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Troubled waters: despite a wake up call named Exxon Valdez, oil tankers continue to foul the world's waterways.

Moonstone moonstone, an orthoclase feldspar, found in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Madagascar (and formerly in the St. Gotthard district of Switzerland). In spite of its pronounced cleavage, it is widely used as a gem.  Beach in Rhode Island Rhode Island, island, United States
Rhode Island, island, 15 mi (24 km) long and 5 mi (8 km) wide, S R.I., at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. It is the largest island in the state, with steep cliffs and excellent beaches.
 was once an environmental success story. Despite the state's abundant coastal development, the protected mix of sandy beach and saltwater ponds attracted striped bass striped bass

 and bluefish bluefish, voracious marine fish of the family Pomatomidae, resembling the pompano but more closely related to the sea basses. Bluefish are found in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Atlantic. They average 30 in.  in the summer, and northern seabirds in the winter, serving as a nesting site for endangered roseate and least terns. Because it also hosts the critically challenged piping plover plover (plŭv`ər), common name for some members of the large family Charadriidae, shore birds, small to medium in size, found in ice-free lands all over the world. , the beach has long been off-limits to humans during breeding season.

Last January, Moonstone Beach was awash not with nesting seabirds but with oil. A tugboat tugboat, small, strongly built vessel, used to guide large oceangoing ships into and out of port and to tow barges, dredging and salvage equipment, and disabled vessels.  fire on Block Island Sound Block Island Sound is a strait in the open Atlantic, approximately 10 miles (16 km) wide, separating Block Island from the coast of Rhode Island in the United States.  forced the abandonment of a single-hulled barge carrying four million gallons of diesel oil. The next morning, the beach was littered with thousands of dead lobsters and struggling, grease-coated birds.

More than 100 fouled birds were rescued, but fewer than 20 survived. And of the 828,000 gallons of oil spilled, a mere 16 percent, or 129,000 gallons, were recovered. Oil recovery experts say that's not bad - most cleanups not just a little more than half of that. A gloomy oil spill assessment report prepared for Greenpeace in 1991 concludes, "The world needs to understand that large oil spills have never been cleaned up to any significant extent, and they are unlikely ever to be cleaned up." Steve Kretzmann, a Greenpeace energy campaigner, believes that some marginal improvements can be made in oil recovery with new technology, but adds, "The issue isn't how do we prevent oil spills; rather, how do we get away from using oil?"

The cleanup failure is not widely understood. "Part of the public disappointment stems from an expectation that science can handle everything," says Fred Massie of Save the Bay, a Rhode Island environmental group that marshaled 1,000 volunteers to aid the Block Island Sound cleanup. "Some people think that nature and disasters are controllable with our current technology - but they're not."

In fact, since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, much oil has been spilled by a supposedly reformed oil tanker industry. In 1992, a tanker struck rocks off a Spanish fishing port. Foul weather made cleanup impossible, and the oil was set ablaze. A month later, another tanker spilled 21 million gallons of crude off the Shetland Islands. The resulting slick was caught up in a hurricane, dispersing it widely.

Just a month after the January 1996 Rhode Island spill, the supertanker su·per·tank·er  
A very large ship, usually between 100,000 and 400,000 displacement tons, used for transporting oil and other liquids in large quantities.
 Sea Empress grounded near the coast of Wales Wales, Welsh Cymru, western peninsula and political division (principality) of Great Britain (1991 pop. 2,798,200), 8,016 sq mi (20,761 sq km), west of England; politically united with England since 1536. The capital is Cardiff. , spilling more than 20 million gallons of oil into the Celtic Sea. And in March, a barge broke up in Texas' Galveston Bay, gushing gush  
v. gushed, gush·ing, gush·es

1. To flow forth suddenly in great volume: water gushing from a hydrant.

 a two-mile ribbon of oil from its 714,000-gallon contents.

The Rhode Island spill may have been partly caused by negligence and poor design (a vital fire-suppression switch was located near the fire-prone engine room) that should have been caught in a routine inspection - if tugs were inspected. Unfortunately, says the Coast Guard's Lieutenant Tim Pavilonis, tugs are governed by minimal safety standards, leaving them with less regulation than sportfishing sport·fish·ing  
The sport of catching fish using a rod and reel.

Noun 1. sportfishing - the act of someone who fishes as a diversion

field sport, outdoor sport - a sport that is played outdoors
 charter boats. "The bottom line is that they have a strong lobby," says Pavilonis.

That lobby is now engaged in fighting a pair of bills introduced by two Rhode Island Democrats, Patrick Kennedy and Jack Reed. H.R. 2916 and H.R. 3014 would stiffen stiff·en  
tr. & intr.v. stiff·ened, stiff·en·ing, stiff·ens
To make or become stiff or stiffer.

 tugboat regulation, require more effective fire-prevention equipment and increase operator licensing requirements. "It's frightening that more stringent regulations haven't been in place in the past," Kennedy says.

Even the barge industry admits that there's a problem. Jack Morgan, director of public affairs for American Waterways Operators, says, "We feel barge safety overall is improving, but we'd like to see all relevant parties working together to preserve the waterways."

The Oil Protection Act of 1990 passed in the wake of the Valdez spill, was supposed to have cleaned up the industry's act and regulated supertankers. Instead, critics say that the law - which requires the oil industry to pay spill damage costs for supertankers - has had unintended results. Instead of cleaning up the tankers, many of the oil carriers shifted their operations to the lightly-regulated tugboat/barge combinations - with sometimes disastrous results. In addition, says the Natural Resources Defense Council The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a New York City-based, non-profit non-partisan international environmental advocacy group, with offices in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Beijing. Founded in 1970, NRDC today has 1.  (NRDC NRDC Natural Resources Defense Council
NRDC National Research and Development Centre (Institute of Education, London)
NRDC National Realty & Development Corp.
), the Act's "key prevention and response measures have not been implemented or have been watered down... As a result, the public still faces serious risks of oil spills."

Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups that includes NRDC, the American Oceans Campaign and Friends of the Earth is charging that the Coast Guard's proposed rules for reducing oil spills from single-hulled barges and tankers are inadequate. "The proposals amount to little more than minor changes to current industry practice," the groups wrote in a joint statement.

The coalition notes that more than 90 percent of the oil entering U.S. ports is carried in dangerous single-hulled tankers, and that even by the year 2005 only 25 percent of the tanker fleet will be of the safer double-hulled type. The danger of spills from these tankers, says NRDC in a report entitled Safety at Bay, is increasing because many operating vessels have structural deficiences (including "paper-thin plating, missing vents and hatches...and unsatisfactory repairs") and cruise in heavily trafficked waters.

Ironically, although oil spills from tankers and barges attract the most public attention, they are not the largest source of spilled petroleum in the world's oceans. According to Greenpeace's report, more than double the tonnage of oil in the water comes from municipal and industrial waste runoff. Tanker accidents, the report says, account for only six percent of the oil routinely dumped into the marine environment. Safer tankers, then, will hardly solve the problem. As Greenpeace concludes, "The world will not be fueled by oil forever, and the sooner we develop these other approaches to energy use, the less harm will be done by careless use of oil."

CONTACT: Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 West 20th Street, New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
, NY 10071/(212)727-2700; Greenpeace, 1436 U Street NW, Washington, DC 20009/(202)319-2542.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Earth Action Network, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Chivers, C.J.
Date:May 1, 1996
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