Alaska Tanker Piloted by Unqualified Officer : Exxon Unable to Explain Captain’s Absence; Rising Winds Stir Fears of Oil Slick Damage

Times Staff Writer

An unqualified mate was piloting the Exxon Valdez--violating both Coast Guard regulations and company policy--when the tanker crashed into rocks, unleashing the worst oil spill in U.S. history, Exxon Shipping Co. said Sunday.

Exxon also disclosed that the Long Beach-bound tanker actually was involved in two separate accidents that night in pristine Prince William Sound.

Meanwhile, winds kicked up around the crippled ship, stirring fears that choppy waters could destabilize the Exxon Valdez and sweep the slick ashore.

Wildlife experts were summoned from California to coordinate any efforts to rescue birds and sea otters, whose feathers and fur make them the most vulnerable to oil contamination.


Oil-Covered Birds, Otters

Biologists already have counted 95 birds and two otters covered with oil but were unable to capture them for cleaning.

Killer whales, sea lions and ducks also have been spotted swimming in the muck.

Cleanup efforts continued slowly, and Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper declared Prince William Sound a disaster area, freeing state resources for cleanup and paving the way for a federal disaster declaration.


Many questions about the disaster remained unanswered.

Still unexplained is why Third Mate Gregory Cousins was steering the 987-foot vessel through the tricky, iceberg-dotted waters on Friday.

Frank Iarossi, president of Exxon Shipping, told reporters that Capt. Joseph Hazelwood was one flight below the bridge in his cabin when the Exxon Valdez hit the first jagged rock pinnacle about a mile outside shipping lanes.

The ship then “slid about two miles” under full power and hit more underwater rocks, Iarossi said. At no time did the ship lose steering, he added.

Iarossi said he did not know whether Hazelwood took the wheel after the first accident, or how much time elapsed between the two incidents.

There would have been no reason for the 42-year-old captain to go below to use the bathroom or get coffee, since both are available on the bridge, Iarossi said.

“I agree something is missing,” Iarossi told reporters and local residents at a press conference.

Cousins, a three-year employee of Exxon, did not have the Coast Guard certification required to pilot through the sound but was qualified under other circumstances to steer the ship, Iarossi said.


Puts Off Filing Charges

“We’re not going to file any charges until we are done with our investigation,” said Coast Guard spokesman Todd Nelson.

“The Coast Guard may seem slow and plodding at times, but if we file charges, we’re going to make them stick,” he added.

Nelson said piloting a ship without proper certification is a civil, not criminal, violation, which ultimately could result in suspension or revocation of the captain’s license.

Exxon has not made any of the Exxon Valdez’s 20 crew members available for interviews.

The Coast Guard served subpoenas Saturday on the captain, helmsman and third mate to ensure that they make themselves available to investigators.

A team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived Sunday to probe the cause of the accident.

Experts from the International Bird Rescue Center in Berkeley, Calif., set up a rehabilitation center here Sunday in case oiled birds are captured. Otter experts from Hubbs Marine Research Institute at Sea World in San Diego were due to arrive today.


But even if animals turn up in distress, rescues may not be feasible.

“Human life and safety is more important,” said Pamela Bergmann, the Department of the Interior representative assessing the situation.

She said it might be too perilous to try to capture panicky birds and otters from boats in the frigid water, and there is no road access to the shores where they are likely to show up.

A monitor from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said he felt encouraged about impact on the area’s abundant marine life after patrolling the 50-square-mile slick by boat Saturday.

“The reason we haven’t seen a large number of birds affected so far is that the oil is out in the middle of the sound,” said Everett Robinson-Wilson, the agency’s environmental contaminant coordinator.

“The weather will help us or kill us,” he added.

Winds of up to 35 m.p.h. were expected by today.

Neither Exxon nor the state and federal agencies involved in the operation could say how much oil had been mopped up or what percentage of the slick is contained.

The Exxon Valdez spewed about 250,000 barrels of North Slope crude into the ice-blue waters. Another 1 million barrels remain aboard the damaged ship, but no new leakage has been reported.

Pumps were being used to siphon the remaining oil into a sister tanker Sunday, an operation expected to take up to a week.

Salvagers hope the two-year-old Exxon Valdez will be able to float free once its load is lightened.

Up to $20 Million Damages

Iarossi estimated damage to the $125-million ship at $10 million to $20 million.

Videotapes filmed by divers revealed 10 sizable holes in the ship’s hull, ranging from 8 feet by 15 feet to 20 feet by 6 feet, Iarossi said.

Rocks Charted

He indicated that the rocks the ship hit were charted and well within range of the Exxon Valdez’s navigational equipment.

No disciplinary action has been taken against any crew members, Iarossi said. The executive promised to make public results of mandatory drug and alcohol tests on crew members.

So far, oil has washed ashore only on two tiny islands in the sound, and beach cleanup efforts were under way.

Hasn’t Seen Plan

“We have been told by Exxon that they will come up with an organized cleanup plan, but we’ve yet to see one,” said Barbara Holian, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The agency is studying its “legal options” and may ask the Coast Guard to take over the cleanup from Exxon, she said.

At Coast Guard offices here, Nelson said such a move was unlikely.

“The Coast Guard doesn’t have tons and tons of its own equipment, and it would have to hire the same people Exxon has,” Nelson said. “That would just slow things down.

“Right now, Exxon is the oil company with the deep pockets, and it’s cleaning up its own spill within federal guidelines.”


11 million gallons that have leaked so far from the Exxon Valdez are dwarfed by some of the record spills around the world:

Size Location Date Cause (gallons) Ixtoc 1 oil well, southern June 3, 1979 Blowout 183,960,000 Gulf of Mexico Norwuz oil field, Feb., 1983 Blowout 183,000,000 Persian Gulf (est) Atlantic Empress/Aegean July 19, 1979 Collision 91,980,000 Capt., off Trinidad Castillo de Bellver, Aug. 6, 1983 Fire 76,650,000 off S.Africa Amoco Cadiz, near March 16, 1978 Grounding 68,371,800 Portsall, France Torrey Canyon, off March 18, 1967 Grounding 36,485,400 Land’s End, England

But the Exxon Valdez has the potential for vast environmental damage because it is contained within a pristine Alaskan sound. And it is the largest U.S. oil spill to date:

Location Date Cause Size Burmah Agate tanker, Galveston Nov. 1, 1979 Collision 10,700,000 Bay, Tex. Argo Merchant tanker, off Dec. 15, 1976 Grounding 7,600,000 Massachusetts Exploratory well, Ranger, Tex. Nov. 6, 1985 Blowout 6,300,000 Ashland Oil Co. tank, Jefferson Jan. 2, 1988 Rupture 3,800,000 Borough, Pa. Alvenus tanker, Cameron, La. July 30, 1984 Grounding 2,800,000 Puerto Rican tanker, San Francisco Oct. 31, 1984 Fire 2,000,000

Source: 1989 World Almanac, Golob’s Oil Pollution Bulletin.