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Preparedness May Pay

June 11, 1989

Industry officials take some pride in their readiness to cope with an oil spill off the California coast. One consortium maintains three oil-spill response ships with booms to control the spreading oil and skimmers to scoop up the goo before it can foul California beaches. But recent studies by local, state and federal agencies demonstrate that most of the state's 1,200-mile coastline is virtually defenseless against a major spill. Even where ships are available, an accident easily could overwhelm any containment and cleanup effort.

California's first defense is to make certain that such an accident does not happen. But even in the aftermath of the Alaskan spill, the actions of federal officials who control the sea lanes are not confidence-inspiring. The U.S. Coast Guard recently proposed creation of a 5-mile-wide ship corridor in federal waters between San Francisco and Los Angeles that would be free of obstructions such as offshore oil rigs. But the Interior Department objected that such a "fairway" would interfere with the department's plans for leasing offshore tracts for oil and gas development.

So now the Coast Guard is considering an alternate plan of two 1-mile-wide fairways separated by a 2-mile-wide median in which platforms could be built. Thus, oil supertankers that take miles to stop or turn sharply would have to thread their way north and south via one-mile wide lanes flanked on either side by oil platforms. A Coast Guard official in Washington has told The Times that a 5-mile, ship-traffic corridor would be overkill.

But if it takes overkill to err on the side of caution, so be it. Consider the alternative: A 10-million-gallon spill from a tanker aground on Pt. Arena would reach San Francisco Bay in a week, Monterey in 20 days and Morro Bay in a month. One at Pt. Conception would put crude oil on the beaches of Malibu within 10 days.

Stringent traffic control is the simplest and most-quickly obtainable defense against a collision and spill. Radar and satellite-navigation systems to control ship movements are readily available. There is no excuse for failing to implement such a program immediately.

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