winches.

After the second incident, Tesoro Alaska chartered a 5,500-hp tug from Crowley Maritime through the winter at the Nikiski dock.

Under the settlement, “neither Seabulk nor Tesoro Alaska admitted liability, nor that they violated the oil spill contingency rules,†said Tostevin. “The DEC did an investigation and found that they did.â€

Bob Shavelson, executive director of the advocacy group Cook Inletkeeper, said a 1993 study of oil spill contingency plans found that not using support tugs at the Nikiski dock was “an unacceptable risk.â€

“From ’93 to 2007, (Tesoro Alaska) avoided the cost of a tug,†Shavelson said. “To see a fine just over $400,000 and no liability — they can absorb that as the cost of doing business, as a slap on the wrist, and move on.â€

Florida-based Seabulk Tankers, a subsidiary of Seacor Holdings, did not return calls requesting comment.

Chris Bernard

By Professional Mariner Staff