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State Vulnerable to Oil Spills, Group Says : Environment: Report released on the fifth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster says old tankers and poor monitoring raise the threat of similar incidents.


SAN FRANCISCO — Despite a bundle of tough laws passed after Alaska's devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill, the coast of California remains vulnerable to a similar catastrophe, a national environmental group charged Thursday.

In a report released on the fifth anniversary of the Valdez disaster, the Center for Marine Conservation says California has been lucky to avoid a major spill so far. The report cited problems posed by an aging tanker fleet, shrinking crew size and poor offshore monitoring by the U.S. Coast Guard.

"Playing Russian roulette is stupid, and doing it with oil tankers is lunacy," said Warren Chabot, Pacific region director of the Washington-based center. "There are ways to reduce the risks. The time to take action is now."

The center's study focused on a 225-mile section of coast from San Simeon north to Bodega Bay. That stretch includes three national marine sanctuaries, areas set aside because of their biological richness. Although the sanctuaries enjoy federal protection from offshore oil drilling, they remain endangered by tanker spills, the report said.

Each year, nearly 3,000 vessels carrying millions of barrels of crude oil pass through the sanctuaries en route to San Francisco and Southern California. Except on approach to ports, the massive tankers are free to navigate along any route they choose, with virtually no monitoring by the Coast Guard, the report said.

Although the Valdez accident spurred improvements in the state's ability to clean up oil spills, measures to prevent them are lacking, the center warned. To make oil shipping off California safer, the report recommends:

* Creating a 50-mile, tanker-free buffer zone around the marine sanctuaries. The zone would reduce the risk of a tanker running aground and, in the event of an accident, would give emergency crews time to reach a disabled ship before the oil drifted ashore. If a spill occurred, the 50-mile distance would give oil more time to disperse before reaching beaches.

* Establishing a radar system--similar to air traffic control--to track tankers offshore. Already in use in Alaska's Prince William Sound, the system would require tankers to carry beacons announcing their location and identity to the Coast Guard.

* Stationing an emergency offshore response vessel--one capable of towing disabled tankers--in San Francisco Bay.

* Increasing aerial surveillance of oil vessels by Coast Guard planes.

Because of state laws passed after the Valdez disaster and a 1990 spill off Huntington Beach, oil companies have spill prevention and response plans and contribute to a fund used to clean up spills of mysterious origins. Coast Guard officials said these changes, among others, have reduced the odds of a catastrophic spill in California.

"Our feeling is we've made a lot of progress since the Valdez," said Lt. Kristin Barlow, a Coast Guard spokeswoman. "There is always more you can do on environmental protection, but we're moving in the right direction."

Oil industry representatives declined to comment on specifics in the report, which they had not read, but defended their shipping practices. They noted that under an agreement enacted by nine major oil companies last year, tankers traveling to California from Alaska--the source of nearly all the crude oil coming to the state--remain a minimum of 50 miles offshore except on approach to port.

"Our folks operate vessels in a way that they feel is safe," said Robert Getts, assistant executive director of the Western States Petroleum Assn. "Remember, the last thing our member companies want is an oil spill. To them, a spill is terribly costly . . . not only in dollars and cents but in public reaction and outcry."

The Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil that killed hundreds of thousands of animals in Prince William Sound, an Alaskan inlet.

The center said it was releasing its report now because the Coast Guard has failed to produce two studies on tanker traffic that were mandated by the Oil Pollution Act, passed shortly after the Valdez spill. Coast Guard officials said the studies are under way, but could not give an estimated date for their completion.

"Our coast can't wait," said Marci Glazer, co-author of the report. "Since the Exxon Valdez, at least seven fully laden tankers have lost power or steering in Prince William Sound. Those same tankers have been in San Francisco Bay 48 times in one year."

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