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OPINION: From the Editor: Coast Guard needs to conduct thorough investigation, consider big picture

January 11th, 2013 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

Today, as the Shell drill rig Kulluk sits in Kiliuda Bay waiting for a full inspection, the U.S. Coast Guard announced it had ordered a formal marine casualty investigation into the circumstances and contributing factors involved in the grounding. Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Interior announced it would conduct an expedited review of the Shell Arctic drilling program.

That's good news, assuming that the agencies involved in the investigations are brave enough to examine this incident without looking over their shoulder. Just days ago, Rep Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.) challenged the Environmental Protection Agency for its action regarding the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. Issa wants the EPA to release documents regarding the intentions behind the assessment. Backed by other legislators, Issa said the watershed assessment strains the credibility of the EPA.

No public agency should be above criticism or critique, mind you, but there is a point where politicians need to get out of the way and let agencies do their job. That's what they were hired to do. But what do you think are the chances politics won't get in the way of the Coast Guard's review of the grounding?

Let's look at how things have played out so far. Reporters across the state have been frustrated with the flow of information from the conglomeration of state, federal and private industry which has been running the show at Kulluk Central. Many questions from reporters have been unanswered, and press conferences have been limited to the bare-bones scripts of what has occurred. At one point, a teleconference microphone was left open before a teleconference, and reporters on the line could hear the speakers rehearsing their comments. A question submitted to the Shell public information engine by publisher Jason Evans on the subject of vessel safety resulted in an almost comically off-base answer that neither answered nor even addressed the question. The impression all this gave was an atmosphere of "sit still and wait till we tell you what we want you to hear."

All this is expected more or less from industry, but not from the Coast Guard, which is charged with protecting the Nation's maritime interests. That is not in any way meant to diminish the courageous actions of the Coast Guard in regards to this incident, especially when it came to rescuing the crew of the Kulluk, as well as the first response to try to connect a tow line to the drifting rig after it lost its line with the Aiviq. Try to imagine the nerves of steel it must have taken to perform a helicopter rescue with the Kulluk weeble-wobbling down below you on 30-foot seas and with 40 knot winds. Incredible.

But it's too bad that the Coast Guard didn't feel more empowered to speak candidly to the people it serves over the last week. There is generally a very good relationship between the press and the Coast Guard, but that didn't come through during this incident, which leads some to wonder if the pressure of industry and those who support it are trumping those sworn to serve the public good. I hope not, but there are a few examples of times when it certainly seemed to be the case.

In 2006, a tanker grounded in Nikiski off the Kenai Peninsula in the middle of winter. An ice flow had pushed the Seabulk Pride away from the Tesoro refinery dock and the vessel grounded on the nearby Cook Inlet beach. Unlike Prince William Sound, where tankers are required to be escorted by tugs, the Cook Inlet has few such requirements. After the grounding, the Prince William Sound Citizens' Advisory Council opined that the Cook Inlet was long overdue for an escort system similar to theirs. Ice conditions in the Cook Inlet are often severe. But industry objected to that because of the cost.

"The industry offered similar arguments when citizens called for tug escorts in the early days of the oil trade in Prince William Sound," wrote the council's president, Stan Stephens, shortly after the tanker grounded. "That complacency was shattered when the Exxon Valdez spill and ensuing multi-billion-dollar cleanup made it clear that the real cost lies in being unprepared."

While the Coast Guard conducted a full investigation, it focused on a series of missteps by the ship's crew and chose not to take a wider-angle view of the situation and consider recommending more stringent requirements of the oil industry. Would the Inlet have been safer if they had? Yes. So why would they not? Because industry squawked, that's why.

In an opinion column just weeks before the grounding unfolded, Rick Steiner noted that with shipping traffic increasing, Alaska needs to wake up to the fact that large vessels need more regulation than is currently in place. For that to happen, Alaskans, politicians, and even industry need to show the Coast Guard that they support the agency's right to take a hard look at this situation and do everything it can to make sure that it isn't repeated.

This incident has incensed mariners from all sides of the political spectrum, including many who are pro-development. That says to me that this was a blatant disregard for Alaska waters and the dangers therein. If the Coast Guard focuses on the minutia instead of taking this opportunity to suggest new safeguards for shipping in Alaska's waters, it is missing the boat, so to speak, and doing a disservice to the people who live here. It's time to stand up and require industry to improve its safety requirements. After all, the real cost comes in being unprepared.


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