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Flotilla Poised For Action In Case Of Oil Spills

Floating `vacuum cleaners' guard US coasts, following federal mandate

THE communications center on board the 208-foot-long Maine Responder now sits idle and unused. The oil industry and 250 million Americans want to keep it that way.

If a major oil spill like the black gush of 11 million gallons that poured from the Exxon Valdez's cracked hull in Alaska's Prince William Sound should ever hit the coastline of the continental United States anywhere from New York to Maine, suddenly this tiny satellite communication center becomes critical. It would coordinate the cleanup effort.

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``One of the problems in a crisis is to get everyone talking together,'' says Jennifer Lyons, spokeswoman for the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC), as she stands in the room full of silent monitors, keyboards, and phones.

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The act said that if oil companies, shippers, and others connected with the petroleum industry wanted to continue to operate they had to have approved oil-spill response plans, with teams ready to carry them out.

MSRC was born, a billion-dollar not-for-profit corporation. In essence, it is a collection of sea-going, giant containment booms and ``vacuum cleaners'' designed and funded by some 65 petroleum industry companies.

MSRC has established five regional centers along the US coastline (including the Hawaiian Islands and Puerto Rico) where the highest volumes of oil are shipped. The centers are Edison, N.J.; Miami; Lake Charles, La.; Port Hueneme, Calif.; and Edmonds/Everett, Wash. Each center commands a fleet of ships, stationed at various coastal locations.

The 16 specially designed response ships, costing $12 million each and all exactly like the Maine Responder, stand by around the clock. The crews are obligated to be under way within two hours of notification of a spill in their region. Should the unthinkable occur, the US Coast Guard becomes the lead authority overseeing how MSRC does its job.

At the heart of the MSRC cleanup technology is the ship's capacity to remove the spilled oil from the water. But the organization says it has some 30 research-and-development projects also under contract, such as an aerial dispersant study and an oil-burning study.

During an oil-less demonstration in Boston Harbor recently, the Maine Responder's captain, Mike Monroe, said, ``I don't believe you can cover every possible contingency or condition, but we are geared up with enough flexibility to do the best we can.''

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After launching a 32-foot-long support boat off the stern of the Maine Responder, the bigger ship unfurls and deploys long rubber containment booms pulled by the smaller ship. In 660-foot lengths, the booms can encircle or contain the oil in an area even when seas are eight to 10 feet high.

``When the waves are over six feet,'' says Gretchen McCloud, the lead responder on deck, ``things would get really dicey.'' The boom, partially inflated, protrudes above the waterline. The ``skirt'' below is 44 inches deep with a chain attached along the bottom for ballast and tension.

WITH the boom in place, the Maine Responder lowers a powerful skimmer known as the Transrec 350 Oil Recovery System (developed in Norway) into the water. A pod-like floating ``vacuum cleaner'' capable of pulling 2,200 barrels of oil out of the water per hour, the skimmer separates the oil and water.

The skimmer is attached to the ship by an umbilical hose and cable and can either be radio-controlled or controlled from the deck as it is deployed into the oil-saturated area. Floating in the glop, it ``vacuums'' the oil off the surface and sends it either into the ship's 4,000-barrel oil-recovery tanks or to a barge positioned alongside the Maine Responder.

Each of the MSRC ships has 96 different kinds of skimmers. As backup, each ship has a warehouse full of ``ready-to-go'' equipment. MSRC is also capable of operating in water depths of six feet or less, but its main responsibility is to respond to large spills.

``A cleanup doesn't happen quickly,'' says Larry Roe, the section leader of the prestaging area in Portland, Maine. ``It takes a while to put all this in place, and of course, the oil doesn't know any boundaries once it's loose.''

In stormy weather with pitching seas, it is virtually impossible to contain a spill because of the danger to personnel and equipment. None of the technology available today can remove all oil in a spill or from a shoreline.

MSRC had its first test in January this year when a grounded barge leaked some 750 million gallons of diesel oil near Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Because equipment was stockpiled in San Juan, MSRC was able to contain the spill with booms. Jim Howe, a Coast Guard spokesman there said at the time, ``Within hours, not days, we had equipment and people in place to help contain the spill.''

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 provides for penalties and liabilities aimed at companies that spill. Because MSRC is a nonprofit corporation, it can recover only its costs from a spill.

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