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Barriers Mount Against Oil Tanker Exxon Valdez

Times Staff Writer

The Exxon Valdez is facing mounting barriers to its entry into San Diego Bay for repairs, including the likelihood of another oil spill and federal and state agencies stepping in demanding assurances of no further leaks, officials said Wednesday.

The Coast Guard has ordered the Valdez to hold its position about 50 miles off the San Diego coast until the supertanker has stopped discharging an oily substance blamed for an 18-mile-long slick.

Only after the discharge has stopped will the Coast Guard allow the Valdez to enter shallower waters, probably near San Clemente Island, to remove five jutting steel plates from the ship’s bottom. Those plates have to be removed before the ship can clear the bottom of San Diego Bay to reach dry dock.

Company Officials Confident

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Exxon officials remained confident Wednesday that the Valdez, the tanker responsible for dumping 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, will be able to enter San Diego Bay. But Coast Guard officials speculated that the logistics of stopping the leaks and cutting off the plates could delay entry for several weeks.

At a news conference, Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi said: “I understand that people feel we failed on our pledge. But I want to tell you, that pledge still stands. We will not come into the bay until we are certain” the Valdez has stopped discharging materials.

Coast Guard officials also said Wednesday that they expect at least one more spill from the Valdez after the plates are removed and the ship moves out to sea for a final deballasting of the seawater in its tanks.

The uncertainty of when and if the discharge can be stopped and the likelihood of another spill have bolstered reluctance among state and federal officials to allow the ship to drop its plates in state waters near San Clemente Island.

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Officials of the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Game, which have the main decision-making power to allow the Valdez near San Clemente Island and into the bay, said the ship will have to stay out of both sites until they are satisfied the tanker will not leak any more oil.

Additionally, the State Lands Commission has joined the Coast Guard and other agencies in investigating the Valdez matter, and California Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy and Controller Gray Davis, among other politicians, have expressed concern over the tanker.

State Fish and Game Director Pete Bontadelli arrived in San Diego on Wednesday afternoon to observe the Valdez and brief the media today.

By Wednesday afternoon, the small sheen trailing the crippled Valdez had all but dissipated, and the larger slick believed to have come from the ship had shrunk to a one-mile-long, 500-yard-wide patch. However, two smaller sheens were sighted near the tanker’s bow, the Coast Guard reported.

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The ship was being towed at a speed of about one knot westward from San Diego, and the government of Mexico has expressed concern about the tanker drifting toward its waters.


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