NPR Story
5:21 pm
Thu July 31, 2014

5 Safety Concerns With Shipping Oil By Water

While many Northwest communities are focused on the safety risks of shipping crude oil by rail, a new report raises safety concerns about another shipping method: oil by water.

Across the country, more and more domestically produced oil is being shipped by barges and tankers as pipelines fill up to capacity. The report, by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, concludes: "This rather sudden shift in transportation patterns raises concerns about the safety and efficiency of oil tankers and barges."

At least two oil facilities in the Northwest are currently shipping crude oil by water. The Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes, Washington, receives oil in tankers from Alaska. The Global Partners oil terminal in Clatskanie, Oregon, receives crude oil from trains and transfers it to barges on the Columbia River. The Tesoro-Savage oil terminal, proposed for Vancouver, Washington, would also ship crude oil on the Columbia if it's approved.

Many of the issues flagged in the report, entitled "Shipping Oil By Water: Vessel Flag Requirements and Safety Issues," pertain to failings of the U.S. Coast Guard, the agency primarily in charge of preventing oil spills and accidents on water.

Here are five key issues it highlights:

A federal law called the Jones Act requires vessels shipping cargo between two U.S. points to be built in the U.S., crewed by U.S. citizens and at least 75 percent owned by U.S. citizens. Those restrictions make high-capacity ships carrying oil from one U.S. port to another more expensive to build and operate. In the end, that makes them a rare sight. According to the report, there are only 11 crude oil tankers in the U.S. that are Jones Act eligible. They're all used to carry crude oil from Alaska to the West Coast or Alaska refineries.

"The unavailability of U.S.-built tankers may result in more oil moving by costlier, and possibly less safe, rail transport than otherwise would be the case," the report concludes.

Barges are the next best thing to oil tanker ships when it comes to transporting oil by water. But barges used on rivers aren't held to the same safety standard as tanker ships – despite efforts by Congress to change that.

Congress directed the Coast Guard in 2004 to establish a barge safety inspection and certification regime similar to the one that exists for ships. The rules were supposed to include standards for the vessel structures and for the crew working on them. But a decade later, the rules still haven't been implemented.

As the report states: "Barges are the workhorses in moving Bakken and Texas oil by water. However, the Coast Guard has just begun establishing a safety inspection regime for barges."

The report does note, however, that the Coast Guard does inspect seagoing barges like the ones that are used at the Global Pacific oil terminal in Clatskanie.

The Coast Guard has proposed a rule that would set a limit on how many hours barge crew members could work. The agency says with crew members working the current schedule of six hours of work and six hours of rest, "sleep debt accumulates and gradually increases crew members' fatigue levels." The new rule would require a mandatory eight-hour rest period.

But operators have opposed that rule while maritime unions have supported it. Though it's been three years since the rule was proposed, the report notes, the Coast Guard hasn't finalized it.

The report makes it clear that Congress has been concerned with how slowly the Coast Guard has acted on its 2004 law requiring new barge safety regulations. In a 2010 authorization, Congress asked that all of the Coast Guard rules related to oil pollution prevention, including barge inspection, be finalized within 18 months. So, the deadline would have been April of 2012. That was more than two years ago, and the new rules still haven't been finalized.

The 2010 act also required the Coast Guard to add regulations to reduce the risk of oil spills in operations involving the transfer of oil to or from a tank vessel. The Coast Guard hasn't even proposed new regulations on that issue yet, according to the report.

Another concern for Congress, according to the report, is the Coast Guard's ability to oversee maritime safety. Federal authorities have noted repeat problems with rotating staff positions and inadequate reporting of marine accidents.

In response to questions from Congress in 2007, the Coast Guard acknowledged that its practice of rotating personnel was preventing staff from developing technical expertise in marine safety. The Coast Guard created more permanent positions, but four years later towing operators still complained about the "revolving door" of Coast Guard officials.

In a May 2013 audit, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General found serious flaws in the Coast Guard's investigations and reports of marine accidents. At 11 sites visited, the inspector general found 2/3 of the accident inspectors and investigators didn't meet the Coast Guard's own qualifications.

"The U.S. [Coast Guard] does not have adequate processes to investigate, take corrective actions, and enforce Federal regulations related to the reporting of marine accidents," the audit concluded. "As a result, the [Coast Guard] may be delayed in identifying the causes of accidents; initiating corrective actions; and providing the findings and lessons learned to mariners, the public and other government entities. These conditions may also delay the development of new standards, which could prevent future accidents."

While a national U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson wasn't immediately available to respond to the report, Lt. Cmdr. Ben Russell, chief of marine safety inspections for the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Columbia River, said his agency does a lot to prevent oil spills on the Columbia.

Russell said his team inspects crude oil barges once a year – both inside and out – and it also inspects the Global Partners terminal in Clatskanie. The Coast Guard randomly checks the operation in Clatskanie while it's transferring oil to vessels, and it has strict standards for the workers operating the barges, Russell said.

"We have a marine safety mission that is specifically catered toward prevention," he said. "The last thing we want, of course, is thousands of gallons of oil in the river, so we do everything we can to prevent that from happening."

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