Oil and Water Don't Mix

FOR AS LONG AS MEN HAVE GONE DOWN to the sea in ships, they have left part of themselves beneath the waves-their youth, their lives and. to the horror of their insurance agents. their freight. History is silent on whether ancient insurers fumed when Phoenician triremes lost their cargoes of amber and gold; the wonder is that today, when supertankers spill millions of gallons of crude every year, there is not hell (or at least much higher premiums) to pay. Forget all those fulminations about single hulls and gin mills in oil ports. The real reason for tanker spills is that "owners chose to abide the death and destruction rather than spend money" on safety writes journalist Eric Nalder in "Tankers Full of Trouble" (Grove/Atlantic. 288 pages. $23 ). Since every extra ton of steel in the hull is one less ton of crude in the hold, owners "ship oil in the largest ships, with the thinnest hulls, with the smallest crews."

And the system that supposedly polices maritime safety lets them get away with it. State maritime boards barely lift a finger against pilots (who take over from the captain as the craft enters or leaves a port) when they ram barges or bridges-not even when, as in one case, the collision killed 35 motorists. Classification societies, which vet ships' construction so the vessels qualify for insurance, compete for customers by dumbing down safety requirements until some "put a stamp on a ham sandwich," as a coast-guard admiral put it. Although 80 percent of accidents are blamed on human error, Nalder rightly points out that with greater margins of safety, vessels might not crack under the overloading, rough seas and poor seamanship.

The spine of "Tankers" is an account of Nalder's seven-day journey aboard the Arco Anchorage from Prince William Sound in Alaska, site of the infamous Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, to Port Angeles Harbor in Washington. He describes the "gut punches" the Pacific throws, and the sea that acts like "Mother Nature on angel dust." Nalder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Seattle Times, a] so wrestles into submission a slew of misconceptions about oil spills. Contrary to the impression conveyed by newspaper headlines, most spills are caused by small ships, not super-tankers. And contrary to the case of Joseph Hazelwood, if there are any heroes in the oil trade they are crews and captains like Arco's, who are more diligent than most. They regularly battle 100-mile-an-hour winds and 90-foot waves in an effort to keep the ship intact (tankers three football fields long and 10 freeway lanes wide have busted open under the onslaught of wind and sea). Disaster crouches behind every gasket, for tankers rival nuclear power plants in complexity.

Yet the industry operates them as if they were nothing more than giant oil cans with propellers. For years owners resisted adopting a process that makes oil fumes inert; although a 1978 United Nations rule required new tankers over a certain size to have these "inert gas" systems, in the five years before the nile kicked in, 118 people died on 16 exploding ships. Resistance also met proposals for double bottoms: despite irrefutable data that they would have kept oil from escaping in 27 out of 30 accidents, owners balked.

Reforms might come if insurers, who pay the bill for environmental cleanup and lost oil, insisted on safety precautions. (But when some insurers did just that, the head of Exxon's fleet at the time of the Valdez spill accused the inspectors of harassment.) And 1990 regulations requiring double hulls on tankers entering U.S. waters phase in over 25 years; even then the vessels might not withstand collisions. And until 2015, most tankers will be single-hulled. Proportionately, if such a tanker were the size of a loaf of bread, the steel skin would be as thick as cellophane. It's hard to have much confidence when all that stands between a tanker and thousands of dead sea animals is, in essence, a Baggie.