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Outdated Pipes, Valves Carry Fuel on Navy Ships


ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON — The F-14 Tomcat screaming off the deck is just one awesome piece of this nuclear carrier's high-tech weaponry..

But scramble below into the sunless world of hatches and narrow stairways and step back into a different age.

Everywhere in the maze of decks and dim passageways under the 1,092-foot flight deck are miles of pipes and hundreds of manual valves.

The pipes, which worm through sailors' berths and VIP staterooms alike, carry the ship's water, sewage, ballast--and for the 70 or so airplanes above, a few million gallons of jet fuel stored in 180 tanks scattered through the vessel.

Moving the jet fuel through the ship requires the full attention of 116 sailors, identified by the purple jerseys they wear. The fuel crew includes sailors whose sole job is to check fuel tank levels with long poles and others who hook up the hoses and turn the valves.

The system is complicated at least partly by design, Navy officials observe. It would be folly to store the explosive fuel in one place, where it could become a big bomb if hit by enemy fire. Also, fuel tanks must be scattered around to properly balance the ship.

But the system, lacking modern features like electronic sensors to detect leaks or gauge tank levels, worries environmental regulators.

The tangled system is at least partly to blame for the Vinson's record of chronic spills (14 from fiscal 1990 through 1997 for a total of 3,984 gallons, according to Navy data), says Steve Hunter, the chief spill regulator for the Washington state Department of Ecology. That doesn't include a 500-gallon spill last April into Puget Sound.

Officers say the Vinson's record is good considering the amount of fuel it carries.

All those valves "are a good thing," says Lt. Greg Cozad, the Vinson's fuels division officer. "A lot of them are backups to backups." The sailors who check the tank levels with poles also represent backup.

Hunter, who toured the ship in April after its most recent spill, said he was amazed at the complexity. "Seeing that made me wonder why there aren't more spills," he said.

Carriers like the Vinson account for a good chunk of the Navy's spills. Navy data show the carrier Nimitz has the worst record of spills (8,955 gallons), followed by the Constellation, the Kitty Hawk, the John F. Kennedy and the Vinson.

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