Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Exxon Valdez is Grounded, Again, For Good

The Exxon Valdez was a nondescript supertanker on the Valdez-California oil run, when it ran aground on Bligh Reef (aptly named for Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty) on March 24, 1989.

The tanker was delivered to Exxon in December 1986 by the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego. The Exxon Valdez was destined for an uneventful life except for the environmental disaster, in which at least 11 million gallons of oil poured into Prince William Sound. Some contamination and ecological damage still exists in the Sound.

Congress responded by enacting the Oil Spill Act of 1990, and by banning the Exxon Valdez from Prince William Sound. The statute mandated emergency response planning. As shown by the 2010 BP Gulf blowout  statutory regimes do not always work in real time.

The Act also mandated the change to twin hull tankers. The theory is if a tanker runs aground, and the outer hull is pierced, the inner hull might survive, preventing a calamitous spill like the Exxon Valdez.

Congress was told in enacting the Alaskan Pipeline, which facilitated the transshipment port in Valdez, Alaska, that the tankers would be double-hulled. The Coast Guard, which has jurisdiction over vessel design, never mandated double hulls.

The oil companies did not order double hull tankers because it would raise the cost of the ships. Reports were also that Exxon progressively cut the crew size of the tankers to save money. If so, Exxon certainly paid for that short-sided penny pinching, bean counting.

Exxon, in addition to paying billions to expiate its sin and salvage its investment, attempted to salvage good will, first by spending an additional $30 million to repair the ship, and then by changing its name – several times; first to Exxon Mediterranean, but that still had the Exxon name, so that had to go. Then it became the SeaRiver Mediterranean, and then the S/R Mediterranean, followed by the Mediterranean.

Exxon finally sold the ship. It became the Dong Fang Ocean in 2008. The Dong Fang was converted to a iron ore carrier. As a single hull tanker, it was now barred from Europe as well as the Alaska trade.

The bad karma of the Exxon Valdez/Dong Fang continued. It collided in the South China Sea with the Aali, a cargo ship, on November 29, 2010. Both ships were severely damaged.

Its fate was sealed. It was sold for scrap for $16 million, destined for Alang on the Gujarat coast of India. Scratch that; it’s not being scrapped – it will be recycled.

No name change, not even to the Oriental Nicety, could save the Exxon Valdez now.

The six mile Alang beach may have once been a beautiful, pristine beach, but it is now the graveyard where ships go to die. Up to 100 ships line the beach at a time. Roughly 6,000 have been scrapped at Alang since 1983.

Alang has a 38’ tidal lift which allows ships to self-beach. No dry docks are needed.
Once beached, hundreds of workers scurry aboard.. Like army ants, vultures and hyenas, no carcass is left when they finish.  No emotion exists, no ceremony s held. It’s purely business, and time is money. It is as though the once mighty ship, which could defy the worst nature could throw at it in the seven seas, never existed.

The moves, videos, books, photos, and articles, especially from National Geographic, picture the Aland Beach as a Hell Hole on earth, reminiscent of the worse of the industrial revolution. The workers rarely wear protective equipment to protect themselves against the toxic chemicals, mercury, arsenic, and asbestos to which they are exposed.

The Exxon Valdez had a slight reprieve. Environmentalists in India sued to block the beaching. The India Supreme Court, which otherwise has a good record in protecting the environment, ruled for the salvagers on July 30, 2012. 

Alang is too vital to the Indian economy. The recycled ships supply about 8% of India’s annual steel demand. The once Exxon Valdez has about 140,000 metric tons of steel.

As I write this blog, the Exxon Valdez is being hacked to pieces to reappear as Tata, Suzukis, and Mahindras.

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