By Allan Turner, Houston Chronicle
HOUSTON — Galveston Coast Guard Commander James Elliott on Wednesday credited the SKS Satilla’s sturdy double-hulled construction with preventing a major oil spill after the Norwegian tanker crashed into submerged debris late last week. An underwater examination of the ship, which was carrying 41 million gallons of crude oil, revealed a gaping hole in the port side of the vessel’s outer hull.
The ship was awaiting permission Wednesday to sail to Portugal, where it will be placed in dry dock for repair. The Satilla was en route to an offshore lightering facility near Galveston when it struck the Ensco 74, a jackup oil rig swept from its moorings off the Louisiana coast by Hurricane Ike.
Elliott said additional side-scan sonar searches will be conducted in the vicinity of the accident “just to make sure there’s nothing else down there.”
The rig came to rest in 115 feet of water about 65 miles south of Galveston. Elliott said its owner, Dallas-based Ensco International, Inc., has been ordered to remove the wreckage.
Meanwhile, Elliott said, a buoy has been anchored above the wrecked rig and the hazardous site has been added to navigational charts. A Coast Guard vessel also has been positioned at the site, and hourly warnings are being sent to ships operating in the area.
An underwater examination of the Satilla found a substantial hole in the hull below the water line, where the ship’s steel had peeled back in the collision.
Crews completed pumping the ship’s cargo into other vessels on Tuesday.
“It was a success,” Elliott said of the Coast Guard’s emergency operations. “The response came together immediately. They stabilized the vessel. The 41 million gallons of oil were removed without endangering safety and there was no impact to the environment. We were very blessed.”
Built by a South Korean shipyard in 2006 and owned by SKS Obo and Tankers SA, the Satilla is a new-generation double-hulled tanker of the type mandated by the United States and European nations after disastrous oil spills involving single-hulled vessels.
March 24 marks the 20th anniversary of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez running aground on a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Almost 11 million gallons of crude oil were spilled in that incident, fouling more than 1,100 miles of coastline.
The accident was biggest oil spill in U.S. history, and Congress ordered a phase-out of the old-style tankers the following year.
Dennis Kelso, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy, said the Satilla accident “clearly demonstrates the value of double-hulled tankers.”
“This could have been a serious spill,” said Kelso, who was Alaska’s commissioner of environmental conservation at the time of the Valdez spill. “Because of that double hull that suffered damage on its exterior, there was no oil spill at all.”
Elliott on Wednesday stopped short of positively identifying the object the Satilla struck as the Ensco 74, but Ensco International reported the Coast Guard informed it that the rig likely was involved.
Area not searched
In the wake of Hurricane Ike, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crews conducted side-sonar searches for dangerous submerged debris in the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston areas. The searches did not extend far into the Gulf of Mexico, however.
At the Coast Guard’s request, contractors for NOAA also conduced sonar searches for the missing rig off Louisiana’s coast. Seven days of searching covered about 95 square statute miles, but found no trace of the missing rig, said NOAA spokesman David Hall.
Hall earlier had said his agency had not received an official request to search in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston with 110 mph winds on Sept. 13.