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SHIPPING: Demolition Derby at Sea

5 minute read

Another tanker alarm: one day last week the skipper of the Liberian-registered Harmonic, just arrived in New York harbor with a cargo of 25 million gal. of Libyan crude oil, put in an urgent call to the Coast Guard. Possibly the result of heavy storms encountered at sea, the ship had sprung a small leak, spilling about 300 gal. of oil into the waters of the harbor. That minispill was certainly the least of the tanker accidents that have occurred in U.S. waters since mid-December, but no one could say it would be the last. On Dec. 15, when the Liberian-registered Argo Merchant went aground off Nantucket Island, Mass., and dumped 7.3 million gal. of oil into the sea, no fewer than ten tanker accidents had hit the headlines, including five that involved major losses of oil.

Last week the focus of this continuing winter sea drama shifted to Washington. There both Massachusetts Senators, Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican Edward Brooke, sponsored legislation to deal with an environmental threat that Kennedy described as “absolutely devastating.” The record seemed to support that view. The latest incidents, suggesting a kind of seaborne demolition derby, were a grim finale to what has turned out to be the worst year ever for tanker accidents. Worldwide, 19 tankers sank, went aground or blew up in 1976—almost double the 1975 toll in tonnage. In the first nine months of last year alone, tankers spilled nearly 200,000 tons of oil in various mishaps.

Much of that spilling occurred in U.S. waters. One reason is that the East Coast and Gulf ports are shallow and cannot accommodate the biggest and most modern tankers. The result is that much of the U.S.’s oil imports are supplied by a motley collection of smaller tankers that are often old, ill-equipped and indifferently manned. The U.S.’s daily consumption of foreign oil equals the capacity of 35 Argo Merchant-size tankers. With so much tanker traffic —an average of 30,000 arrivals a year —accidents are inevitable. By the Coast Guard’s reckoning, in any given two-year period the U.S. can expect half a dozen serious oil spills and 86 tanker groundings, three-fourths of them in the shallow Gulf of Mexico.

Regulatory Ire. Kennedy’s bill is a 33-page proposal for a variety of safety measures, including double bottoms for new tankers as small as 20,000 tons and a satellite monitoring setup that would keep track of tankers and other ships up to 200 miles offshore. Brooke is pushing for similar legislation and argued that if such a system had been in existence in December the Argo Merchant could have been spotted—and warned.

Much of the regulatory ire is aimed at ships of foreign registry, which account for more than 95% of U.S. tanker traffic. The maritime union chiefs, who never pass up an opportunity to attack the foreign flagships—which have virtually taken over the American oil trade because high U.S. labor costs have all but priced U.S.-flag tankers out of the market—have been particularly vocal.

Marine Engineers Beneficial Association Leader Jesse Calhoon cited lax Liberian standards for licensing ship captains as one reason for all the tanker problems. In Liberia, he says—with considerable exaggeration—”you could be throwing coconuts out of a tree last week and be the master of a vessel this week.”

Indeed, many tanker accidents are the result of human error, and there is real reason for concern over the uneven experience and training of tanker captains and crews (see box). What to do? The usual complaint is that worldwide shipping is so diffuse that effective regulation is impossible. As Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Warren Magnuson put it last week: “I don’t see how you can have control when you have American-owned ships insured by the British, run by the Greeks, with Italian officers and a Chinese crew.”

In fact, there is ample regulatory machinery available—although Washington has been reluctant to use it. For various reasons, including bureaucratic lethargy, the U.S. has ratified only eight of 18 international conventions governing oil spills and the design and operation of tankers and other ships adopted by the London-based Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization. As for regulating foreign-flag vessels in U.S. waters, all the needed authority is included in the 1972 Ports and Waterways Safety Act. It gives the Coast Guard sweeping powers to set safety, equipment and crew-training standards for foreign vessels; the Coast Guard can inspect such vessels and order them away from U.S. ports if they judge them to be a safety problem.

The Coast Guard has made some cautious efforts to use its authority to set safety standards. Last month, for example, it ruled the new tankers of more than 70,000 deadweight tons would have to have segregated ballast systems—set up so that no oil is dumped when ballast tanks are emptied—to be admitted to U.S. ports. Still the Coast Guard concedes that it has followed “a gradualism type of approach” on matters of tanker safety, as Admiral Owen Siler, the Coast Guard commandant, put it in Senate Commerce committee hearings last week. Some maritime experts argue that the Coast Guard has reason to go slow on safety. They say that a tough approach would risk retaliation from other countries, who could make life difficult for U.S. ships in foreign ports by jacking up tugboat fees or other nuisance gestures. Says a Washington maritime lawyer: “The risk of retaliation is not a trivial one. It is always a dangerous risk to tighten procedures.” But increasingly, Washington will have to balance that risk against the rising public concern in the U.S. about the environmental hazard posed by the ever more numerous tankers plying U.S. waters.

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