More Oil On The Waters

From the radio room five decks above, the blast felt like "sort of a bump . . . a vibration," the captain later recalled. Then the room went dark and the corridor outside began to fill with smoke. "I looked forward and saw bright flames coming from the pump room top. Flames were licking up right over the bridge." The captain, C. M. Mahidhara, ran to his quarters, where his wife and two children were asleep. "Get out! Get out!" he screamed. Mahidhara radioed a nearby workboat to stand by for rescue. Thirty-seven people--including the captain's family--were taken off the oil tanker Mega Borg that night. The bodies of two crewmen were found near the wreckage of the pump-room hatch cover, which had been blown more than 100 yards along the deck. Two other crewmen were presumed to have died in the weeklong fire that reduced the 886-foot ship to a smoldering hulk--a disaster that demonstrated again that the transportation of large quantities of oil remains one of the riskiest enterprises on the face of the sea.

Ironically, the fire helped minimize the ecological damage from one of the largest tanker spills in American coastal waters. In the first days after the explosion, officials feared that the tanker might break apart and sink, unleashing its entire 38 million-gallon cargo on the Gulf of Mexico--more than three times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez spilled in Alaska last year. At the weekend, as salvage companies gingerly began preparing to siphon the remaining oil from the ruptured Number Four Center tank, more than 4.5 million gallons of light Angola crude had been lost. But as the oil hit the sea it turned into a floating inferno, sending thick black plumes twisting into the skies and crackling with a sound like rain on a thousand barbecue grills. Barring a new accident or severe weather, it appeared that only a small fraction would escape to threaten the Texas beaches 60 miles away--and the estuaries behind them, rich with marine and bird life.

The explosion on the Norwegian-flag Mega Borg occurred only a day or so after a British tanker, the 811-foot BT Nautilus, ran aground in New York Harbor, spilling an estimated 260,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil. Together, the accidents revealed that the frenzy of hearings, lawsuits and studies after the Exxon Valdez disaster had not resulted in any comprehensive plans for preventing, cleaning up or paying for major offshore oil spills. As tarry clumps of oil began washing up on the beaches of New York and New Jersey, authorities obtained an "arrest warrant" for the BT Nautilus, essentially holding it hostage (at a terminal in Bayonne, N.J.) against the cost of the cleanup. As it happened, the owners of the Mega Borg acted responsibly, hiring the world's largest salvage company, Smit International Group of Rotterdam to fight the fire. The French company that actually owned the cargo, Elf Aquitaine, took responsibility for the cleanup, which was in the hands of O'Brien's Oil Pollution Service of New Orleans, otherwise known as OOPS, Inc. But in such an accident, outside territorial waters, it is not clear what the recourse would have been if the companies had left the spill in the hands of God.

In the wake of the Valdez grounding and its Keystone Kops aftermath, the American oil industry announced that it would establish five "response centers" around the country to contain future tanker spills. So far, the "Petroleum Industry Response Organization" exists only on paper. Its director, retired Coast Guard Adm. John Costello, said last week that the industry was waiting to see what legislation emerged from Congress. An oil-spill bill has passed the House and Senate in different versions (box), but target dates for a compromise have come and gone. Last week legislators said they hoped that the Mega Borg spill would speed the process along.

Two-day delay But as an object lesson in the need for legislation, the Mega Borg spill hardly matched the Valdez affair. This time, most of the participants acquitted themselves adequately, and even the weather cooperated. The cause of the pump-room explosion was undetermined last week, although it occurred while the ship was offloading a portion of its cargo to a smaller tanker--a common practice to reduce a super tanker's draft. At a hearing in Galveston, conducted by the Norwegian government, the Mega Borg's chief engineer reported that a pump gauge had been leaking oil a few hours before the blast. But he added that the leak was not an uncommon event and had been repaired quickly.

Fireboats were on the scene within hours and began dousing the blazing ship with seawater. There was some criticism when Smit sent to Holland for special nozzles to spray firefighting foam instead of using equipment available in Texas. But in the end the two-day delay may not have mattered; it took longer than that to cool the ship enough to utilize foam. (The danger is that the foam will degrade and the oil may reignite on contact with the hot metal.) Skimmers were rushed to the site and by the end of the week a dozen were sopping up the milelong slick that trailed the disabled vessel. Crews also began spraying the slick with a mixture of naturally occurring bacteria capable-- in theory, at least--of metabolizing hydrocarbons into harmless fatty acids. "This is by far the best pollution response I have ever seen," said Coast Guard spokesman Todd Nelson, who was also present at the Exxon Valdez site. "We had skimmers and dispersants in place before they were even needed."

Yet for all the burning and skimming and dispersing and metabolizing, there was still oil on the water last week, and no assurances about where it might end up. Early in the week, patches of oil had been heading, with petroleum's unerring instinct for wildlife sanctuaries, toward the whooping crane's wintering grounds near Corpus Christi. But winds then began pushing the 30-mile-long slick--mostly a thin sheen, but with a frothy "mousse" on its leading edge--toward the more developed coast of Galveston Island, where beach bags often contain a bottle of nail-polish remover to cleanse the soles of tar balls. (According to the Sierra Club, though, the globs are often the product of natural oil seeps.) While officials made plans to defend the coast with containment booms, they could take satisfaction in a job well done--and take heed of the disaster that thus far, at least, appeared to have been averted.

Congress is moving toward passage of an oil-spill law witht the following provisions:

Liability limits A cap on how much companies could be forced to pay--probably around $1,000 per ton (279 gallons) of oil spilled.

Double hulls Will be required for new tankers; retrofitting existing ships is a possibility.

Third-party liability The oil industry wants liability protection for its proposed "response centers."