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A Reassessment of the Marine Salvage Posture of the United States
Salvors successfully removed more than 1.02 million of the 1.26 million barrels of North Slope crude oil that were aboard. Salvors also readied the damaged vessel to be towed to a repair yard and supervised the successful operation. There are a number of other recent examples of successful salvage actions where potential pollution of the environment was avoided or minimized:
In 1993, a collision involving the tank barges Ocean 255 and BT 155 and the freighter Balsa resulted in the loss of about 6,000 barrels of refined product. The response effort was successfully carried out by the companies involved, their spill contractors, and the U.S. Coast Guard strike team. Two hundred thousand barrels of product were offloaded to other vessels without further pollution.
In 1992, the tankers Radwan and Argo Hebe collided in the Straits of Malacca, and fires broke out on both vessels. The Radwan was carrying 178,000 barrels of gasoline, the Argo Hebe 2 million barrels of crude oil. The USS Beaufort, a U.S. Navy fleet tug, which happened to be a few miles away, witnessed the collision. Within 30 minutes, the Beaufort was alongside the tankers, and Navy salvors suppressed both fires and rescued 20 sailors. (It is unlikely that the Radwan would have survived without such prompt assistance.) No pollution occurred.
In 1991, the Kirki lost its bow off the West Australian coast. The Kirki was carrying 525,000 barrels of oil. Salvors transferred all the cargo to another tanker and towed the Kirki to Singapore, averting any significant oil pollution.
In 1990, fire broke out in the engine room of the Mega Borg, which was 60 miles offshore from Galveston, Texas, close to important marine habitats. A promptly launched professional salvage effort extinguished the blaze over several days. The 120,000 barrels of oil that were lost were consumed almost entirely by the fire; the remaining 857,000 barrels were saved. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that no significant ecological damage resulted from the spill.
In 1989, the tanker Phillips Oklahoma collided with another vessel and burned off the eastern coast of England. The tanker was carrying close to 357,000 barrels of crude oil; over 5,000 barrels spilled following the collision. Due to timely salvage assistance, the fire was extinguished, and all remaining cargo was transferred to another vessel.
In 1989, the tanker Pacificos incurred serious structural damage off the South African coast while carrying over 1.67 million barrels of oil. The casualty was towed to the Mozambique Channel. Despite an initial loss of over 50,000 barrels, all remaining cargo was transferred to another tanker without further pollution.
The extent to which salvage can prevent or minimize pollution depends on the availability of salvage resources. Recognizing this dependency, some nations now provide such resources. For example, the governments of Spain and South Africa have retained salvage tugs to assist in response to ships in distress along their coasts. In France, a joint venture between the government and private salvors provides protection for the English Channel and the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines of France and Corsica. Since 1979, the retained salvage tugs have responded to more than 430 distress alerts and have carried out nearly 80 salvage operations. Regrettably, the French government has reduced the number of subsidized vessels on alert status. The objective of these government-initiated partnerships is to ensure that the capability is in place to respond rapidly and effectively to all marine emergencies, especially those with the potential to pollute the environment. The United States has not made a similar commitment but does enter into contractual arrangements with commercial salvors to maintain salvage readiness to meet the Navy's needs (see Appendix F).