US Navy Spills Fuel And
Oil Every Other Day On Average
By Farrell Kramer and Hal Spencer
Associated Press Writers

(AP) -- In Washington State's Puget Sound, blessed with timber-rich islands and boatloads of oysters, clams, mussels and salmon, the U.S. Navy is making a mess.
It's not much better in San Diego, where surfers complain they sometimes have to clean oil off their boards with lighter fluid.
Even in Norfolk, Va., where ships have been a part of life since before the American Revolution, thousands of gallons of fuel, lubricating oil and other pollutants pour into the water each year.
All told, Navy spills in U.S. ports came to 181,453 gallons from fiscal 1990 to '97, according to an Associated Press analysis of Navy data. On average, there was a spill every two days.
"Oil in the water is a concern to anybody, regardless of the amount," said Capt. John Schrinner, Norfolk port captain for the U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for cleanliness and safety on the water.
From Pearl Harbor to Philadelphia, Navy spills have become commonplace. The largest bases see the most. Puget Sound ports had the greatest spillage: 56,674 gallons during the eight-year period. That's 60 percent of all spills in the Sound, Navy and Coast Guard data show. Norfolk-area spills came to 36,773 gallons. The San Diego waterfront counted 33,584 gallons. The Mayport, Fla., area: 10,805.
The main culprits are old technology -- shipboard fuel tanks are often measured by sticking a pole down to see how much gets wet -- as well as complex fuel-transfer systems and human error.
"Virtually every recent spill would not have occurred if properly trained and supervised personnel had followed written procedures to the letter," Rear Adm. W.D. Center, commander of the Seattle naval base, wrote to his unit commanders following a recent spate of spills.
The admiral noted the importance of reacting quickly. "Unfortunately," he said, "one reason we are so good at responding to spills is that we have been getting a lot of practice."
Officials in some states are concerned because there is little outside policing of Navy spill response. Under federal law, commercial vessels, from fishing boats to supertankers, must clean up spills or risk Coast Guard fines. They can be inspected at any time. Navy ships are exempt.
At 12:55 p.m. on a rainy Sept. 18, the Navy's prevention mechanism failed again. This time it was the USS John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier moored in Mayport, which is near Jacksonville, Fla. The ship was transferring diesel fuel from one onboard tank to another. A stuck valve misdirected fuel flow. The whiskey-brown liquid poured over the side.
The pier was soon swarming with sailors in white hazardous-material suits. Emergency vehicles, lights flashing, stood by. Within several hours, the 500-gallon spill was almost clear -- with as much fuel out of the water as the Navy could retrieve.
Just one day before, the ship's captain had spoken to a reporter about spill prevention. "We do backflips to try to prevent it," said Capt. Robin Weber. "I would say we've done an extraordinarily good job."
Steve Hunter, supervisor for the Washington State Department of Ecology's office of spill response, says he's heard one common refrain from the sailors and officers of the nuclear-powered carrier USS Carl Vinson, which has spilled 3,984 gallons in eight years:
"'50s technology for the '90s."
Aboard the older, non-nuclear Kennedy, which was commissioned in 1968, fuel is routed to 213 tanks by turning heavy, steering-wheel like valves. The valves, 762 in all, are scattered about the ship, which is 23 stories high, keel to mast, and three football fields long. Fueling operations must be carefully choreographed events.
The size and complexity of carriers, like the Kennedy, make them the messiest class of ships in the service, responsible for 41,158 gallons of port spillage from fiscal 1990 to '97.
"There's just a lot more opportunity to make a mistake," said Capt. Donald Lewis, the Coast Guard's captain of port in Jacksonville.
In contrast, hulking commercial tankers do little with their millions of gallons of oil beyond loading it on and pumping it off. Civilian tankers of roughly the same gross tonnage as U.S. carriers spilled far less -- all together, 757 gallons -- in U.S. waters than the Kennedy (4,000 gallons), the Carl Vinson and their sister ships. There were 33 such tanker spills in fiscal 1990-97.
When tankers do spill, though, they can spill big. Usually, the cause is a grounding or collision. With major spills factored in, the average spill size for all tankers in U.S. waters came to 1,378 gallons during the 1990 to '97 period, according to Coast Guard data. The average Navy port spill was 129 gallons.
Nationwide, Navy spillage increased from 17,370 gallons in fiscal 1990 to 66,404 in '97. The service says improved record-keeping may make the situation look worse than it really is.
One Navy solution is shipboard procedures. For example, the Kennedy's captain, Weber, has a rule that the carrier never fuel at night, when a spill would be hard to spot. A second requirement is that he personally approve all the valve settings before the ship takes on fuel in port.
Also, the Navy is looking to new technology. The USS Carney, one of the Navy's sleek, new destroyers, can monitor fueling from a single room below decks. Electronic monitors immediately tell sailors which tanks are filled. Getting information fast is critical.
Accountability, critics say, remains an issue.
An April 15 incident in Puget Sound illustrates the point. When a 500-gallon spill by the Carl Vinson was reported, Paul O'Brien, Northwest regional spill control supervisor for Washington's Department of Ecology, fully expected his team would be allowed aboard to inspect.
"We were denied access," O'Brien recalled. "I was shocked."
The Navy said it was concerned the local officials would get in the way. About a week later, they were allowed aboard. Meanwhile, Coast Guard investigators were let on board, but then asked to leave before they could conclude their work.
"When the Navy spills oil, there isn't much we can do about it," O'Brien said. "We have to depend on the Navy to police itself."
The Coast Guard has great power over civilian vessels. It can board tankers, cargo ships and others suspected of spilling oil, investigate their oil-handling records and procedures and impose civil and criminal fines of up to millions of dollars. The government can, and will, force the vessel's owners to pay cleanup costs.
Meanwhile, the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a regulatory effort that was passed amid public outrage following the 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, retained the practice of exempting "public vessels," which include all Navy ships.
For example, O'Brien's agency noted in April that three Puget Sound spills by the carrier USS Kitty Hawk could have generated $90,000 in state fines if it were a private vessel.
"Until the Navy, like the private sector, is subject to regulations and penalties, you're never going to solve the Navy's pollution problems," said Laura Hunter, director of the Environmental Health Coalition, a monitoring and advocacy group based in San Diego.
Neither the Navy nor the Coast Guard sees fines as the answer. The Navy says it has been working hard with local officials to better deal with spills.
John Owens, the Navy's civilian chief of oil spill prevention and control in San Diego, says the Navy has signed a memorandum of agreement to cooperate with the Coast Guard. A similar deal is being negotiated in Washington State.
In Norfolk, the Navy has become a participant in The Elizabeth River Project, a business and environmental consortium working to restore the heavily industrial river to its past glory.
It didn't always work that way.
Laverne Josey spent 21 years in the Navy before retiring in 1977. He's now a California regulator who inspects Navy spills. He knows things have gotten better, because he knows how bad they've been.
As a 17-year-old sailor in Melville, R.I., Josey used sand to sink heavy fuel into the water after it leaked from hoses during refueling.
"That stuff was like tar," he said. "It wasn't a good thing to do, but that's how we handled a lot of spills."
Despite improvements, some environmentalists still aren't satisfied.
When the Navy assesses its spills, investigators many times list damage as "none" or "unknown." They note that cleanup crews often get much of the spilled fuel out of the water with absorbent booms and vacuum trucks.
Scientists and environmentalists, however, say that anytime fuel oil goes into the water, something or somebody is damaged, be it sea gulls or clams, kayakers or surfers.
"All these bodies of water are interconnected. A spill in San Diego Bay goes out with the tide and is dispersed everywhere," said Donna Frye, founder of the environmental group STOP, Surfers Tired of Pollution.
Robin Lewis, a biologist with California's Department of Fish and Game, says anytime oil goes into the water, it affects a complex food chain that ranges from tiny organisms all the way up to birds and animals that live along the shores.
Says Lewis: "The damage isn't always something you can point at, like oiled beaches or dead birds."