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Shipping disaster looms: Arctic needs better protections quickly

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Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2012 12:00 am

Community perspective

When the 738-foot Malaysian freighter Selendang Ayu grounded in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands eight years ago this month, it was a tragic reminder of the growing risks of northern shipping. While en route from Seattle to China, in a fierce Bering Sea storm, the ship’s engine failed. As it drifted toward shore, there were no adequate ocean tugs available to take it in tow, and it grounded off Unalaska Island on Dec. 8, 2004. Six crewmen were lost, the vessel broke in half, and its entire cargo and more than 335,000 gallons of heavy fuel spilled into waters of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The spill was not contained, and it killed thousands of seabirds and other wildlife, closed fisheries and contaminated many miles of shoreline. 

The Selendang tragedy was caused by a dangerous combination of human error, financial pressures, mechanical failure, lax government oversight and complacency. For a time, the disaster focused attention on the risk of northern shipping. But while some risk factors were addressed, complacency quickly returned. Today, the tragedy is all but forgotten, and, with increasing ship traffic, the risk of disaster is greater than ever.

Every day, some 10-20 large merchant ships — container ships, bulk carriers, car carriers, and tankers — travel the “great circle route” between Asia and North America along the 1,200-mile Aleutian chain. As trade rebounds from the recession, shipping along this route is steadily increasing. And as global warming continues to melt summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, ship traffic is rapidly increasing across the Arctic, too. This past summer, a record 46 merchant ships transited the northern sea route between Europe and Asia across the Russian Arctic, a 10-fold increase from just two years ago. More than 1 million tons of cargo was hauled on the route this year; most of this was hazardous petroleum product such as diesel fuel, jet fuel and gas condensate. And the first liquefied natural gas tanker in history traveled the route this year, carrying LNG from Norway to Japan. The volume of oil and gas shipped on the northern sea route is projected to reach 40 million tons annually by 2020. There is also increasing traffic of cruise ships, fishing vessels and ships servicing arctic oil and gas facilities and mines.

This is risky business. These are large vessels, carrying hazardous fuel and cargo, sailing treacherous seas along ecologically sensitive shorelines, with virtually no prevention or emergency response infrastructure along the way. Much of this traffic is foreign flagged and on “innocent passage,” with lower safety standards. And it all happens virtually out-of-sight and out-of-mind of the public and government regulators. Each of these ship transits puts at risk human life, economy and environment, and the risk is growing every year. Shipping brings with it invasive species introductions, underwater noise, ship strikes on marine mammals and stack emissions. But as some of these vessels carry millions of gallons of heavy fuel, and tankers carry tens of millions of gallons of petroleum or chemicals, clearly the greatest fear is a catastrophic spill.

In response to the Selendang disaster, a coalition of non-governmental organizations, Alaska Natives and commercial fishermen joined together in the Shipping Safety Partnership to advocate comprehensive safety improvements along the Aleutian and Arctic shipping routes. In 2005, the partnership called for real-time tracking of all ships, ocean rescue tugs, emergency tow packages, routing agreements, areas-to-be-avoided, increased financial liability, better aids-to-navigation, enhanced pilotage, mandatory communication protocols, better spill response equipment, increased cargo fees and vessel traffic risk assessments. A few of these, the “low-hanging fruit,” have been implemented — additional tracking stations have been built, portable tow packages are pre-staged in Dutch Harbor, there is more funding and spill response equipment, an Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment was conducted and an Aleutian risk assessment is underway.

But in overall shipping safety, the glass is still perhaps one-quarter full, three-quarters empty. The system is far from secure. For instance, ship-tracking remains inadequate, and still there are no powerful ocean rescue tugs stationed along the routes. By comparison, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Prince William Sound now has eleven escort and response tugs on standby for its tankers. In the Aleutians, a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report concluded: “None of the existing measures are adequate for responding to large vessels under severe weather conditions.”

Two areas of greatest concern, through which most of these ships travel, are Unimak Pass (in the eastern Aleutians) and the Bering Strait. As these areas support more marine mammals, seabirds, fish, crab and overall productivity than virtually any other ocean ecosystem in the world, the risk is clear. One wrong turn or loss of power of a loaded tanker or freighter in these passes could easily lead to a major spill disaster. Accordingly, both Unimak Pass and Bering Strait were recommended in 2009 for international designation as particularly sensitive sea areas and marine national monuments or sanctuaries, but the U.S. government has yet to act on this recommendation.

Clearly, we need to get a handle on this now, before the next disaster. All of the Shipping Safety Partnership’s recommendations from 2005 should immediately be implemented across the Aleutian and Arctic shipping routes, particularly continuous ship tracking and rescue tugs. Industry should pay for it all via cargo fees. And governments should make mandatory the International Maritime Organization’s Guidelines for Ships Operating in Polar Waters, enhance search and rescue capacity and establish regional citizens’ advisory councils to oversee all offshore commercial activities.

Arctic shipping is a disaster waiting to happen. It’s not if, but when and where the next disaster will occur. It could be tonight or years from now; it could be in Unimak Pass, Bering Strait, Novaya Zemlya, Baffin Island or Greenland. But it will happen. Arctic governments and the shipping industry need to get serious about reducing this risk as much as possible, and soon.

Rick Steiner was a marine conservation professor at the University of Alaska for 30 years and helped found the Shipping Safety Partnerhsip. He is now an environmental consultant with Oasis Earth, in Anchorage.

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