- The Washington Times - Friday, December 25, 2009

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A tugboat put in service to help prevent another oil spill disaster in Prince William Sound ran aground on the same reef as the Exxon Valdez 20 years ago in what remains the nation’s worst oil spill.

The Coast Guard said Thursday that the 136-foot tug with six crew aboard had just completed an ice survey and was heading back to port in Valdez when it grounded on Bligh Reef. The tug reported the grounding in a radio call at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday.

Two of the tug’s fuel tanks were damaged. The tanks contain an estimated 33,500 gallons of diesel fuel, about a quarter of their total capacity.

The Coast Guard said Thursday that there was a fuel sheen about 3 miles long and 30 yards wide that had drifted away from the vessel. There was no sheen visible around the tug.

An oil response vessel had arrived and was skimming the water near the diesel sheen on Thursday afternoon.

Chief Petty Officer Dana Warr said some amount of fuel remained in the tug’s two tanks, but the amount of remaining fuel was not known. A barge was being brought to the scene to prepare off-loading the fuel.

Lt. Erin Christensen said the process of removing fuel from the tanks would begin Thursday night and was expected to take about eight hours. She said an estimate on how much fuel was spilled would have to wait until the remaining diesel was off-loaded.

Coast Guard Petty Office Jon-Paul Rios said the tug’s crew deployed 200 feet of fuel containment booms around the vessel after clearing the reef and continuing to deeper waters.

The crew and Coast Guard acted quickly, he said.

“We jumped on this pretty fast due to the Exxon-Valdez and the training we got from that,” he said.

A dive team conducting a hull inspection found extensive damage to the Crowley Marine Services tug. A 4-to-5 foot section of the keel also was missing. A sheen of fuel was visible on the water, Rios said.

The tug, called the Pathfinder, is part of the Ship Escort Response Vessel System — the system that was put in place following the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster when the 987-foot tanker ran aground on the same reef and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.

The SERVS system provides two escort tugboats for each tanker traveling through the sound after leaving the Valdez Marine Terminal with North Slope crude delivered through the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Two tankers scheduled to depart the marine terminal were delayed while response vessels dealt with Wednesday night’s accident, the Coast Guard said.

One tanker was on its way and the other was soon to be, said Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. spokeswoman Michelle Egan, when questioned about the delays late Thursday morning.

“We are assisting in the response,” she said.

Rios said while any spill is concerning, the grounding of the tug is very different from the Exxon Valdez accident in which an enormous amount of black crude oil spilled into Prince William Sound.

The tug is carrying diesel fuel, a much lighter fuel that will evaporate in time, Rios said. The Coast Guard estimates that for a small spill of between 500 and 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel it takes a day or less to evaporate. This spill will take somewhat longer, but will evaporate, he said.

The tug boat’s six crews members were tested for alcohol use. The tests were negative.

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