Do articulated tug barges, each carrying millions of gallons of hydrocarbon fuels, pose a threat to our coast?
INGMAR LEE HAS A MISSION BORN OF SERIOUS WORRY. The long-time environmental activist has been trying to raise awareness about the “articulated tug barges” that transport various fossil fuels through the Inside Passage to Alaska.
From his home on Denny Island, near Bella Bella, Lee maintains a facebook page (10,000 Ton Tanker) where he posts regularly. It started a few years ago, he says, when he began noticing and then tracking (via www.marinetraffic.com) the tugboat Nathan E. Stewart and its two 300-ft 10,000-ton capacity petroleum-tanker barges which run directly past Bella Bella, and on through BC’s protected Inside Passage and Great Bear Rainforest.
These articulated tug barges (ATBs) are carrying various fuels for Alaskans—bunker oil, heating oil, gasoline, aviation fuel, diesel.
ATBs are twinned vessels—a tug designed to fit into a large notch built into the transom of a petroleum barge. The tug then steers from the stern of the barge instead of towing it. An extra wheel house is mounted on a tall pedestal to enable a view over the bow. Lee says this only provides limited direct forward visibility.
These ATBs, which can carry up to 14,000 tonnes of petroleum product, are allowed in what's referred to as the "voluntary exclusion zone," including the Inside Passage, which applies to loaded oil tankers servicing Alaska from Washington. (Transport Canada also prohibits tankers of over 40,000 tonnes deadweight from using the southern portion of the Inside Passage).
Lee points to the Exxon Valdez’s devastating spill of 35,000 tonnes, whose effects are still felt, as a comparison. “They are carrying one-quarter or more of the spill volume released by the Exxon Valdez and would utterly destroy this coast,” says Lee.
CEO Captain Kevin Obermeyer of the Pacific Pilotage Authority out of Vancouver explained in an email to Lee why the oil-carrying ATBs are given special treatment: “Tugs and barges as well as ATBs are seen differently from an Aframax tanker in that the tugs have additional redundancy with twin engines, twin propellers and often twin rudders compared to the single rudder, single engine and single propeller of the usual Aframax tankers visiting our coast. As a result, the tug and barge industry are treated differently due to the differing risk.”
But Lee argues the route through the Inside Passage poses significant dangers to coastal ecosystems. With its often rough seas and narrow, rocky passages, “this is an enormous oil disaster just waiting to happen,” says Lee.
In the wake of the oil spill in Vancouver’s English Bay, Lee’s concerns about spill response—in a far less accessible area—are understandable.
Lee points to a 2011 incident involving the Nathan E. Stewart and its barge, DBL 55, when they narrowly avoided catastrophe during a raging storm off Cape Fairweather, Alaska. The “incident report” of the US Coast Guard noted, “This is a potential spill.” The crew reported that a series of 30-foot seas had washed over the vessel, and water entered the engine’s air intakes. Power was lost in both engines. According to the Coast Guard report, “The tug has 45,000 gallons of diesel and 500 gallons of lube oil on board. The cargo on board the fuel barge is reported to be 2.2 million gallons of diesel fuel, 1028 gallons of aviation fuel and 700 gallons of other petroleum products.” The stricken ATB was eventually towed to safety by another tug. Harrowing video from the wheelhouse of the Nathan E. Stewart can be found online.
The Nathan E. Stewart is owned by the US-based Kirby Corporation. Kirby’s Pacific Division vessels trade from San Diego to Barrow, Alaska. “Other than a stop at Chevron’s Burnaby refinery, or Kinder Morgan’s Westridge,” says Lee, “they seem to have no stops in Canada.”
It is hard to pin down the precise number of petrochemical-laden barges traversing the Inland Passage each month. Matt Woodruff of Kirby Corporation declined to give numbers. Pacific Pilotage Authority’s Obermeyer surveyed the waiver holders and concluded “there is on average one ATB movement a week.” Lee estimates that the Nathan E. Stewart plies the route four times in a six-week period.
Kirby’s Woodruff did tell Focus, “Our present west coast fleet consists of barges ranging from around 35,000 barrels to around 100,000 barrels [14,000 tonnes] in capacity.” The company’s latest quarterly report lists 69 coastal tank barges and 73 tugboats, though many of these are used on other routes. The company, whose slogan is “Putting America’s Waterways to Work,” pioneered the use of deep notch articulated tug-barge units for oceangoing service. Woodruff told Focus that “All Kirby tank barges are double hull vessels.”
On March 30, 2015, Lee met with Pacific Pilotage’s Obermeyer in Vancouver. “I asked the Captain point blank to please close the loophole waivers which are allowing US tankers to ply back and forth up and down the sheltered water of the BC Inside Passage. In all other cases, tankers must enter and exit Canadian Pacific waters only through Juan de Fuca. Obermeyer said he was considering making it required to post a Canadian pilot on the bridge of such traffic, but as far as making the BC Inside Passage off limits to these 10,000-ton capacity tankers, he said I’d have to take that up with Transport Canada.”
Which Lee did. Yvette Myers of Transport Canada only assured him that, “Effective January 1, 2015, all oil tankers and barges must meet international standards for double hull construction under the Vessel Pollution and Dangerous Chemicals Regulations (the Regulations). I should also confirm these Regulations apply in full to the articulated tug barges you refer to in your correspondence.”
But even double hulls are not perfect. Lee points to an incident in March 2014 involving an ATB owned by the Kirby Corporation. The Miss Susan, after crashing into a bulk carrier in Galveston Bay, Texas, disgorged 820 tonnes of bunker oil into the bay, making it the largest oil spill in Galveston Bay in two decades. According to Galveston County’s Daily News: “The collision resulted in the spill of more than 168,000 gallons—or 4000 barrels—of heavy fuel oil into the bay. The oil found its way into Gulf of Mexico and washed up on beaches from Galveston to Matagorda County.” Lawsuits have been launched by commercial fishers affected by the spill.
Transport Canada’s Myers also noted that, “The Pacific Pilotage Authority has established compulsory pilotage areas to ensure that pilots with knowledge of the local area are onboard vessels when in sensitive or busy waterways.” But as Obermeyer admits, 26 waivers have been granted including some to the ATBs.
While these ATBs may not carry crude oil or dilbit, on which most recent concern around tankers has focused, Lee argues they still pose a huge risk to coastal ecosystems.
Some of the fuels carried on these tanker-barges are viewed as “non-persistent” (e.g. gasoline, aviation fuel and light diesel which dissipate rapidly through evaporation); others are viewed as persistent. The International Tanker Owners Federation states: “As a rule, persistent oils break up and dissipate more slowly in the marine environment and usually require a clean-up operation. Persistent oils include many[or] all crude oils, fuel oils, lubricating oils and heavier grades of marine diesel oil. These oils pose a potential threat to natural resources when released, in terms of impacts to wildlife, smothering of habitats, and oiling of amenity beaches.”
Though specific cargo lists of these ATBs are not made public, the US Coast Guard incident report regarding the Nathan E. Stewart’s misadventure showed it was carrying lube oil, one of the most persistent petroleum products, as well as diesel, which, depending on the grade, can be highly problematic.
The recent spill in English Bay was of highly toxic Bunker C fuel oil—an estimated 2800 litres (about 2 tonnes). Globs of the oil have been found on beaches 12 kilometres from the spill site. Obermeyer says a survey of the waiver-holding ATBs indicated “none of them carry bunker C. They only carry refined petroleum products.”
Lee fears the ATB traffic could be acting as a “placeholder” for the federal Conservative’s tanker plans for this coast. “By allowing these tankers it keeps the precedent alive that tankers are normal on this coast.” He’s also become disillusioned with both Transport Canada and the Pacific Pilot Authority, seeing them as apologists for the barge-tanker traffic.
In a new video produced by PacificWild’s Ian McCallister, Lee suggests, “There is a very simple solution to this. Kirby is taking the cheap way out to use the Inside Passage…these fuel deliveries need to travel offshore with a tanker. We need to get these tankers out of the British Columbia Inside Passage, offshore like all the rest of the tankers.”
Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus Magazine.