Arctic Alaska needs better safety plans

Map showing the Bering Strait. What is the future of shipping in the region? (iStock)
Map showing the Bering Strait. (iStock)
As the summer arctic shipping season gets underway, a member of a group that formed after the Selendang Ayu ran aground a decade ago, is calling for more rescue tugs, monitoring and risk management measures in the Bering Strait and Unimak Pass.

In letters to the Coast Guard, Rick Steiner with the Shipping Safety Partnership, says the money to address these concerns could come from the 3.5 billion-dollar Oil Spill Liability Trust fund the Coast Guard has.

“It’s used almost exclusively for spill response, but we all know spill response simply doesn’t work, so we’re arguing that this fund should be broken open and used to charter these rescue tug assets during the summer shipping season through the arctic and then they could relocate this tug to the Dutch Harbor, Unimak Pass area for the winter which is where the risk increases down there.” Steiner said.

‘U.S. can’t govern  Bering Strait’

The Coast Guard has no deepwater port north of Dutch Harbor, so it has to deploy its assets north seasonally. It has ramped up its presence there over the past three shipping seasons with a program called Arctic Shield. Before leaving for his new post in Washington DC, Seventeenth District Commander Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo visited Dutch Harbor with Senator Mark Begich. Ostebo said the Coast Guard is focused on the Bering Strait and northern sea route. Ostebo says response preparation is key but the U.S. can’t govern the Bering Strait.

“The Bering Strait is an international strait. Anybody who wants to can go through that. We don’t own it, we don’t control it, we don’t have a toll booth there, we don’t manage that. The northern sea route, also an international strait overseen very heavily by the Russians obviously, but what I like people to first realize is, we don’t control this, so all of this is going to happen whether we want to play or not and our involvement in this I think needs to be appropriate for the likely hood of a mishap.”

This is a very different Arctic presence for the Coast Guard than what Ed Page remembers from his thirty years of service

“When I was in the Coast Guard, the arctic was, we spent no time up there. It was totally off the radar screen.”

Monitoring the Arctic

Page now heads up the Marine Exchange, a Juneau based vessel tracking organization that has 95 real time monitoring stations in Alaska. Page says back in the day, there was none of that.

“And if you would have asked me where the ships were in the arctic or the Aleutian islands, I go, well, we’ll put a plane up tomorrow, we’ll look out the window and I’ll get back to ya. Today the Coast Guard can say, well, I got it on my iphone or ipad or my desktop, I can tell you exactly where the vessels are right now because, through international treaty, international maritime organization has required that all vessels, larger vessels, commercial vessels have this technology, transponders much like aircraft have.”

Page says the vessel’s name, speed, dimensions are displayed and are tracked. Vessels are now required to stay farther off shore. This allows more time to get help if they have engine problems, before they run aground. Page says if this system would have been in place when the Selendang Ayu had trouble a decade ago, they would have known immediately rather than 19 hours after the vessel lost engines, because it would automatically have triggered an alarm in the operations center.

Arctic vessel traffic relatively low

If the vessel doesn’t respond, the Marine Exchange notifies the Coast Guard. Page says he appreciates the concerns of Steiner and other environmentalists who want to protect the fragile arctic ecosystem but he says although arctic vessel traffic has increased in the last decade, its still relatively low compared to other shipping routes. He says if vessels had to pay a fee to support rescue assets, it would be high based on the few transits. He worries they may then decide to go to Canada and bypass Seattle, allowing them to transit Alaskan waters on innocent passage. Besides, He says, other coastal states wouldn’t want to use the Coast Guard’s spill response fund to bail out Alaska. His biggest concern is with enormous cargo vessels. Ships that are 1300 feet long, carry thousands of containers and have hundred thousand horsepower engines. If they have trouble in a storm, there’s no tug large enough that can help.

“Absolutely no tug. It’s gonna go wherever Mother Nature decides it wants to take that ship. That’s the concern I have. You just watch it unfold, because you can’t do anything about it, they’re so big.”

But Rick Steiner insists there’s still a lot more that can and should be done and he’s persisting in urging that the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund be reprogrammed to include prevention.

“The greatest missing link here is the political will to drive the risk as low as possible. I get the sense that the Coast Guard and the state of Alaska and the shipping industry are willing to roll the dice and hope for the best and just expect that this won’t happen on their watch. But what if it does?” Steiner said.

Whoever’s watch it may be, the system has been evolving, and will continue to. The Coast Guard hopes to have a voluntary vessel separation scheme in place through the Bering Strait before long, and while Congressional funding for more icebreakers may be nowhere in sight, other ice hardened vessels are being tried. Ed Page says the Coast Guard has not secured funding from Congress to build a vessel tracking network for Alaska, making the Marine Exchange’s monitoring program all the more critical for observing who is transiting the vast and remote waters of the arctic.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Shipping challenges in Canada’s North-West, Eye on the Arctic

Finland:  New Finland icebreaker can operate sideways with asymmetrical hull, Yle News

Norway:  Norwegian company looks to Alaska for Arctic shipping port, Alaska Dispatch

Russia: Hamburg & the Northern Sea Route, Blog by Mia Bennett

Sweden: Finnlines vessel runs aground in Sweden, Yle News

United States:  Alaska and Arctic Shipping: Boon or Boondoggle?, Blog by Mia Bennett

Lori Townsend, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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