OIL RESPONSE TEAM TAKES GUESSWORK (AND FEAR) OUT OF SPILL CLEANUP

OIL RESPONSE TEAM TAKES GUESSWORK (AND FEAR) OUT OF SPILL CLEANUP

When Bob Umbdenstock gets the call for "The Big One," there won't be a person at the other end of the telephone line.

"If you can respond, press nine," the computer in Lake Charles, La., will say to Mr. Umbdenstock, operations manager for the Northeast region, and more than a hundred other employees of the Marine Spill Response Corp.Within hours, the employees will be converging on MSRC's Northeast regional headquarters in Edison, N.J., where there are tons of oil-spill cleanup equipment already mounted on 40-foot-long flat racks so that only minutes are needed to put it on trucks heading for the beaches.

Three years ago none of this existed. But in the wake of the March 1989, Exxon Valdez accident and the public relations disaster that followed, the major oil companies felt compelled to take action and establish the nonprofit MSRC.

Now that the MSRC is finally fully operational with the stationing of the cleanup ship Delaware Responder, the oil companies hope the $400 million invested in MSRC equipment will prevent another

such public relations disaster if there ever is a Valdez-size spill again.

The Delaware Responder is one of 16 $12 million oil-spill response vessels (OSRVs) that represent the heart of the MSRC's plan to respond to spills.

"It's designed to be a mothership in the middle of a flotilla," said Ovis Wohl, master of the New Jersey Responder, which is based at an old Perth Amboy, N.J., cargo dock in the shadow of the Outerbridge Crossing bridge.

Although the New Jersey Responder is surrounded by weed-chocked lots and abandoned, rotting piers, the ship itself is spotless. At its essence is a center where communications from radios, cellular telephones and satellites can all be patched together.

During a spill, as many 38 people can live on board the ship that has a helicopter pad on deck to allow workers and equipment to be shuttled in and out.

MSRC's game plan is to respond with as much equipment as quickly as possible and to start informing the public immediately.

"We respond first and ask questions later," said Steve Doorier, general manager for the Edison operation.

There are some signs that the formation of the MSRC and the rest of the oil industry's post-Valdez response may have successfully created a system that will calm public fears in the event of a spill. In a sharp contrast to the public outrage from the Valdez incident, during the last major oil spill in U.S. waters in Tampa, there was little public outcry.

"Maritrans and Bouchard (the spillers) responded very quickly," said Mr. Doorier, referring to the fiery August accident in Tampa Bay. A phosphate freighter collided with two barges, one carrying jet fuel and the other No. 6 fuel oil, a thick, sticky grade of oil particularly harmful to wildlife.

"There was a very aggressive move to share information with the public," said Mark Miller, president of MSRC's main competitor, National Response Corp. of Calverton, N.Y.

''They were given an education as to what the process was going to be," he said. "They were told it (the oil) is going to be around for this period of time, but after that it's going to improve quickly."

Both companies responded to the Tampa spill, but Mr. Miller's company was the main responder.

The Tampa spill was much smaller than the Valdez disaster.

The crews of all of the 16 of the MSRC's OSRVs are committed to being able to launch the vessel within two hours, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, as required under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

The ships were designed to respond primarily to large spills in deep water like the Valdez incident in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Each of the 208- foot-long OSRVs carries a 32-foot-long daughter vessel that plunges off the back end of the OSRV, with one end of a bright orange plastic boom that the two vessels can tow through a slick in a "V" formation. A skimmer on the mothership sucks the boomed oil out of the seas and into its tanks.

But for now, action for the New Jersey Responder is limited to weekly drills, while most of the staff dedicates itself to the dreary but vital legwork of compiling a database, which will contain contingency plans on how to respond to any kind of incident for every inch of U.S. shoreline.

"Where am I going to position (a) boom" on Long Beach Island if there is a spill there, asked Mr. Doorier. "Right now, we're looking at laying it in the streets," he said. "In between spills, we have to address how we're going to handle these sorts of questions."

OIL SPILL RESPONSE VESSEL

Length: 208' 6"

Beam: 44'

Crusing speed: 12 knots at 80 percent hp.

Endurance: 25 days at 12 knots.

Range: 7,200 nautical miles.

Draft: 13'