Senator Berta Gardner

September 16, 2015

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716 W. 4th Ave Suite 411.
Anchorage, AK 99501
Phone: 907-269-0174
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Anchorage Office
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Anchorage, AK 99501
(907) 269-7450

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Anchorage, AK 99501
(907) 269-7460

A Ride on an Alaska Oil Tanker

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

A view of the deck of the Alaska Explorer from the Bridge.
A view of the deck of the Alaska Explorer from the Bridge.

I am sitting in the bridge of the Alaskan Explorer, one of the oil tankers owned by Alaska Tanker Company (ATC), carrying Alaska’s oil to customers.  For the first time in five days I can see land as we make our way toward the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Port Angeles then to the refinery at Cherry Point.

Alaskans all understand that oil is our life blood pumping its way from oil fields to markets.  In an attempt to better understand the process I’ve visited the fields at Prudhoe Bay, Alpine and Point Thomson.  I’ve driven the Dalton Highway as a passenger on one of the “ice road” trucks and as a private citizen camping and hiking with my husband.  I’ve toured the pipeline terminal in Valdez with my family and again as a legislator.  I have toured the refinery at Nikiski and visited pipeline pump stations.  The piece I’ve missed is the tanker, and now I am traveling aboard one of the 4 Alaska class vessels carrying something over a million barrels of oil to the refinery in Washington.  

With enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides, I have toured all over the ship, seeing everything except the tanks themselves and the pumps housed with them in the bowels of the ship.  I have attended daily safety meetings and multiple routine work planning meetings.  Though much of what I heard went over my head, I do now understand more about the operations than I did when I started.  

Here are some of my takeaways:

The Captain says:  "We strive for perfection knowing all the way we can never get there.  Along the way we find excellence.”  (I do not know if this is original to him or he is quoting someone else.)

Every meeting stresses safety and reminds the crew that the goal is:  No accidents.  No harm to people.  No damage to the environment.  It is effective...

The Alaskan Explorer has been in service more than 3,785 days without a single lost time accident or spill at sea and with only one lost work time injury (a broken finger).  In a rough and dangerous environment, I think this is a remarkable record.  In fact, ATC is the only tanker company ever to receive the Coast Guard’s Benkert Award for Excellence for their safety record.

The last day of the Tanker ride with the Captain and 1st Mate.
The last day of the Tanker ride with the Captain and 1st Mate.

Every meeting also includes 3 minutes of meditation, intended to help people clear their minds and focus on the tasks at hand, avoiding distraction and accidents. 

Every person aboard is asked to report accidents, near accidents and to ask questions if an order or plan raises concern.  

The Captain has daily telephone conversations with the other Captains in the fleet and each talks about work on their own vessels sharing information to everyone to benefit from the experiences on all the ships.  During these sessions there was a lot of story sharing about experiences on this ship or others which illustrated points about how things were learned, or why they are handled in specific ways.

Every meeting I attended focused not only on what crew members would be doing in the upcoming work day, but also on why particular actions were important and the consequences of not doing the job, or of not doing it in a specific way.  Crew was asked repeatedly for questions, comments, suggestions.

Almost every system has alarms, alternate systems, plan B etc. and is tested and retested on a regular schedule.

There is a “safe room” that contains equipment to weld the door shut, food and water, computers to override other systems and control the ship.  Although the ship routinely moves from Valdez to west coast ports, it periodically goes to Singapore for major maintenance, traveling through higher risk (pirate) waters.

The Alaska class vessels have had multiple problems with parts made of Chinese steel.  This includes anchor chains, rivets etc and is of particular interest to me because of the Knik Arm Bridge (KABATA).  Some time ago Democrats tried to require the use of US steel if the bridge is ever built.  Our effort was denied and I believe the plan is to use Chinese steel if the bridge were to move to construction.

What I found most interesting about the ship itself is that it is kind of bisected by a spine, with each side having operational capacity for the entire ship, though one side may be slightly reduced in capacity.  It reminds me of the human brain, with two hemispheres divided by the corpus callosum, with the dominant side slightly stronger than the other.  

I am thoroughly impressed by the entire crew aboard this ship.  These men and women take obvious and well-earned pride in their work.  They understand their jobs and strive for excellence.  They are professionals.  I appreciate their courtesy and patience in answering my questions and helping me understand what I am seeing and hearing.  This has been a memorable experience and I am grateful.

P.S.  I even got to “drive” for a brief time.  I was thrilled!

I’m Berta and I’m still listening,

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact my office.

signed: Berta

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