Since, in a worst-case situation, a computer malfunction could result in an oil spill, port officials are concerned that all computer systems on tankers serving Portland are Y2K-compliant, and they are keeping a weather eye on three critical Y2K dates: Sept. 9, 1999; Jan. 1, 2000; and Feb. 29, 2000, or leap year day -- numeric dates that may confound older computer programs that have not been modified.
The port has just received some regulatory muscle from the U.S. Coast Guard, which recently issued a nationwide Y2K regulation requiring owners and operators of certain marine vessels and facilities, such as ships carrying hazardous substances like oil, to report on the state of their Y2K preparedness, or pay a $25,000-per-day fine.
'It is designed to put vessel owners on notice,' said John Cameron, executive officer for the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Portland, which oversees eight ports in Maine and New Hampshire.
The Y2K regulation will help the Coast Guard identify Y2K problems on vessels that could cause engines to stop, steering to malfunction and navigation equipment to go on the blink, 'Vessels that have a potential for Y2K failure are well out in front of being compliant,' Cameron remarked.
At the port in Portland, a level of safety measures has always been in place.
Ships carrying oil are permitted in and out of the port one at a time to minimize the risk of collisions. Control and steering failures are always a concern, regardless of Y2K, Cameron said. 'If it's a hydraulic line that breaks or a computer chip that fails, we are always mitigating steering failures and have a backup in place,' he said. For example, vessels carrying oil have tugboat escorts to assist them in case of a steering or engine failure.
Drawbridges are also a concern. Portland's new drawbridge, the Casco Bay Bridge, malfunctioned last September when the pilot of an oil tanker asked for the bridge to be raised so he could navigate through. The drawbridge section, which is computerized but also fully staffed, did not lift when it was supposed to.
Luckily, the ship's pilot was able to stop the vessel before it careened into the bridge. 'With Y2K the risk of something like this happening is higher so we want to be more ready,' Cameron said, adding that the Coast Guard is considering lengthening the distance at which a pilot asks for a bridge to be raised.
Contact: John Cameron, executive officer, Coast Guard Marine Safety Office, Portland, Maine, 207-780-3276.
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