Human Error Redux

We closed out 2009 with another stunning reminder that human error still poses a major risk for oil spills and other environmentally significant accidents: a high-tech escort tug, the Pathfinder, hit the very same well-mapped reef in Prince William Sound that the Exxon Valdez ran up against twenty years ago. Unlike the earlier tanker accident, which spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil and crippled some Alaska fisheries and communities, this one only resulted in a minor spill of 100 gallons or so of fuel oil. But this latest accident is disturbing because the Pathfinder’s job is to escort laden oil tankers safely through these ecologically important Alaskan waters.

If the safety escort hits a notorious reef, then just how safe is this operation? As noted in this December 30 article in the Alaska Dispatch:

None of the fancy technology aboard the 136-foot tug Pathfinder — not the satellite positioning system, not the radar, not the depth finder capable of sounding depth warnings — prevented a Dec. 23 collision with Bligh Reef, and Alaskans monitoring oil tanker safety in Prince William Sound say that ought to serve as a warning for everyone concerned about the northern environment.

Even the Coast Guard seems to have been asleep at the wheel:

Not only did the navigation systems aboard the tug somehow fail to alert the crew to danger, Jones said, so did the Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Center in Valdez, which is supposed to track tankers and tugs using the shipping lane into and out of Valdez. The center has radar watching the Sound, and the tankers and tugs are supposed to carry “position and identification reporting equipment” to enable the traffic center to track them in much the way air-traffic controllers follow the movement of airplanes fitted with transponders. And yet the Pathfinder somehow strayed off course even farther than the Exxon Valdez. The latter struck bottom in about 35 feet of water. The former had to get so close to the center of the reef that its keel hit the rocks in 17 feet.

So how can this kind of problem continue to happen?

“It’s strictly human error,” Stephens said, “being where you’re not supposed to be. It’s usually human error. There are lessons to be learned from this. The more eyes the better.”

That’s a problem that’s particularly relevant for offshore oil production and transportation, because, as we’ve seen so recently with the Montara blowout and spill off Australia, the consequences can be severe. One final thought from Alaska:

the money spent on prevention could save a fortune on potential clean-up costs later. Prevention of an oil spill…is better than any possible clean-up effort.