SPILL-RESPONSE SHIP FILLS OUT ROSTER, GETS ITS TRAINING ON THE HIGH SEAS

SPILL-RESPONSE SHIP FILLS OUT ROSTER, GETS ITS TRAINING ON THE HIGH SEAS

All creatures along the Jersey Shore and the Delaware River - from ducks and seals to operators of the region's multibillion-dollar tourism industry - officially became a whole lot safer recently.

The Delaware Responder, a 208-foot-long, high-tech, oil spill response vessel, was commissioned Monday by politicians and maritime industry officials at a dock in Delaware City, Del. It then headed out to sea, where its crew of 17 received two days of intensive drills.The ship's commissioning completes the final link in a 16-ship chain of virtually identical vessels, all designed and built in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

These ships are the heart of a sophisticated oil spill response network that guards major inland waterways of the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific and territory up to 200 miles off shore.

"Nobody in the world can do any more in response to an oil spill than we can," Bob Umbdenstock declared proudly as the new ship glided downriver toward its formal commissioning, "and we're getting better."

Mr. Umbdenstock, a veteran of more than 150 ship salvage operations worldwide, is the regional operations manager for the ship's owner, Marine Spill Response Corp. (MSRC). From a regional office in Edison, N.J., he will oversee the Delaware Responder and sisterships based in Portland, Maine; Perth Amboy, N.J.; and Hampton Roads, Va.

He also oversees an elaborate network of seacoast warehouses stocked with oil-spill cleanup tools and supplies loaded on truck-ready racks for immediate dispatch to the dock nearest the spill. From there, tugs and fishing boats under contract with MSRC would take them to the disaster scene.

Each ship also has a companion 40,000-barrel barge for holding recovered oil, and other barges under contract.

The Delaware ship will be based at the abandoned Coast Guard Station in Gloucester City until a permanent base is ready somewhere on the Delaware waterfront nearer the mouth of the bay.

The Delaware River and Bay make up a key area in the nationwide coastal network. More than 70 percent of all crude oil delivered to the North Atlantic Coast - about 400 million barrels annually - travels up the river to one of seven refineries.

The brand new response network, completed during the last three months, is, indeed, a direct result of the Exxon Valdez disaster.

A petroleum industry study revealed, Mr. Umbdenstock said Monday, that no region of the United States was prepared for a disaster of that magnitude, and

because accidents are so few and far between, there was no for-profit incentive to establish the required response network.

The Exxon Valdez spill was a sobering experience for the oil industry, Mr. Umbdenstock said.

"A company smaller than Exxon would have been vaporized by that accident," he said.

This realization and the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990 led to formation of a nonprofit corporation, the Marine Preservation Association, which collects fees from member companies based on the amount of oil they transported through U.S. coastal waters the previous year.

Membership is advantageous but not mandatory; virtually all oil shippers are members. Those who don't belong run the risk of violating federal statutes that require petroleum shippers to have a plan for dealing with the worst-case disaster.

With the money it collects, the association contracts with MSRC to maintain the 16 ships and a response network on 24-hour alert. Additional costs related to cleaning up a spill would be paid by the company responsible for it.

The resources MSRC brings to an oil spill are immense. In addition to ships and supplies, it maintains a long list of trained backup personnel. It has a travel agent under contract to get personnel wherever they are needed.

The 16 ships are virtually identical. A crewmember trained on one ship could work on any of them.

The Delaware Responder sleeps 38, and Bob Cole, who was the chef at the Fireside Restaurant in Waterford, N.J., can keep them well-fed for 30 days without restocking his galley.

An injured crewmember would be treated initially by paramedics in the ship's infirmary, then airlifted from the ship's helipad to a nearby hospital.

From a room chock full of computer equipment, the ship can send and receive data from anywhere in the world, set up conference calls with oil spill experts and make an extensive computer analysis of conditions that might alter the nature or scope of the disaster.

A laboratory on board can analyze chemicals, and sensors throughout the ship sniff constantly for fumes that might imperil the crew.

Oil spills are serious business now, said Frederick Viera, leader of the response crews aboard the Delaware ship.

"Modern technology," he said, "allows the Coast Guard to analyze a spilled chemical, trace it to a ship and throw the owner in jail."

The threat of oil spills also provides good maritime jobs, said Delware Responder captain Michael Adams, who retired six months ago after 22 years in the Coast Guard.

"We're working on a new ship, and we get to be at home most nights," Mr. Adams said. "And when I tell people what I do, they say, 'Oh, gee, that's great!' "