SPILLS: A MATTER OF LIABILITY ... HISTORY
SHOWS THAT MANY VARIABLES AFFECT TREATMENT WHICH DAMAGED PARTIES
RECEIVE AFTER OIL DISASTERS
On the afternoon of Dec. 21, 1985, the Arco Anchorage, en route from
Valdez to a refinery just outside Puget Sound with 34 million gallons
of North Slope crude oil, pulled into Port Angeles harbor to wait its
turn at the refinery dock. The weather was overcast with light winds,
the sea flat. As required, a local pilot, Ray Leson, had come aboard at
3:19 p.m. to guide the ship through the inland waters.
At 4:02 p.m., Leson turned the ship sharply to the right, at too high
speed into too shallow water, according to a review by the Washington
Department of Ecology. At 4:25 p.m., the Arco Anchorage struck hard
bottom, probably a rock, and split open two of its tanks.
About 239,000 gallons of oil spilled.
It was later revealed that Leson, 65, had been involved in nine reportable
incidents since 1981 while piloting ships, including three groundings.
The Coast Guard punished him for this fourth grounding by suspending
his license for two months.
Machines fail, and so do men. In most shipwrecks, a variety of circumstances
come together to produce disaster, making it impossible to fix blame
clearly. Investigators in the 1985 grounding of the 853 foot Arco
Anchorage in Port Angeles, Wash., had no such problem.
They were able to lay that spill at the feet of one man.
Capt Raymond Laurence Leson had sailed as a merchant officer for 35 years
before becoming a pilot in 1977, but had little experience with large
vessels, "particularly ones anywhere close to the size of the Arco
Anchorage," wrote Capt. Kirk Greiner, a retired Coast Guard captain,
formerly captain of the Port of Portland, who was hired by the
Washington state Department of Ecology to determine the cause of the accident.
Harbor pilots are specially licensed captains who, for safety reasons, take
over command of ships moving from ocean to inland water on the theory
that they know the local waters and what lies hidden beneath better
than mariners who are just passing through.
On Dec. 21, 1985, the Arco Anchorage was finishing a run from Valdez to a
refinery at Cherry Point, at the entrance to Puget Sound. As the ship
moved through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Leson came aboard and took
command. His plan was to park the huge tanker, nearly as long as three
football fields, off Ediz Hook, a witch's finger of land that juts out
from the mainland and hooks around, forming a protected cove.
At 4:23 p.m., after checking navigation charts, Capt. Robert Sutherland,
the master of the Arco Anchorage, checked the ship's position and asked
Leson if he was satisfied with where they were. Leson said yes.
The draft of the Anchorage the distance its hull extended down into the
water was 50 feet, 9.6 inches. The depth of the water where Leson chose
to park her was "slightly over 50 feet," but not over enough. At 4:45
p.m. the Arco Anchorage struck bottom, "undoubtedly a rock," Greiner
concluded. The blow ruptured two tanks and she began spilling what
eventually amounted to 239,000 gallons of oil.
Bad luck seemed to dog ships piloted by Ray Leson, as investigators later
discovered. In 1981 a freighter he was piloting grounded when it missed
the channel by 40 feet. In 1982 a ship piloted by him approached a dock
at excessive speed and hit it. In 1983 a ship ran aground "apparently
because he did not allow sufficiently for leeway for the current."
A month later, he grounded a ship in the Shohomish River entrance.
He got a letter of reprimand from the Pilot Commission for that one.
In 1984, he struck some pilings in Blair Waterway, in Tacoma, Wash.,
while backing to turn the vessel.
A second reprimand was issued.
"In the opinion of the writer, the cause of the grounding of the Arco
Anchorage was the failure of the Federal pilot, Captain Leson, to
safely navigate the vessel," Greiner concluded.
The Coast Guard reached the same conclusion and charged Leson with
negligence. "You're not supposed to park your ship (in shallow water),"
said Coast Guard Capt. J.E. De Carteret at a press conference. "That's
what they make charts for. That's why pilots are there." Leson got news
of the charge while he was on the job, the Seattle PostIntelligencer
reported, "as he prepared to pilot the tanker Mobile Meridian out to sea."
Washington officials seconded everyone else's conclusion about who was to blame
for the spill by fining Leson $60,000 for polluting the environment,
making him the first individual in state history to be so fined. A
similar fine was levied against Arco. The fines were later reduced to $30,000.
Leson was set to go to trial before an administrative judge with the maximum
punishment loss of his pilot's license, when the Coast Guard prosecutor
announced a plea bargain. The deal was Leson would plead no contest to
negligence and his accident record would not be introduced at his sentencing.
In April 1986, the judge suspended Leson's license for two months, noting
that the grounding "was a onetime event," rather than a pattern of negligence.
"It was a momentary lapse on the part of Leson," the judge said. "I am
entering this order to make this man aware he has to be on his toes at all times."
After the sentencing, Leson told reporters, "I regret the ecological damage,
but the fish and the birds will come back. . . . Being a pilot is a
lonely job. You're the only one on the ship. . ."
Seattle got lucky. Unpredictable wind and current drove oil from the Arco
Anchorage, the worst tanker spill in Washington history, west toward
the Pacific Ocean instead of east, toward Puget Sound. Much of the glop
got trapped in Ediz Hook, where it fouled beaches and killed clams and
birds, but where it sat still long enough for skimmers to pick up more
than they usually are able to recover, according to Ron Holcomb of the
Washington Department of Ecology.
Washington law requires that spillers pay for the wildlife they kill. The state
billed Arco for $32,930, which included 229 dead whitewinged scoters at
$5.53 each, four mallards at $9.45 each and a canvasback duck at
$11.03. Arco also bought 12,468 pounds of clams ranging from $1.39 to
$2.21 a pound. Prices were determined by estimating how much it would
cost to dig one up to eat, even if the species was not normally taken for food.
"In retrospect, it was not appropriate," said Lew Kittle, the onscene
coordinator for the Ecology Department. Kittle said Washington is
working on a new table of values, one that will include nonconsumption worth as well.
Cleanup of the Anchorage spill began almost immediately and took about four
months. It was run by Arco with Coast Guard and state oversight. "I was
very happy with how Arco handled themselves," Kittle said. "They took
full responsibility for their action. We mustered an oil spill cleanup
plan . . . they worked with us."
One thing that proved valuable, Kittle said, was a joint spill response
exercise a year earlier that had included Arco, the state and the Coast
Guard. The responsible people got to know each other during the exercise so,
when the real thing happened, they were able to work smoothly together.
It all cost Arco $13.1 million, said Robert Levine, the company's onscene
coordinator: $9.1 million for the actual cleanup and $4 million to
settle damage claims, including the $30,000 fine, $32,930 for the dead
wildlife, and $285,000 reimbursement for state investigations, damage
assessment studies, monitoring and cleanup.
Kittle said Ediz Hook is now, 31|2 years later, clean. How clean? One hundred
parts of oil per million is the standard. "You can't see it."