GALVESTON, TEX., JUNE 12 -- The crews and equipment needed to fight the Mega Borg oil tanker fire were available on the Texas Gulf Coast and could have reached the troubled ship within four hours of the explosion Saturday morning. But the vessel's Norwegian owners chose to hire a firm that had some of its equipment in Europe and was not completely prepared to battle the blaze until 57 hours later.
The controversy over the selection of firefighters for the Mega Borg accident, which arose when a competitor of the firm chosen for the job charged that it was better situated to handle the blaze, was one of several disputes raging on land today over the response to the tanker crisis and the role that free enterprise and the government should play in such cases.
Texas General Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, the state's leading coastal environment watchdog, arrived here late today and said that the accident in the Gulf of Mexico revealed the region's lack of preparedness for a major crisis. Critical decisions in major oil accidents, including the hiring of firefighters, Mauro said, should not be left solely to private industry.
Out at the accident scene 57 miles southeast of Galveston, the situation today appeared relatively stable and encouraging.
Salvage crews and Coast Guard officials on boats surrounding the Mega Borg indicated that the fire in the pump room was extinguished by noon today, and only one fire still burned in the crew quarters a good distance from the cargo tanks holding 38 million gallons of oil. There were no oil fires blazing in the waters nearby. The black plumes of smoke that engulfed the ship from Saturday through Monday were replaced by white and light gray smoke. The vessel's steel hull was cooling down enough so that foam finally could be sprayed.
"The news today was basically good," said Coast Guard Capt. Tom Greene. "I'm encouraged by the progress we've made. But we're not out of the woods yet." Although the ship was still listing to port, Greene said that crews had begun transferring weight to bring it back to an even keel. He called the chance of the 885-foot single-hull tanker sinking "very slight at this point."
Greene said he could not yet estimate how much oil from the damaged tanker has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier estimates ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 gallons. Coast Guard cutters and cleanup boats reported that oil sheens were moving to the west and north but that no oil had spread farther than 12 miles from the ship -- placing it more than 40 miles from the shore. Unless there is another major spill, Greene said, he did not expect any of the oil to reach the Texas coast.
Back on land in Texas, the argument heightened as to whether the oil spill could have been contained further. One debate concerned the use of Smit American, a U.S. division of the Rotterdam-based salvage company, Smit International, which was contracted by the ship's Norwegian owners to fight the blaze and salvage the cargo.
Under current government regulations, the hiring decisions for cleanup contractors are made by the owner and its insurance underwriters unless the spill is federalized, which it was not in this accident. Smit American was chosen for the job even though some of the nozzles and tanks it needed were in Europe. At least one Texas firm, Boots & Coots, said it had the necessary foam and other equipment available and ready to go from Port Neches, only 70 miles away.
"The fact is there is more firefighting equipment in Texas than in the whole continent of Europe," said Les Williams, secretary-treasurer of Boots & Coots, a firm that has extinguished 17 oil fires in the past decade, including the massive fire at the Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge, La., last Christmas Eve. "I do not understand anyone saying that the equipment was not here. That's ridiculous. . . . They should tell it like it is: the whole decision was made for an economic motive."
Williams said his crews, if called, could have arrived at the fire within four hours and possibly have prevented the five explosions Sunday that rocked the vessel and almost sank it. Officials of Smit American did not return repeated telephone calls to their Houston office today.
At a news conference this morning, Greene of the Coast Guard said, "I'd rather not comment on that," when asked whether it made sense not to hire a local firm that had the needed equipment. A few minutes later, Greene said that if he had run the cleanup operation he would have used the same firms hired by the ship's owners, K.S. Mega Borg II. When asked whether it would have made any difference to him in that situation if the firm he hired had the needed equipment on hand, Greene said: "I would certainly consider that in who I hired."
"What this crisis shows is that the government should not depend on the private sector to save our coastlines. We have to change our entire method of dealing with oil spills," said Mauro. While private industry might still be the first line of defense in fighting a spill, he added, "we absolutely have to have a safety net."
Mauro served on a Texas advisory committee after the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska last year. The recommendations of that task force have not yet been dealt with by the state legislature, which for much of the past year has been preoccupied with school finance problems. Mauro has been pushing for a plan similar to the one adopted by Florida this week, where the state set up a $100 million cleanup fund and retained access to the equipment needed to fight a spill.
Mike Weber, an environmental consultant in Washington who has worked extensively on issues involving the Gulf of Mexico, noted that California spent $15 million on crisis-response efforts -- 75 times as much as the funding along the Gulf. "This is an outrage -- that so little is spent," Weber said.
Texas ports rank third, fourth, sixth and seventh in the nation in handling crude oil, and first, second and sixth in tank-barge traffic, according to a report compiled by Richard Townsend of Townsend Environmental, a natural resources consulting firm.