Another crew member, not another tug

As reported in yesterday's Cape Cod Times - " A federal judge has gutted the state's landmark Oil Spill Prevention Act, striking down regulations on oil shipping in Buzzards Bay that included mandatory tug escorts and navigational routes as well as minimum staffing."

US District Court Judge Joseph l. Tauro is quoted as saying that provisions of the Oil Spill Act passed by the Legislature in 2004 "are pre-empted, invalid and unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution."

Jurisdictional issues aside -- and several months this year were consumed by this issue as it pertains to Cape Wind -- Tauro's ruling did not surprise me because of a specific aspect of the Oil Spill Act: the mandate for tug escorts (the photo I took shows a tug accompanying another tug and barge in the Cape Cod Canal last winter).

Problem is, getting crews for those tugs is tougher than it sounds, and each needs at least two crew members (the number on board the tug hauling the Bouchard barge that spilled 98,000 gallons of oil in Buzzards Bay three years ago).

Within the last year, Bouchard was cited for failing to comply with this mandate and claimed it was unable to obtain the second tug.

But the benefit from this provision can be obtained not by mandating the presence of a second tug and its crew, but by placing a pilot or third crew member on the tug pushing or towing the barge.

The provision was included in the legislation after it was found that first mate of the tug hauling the Bouchard barge was not at the helm at the time of the accident.  Much the same thing occurred when the tanker Argo Merchant ran aground on Nantucket Shoals in December 1976, spilling more than 7 million gallons of home heating oil in the region's worst-ever oil spill.

It's been almost 30 years since, but as I recall the Argo Merchant was later determined not to have a crew member at the helm when it ran aground, and was running on auto-pilot instead.

The first mate of the tug hauling the Bouchard barge was later convicted of criminal charges while Bouchard was fined $10 million, the second-highest penalty for an oil spill in US waters.

The largest fine? To Exxon Corp. for $25 million after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989. The captain of the Exxon Valdez, Joseph Hazelton, was intoxicated when his ship struck a reef.

Notice a pattern?

Given my druthers, I'd want a third crew member on tugs regardless of the cargo they are hauling. With only one man or woman at the helm and a second crew member in the engine room, it is a matter of time before a person on the bridge suffers a heart attack and the vessels run aground, collide with a ship, or most worrisome of all, hit one of three bridges spanning the canal, two of which are often clogged with traffic.

The presence of a second tug is problematic in other ways: it's one more thing the person at the helm of the first tug has to worry about not hitting, and neither vessel is likely to be fueled by solar power or some other non-polluting renewable. Putting more oil-hungry, emissions-spewing tugs than needed in our coastal waterways isn't making them any cleaner.

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