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NORWEGIAN TANKER WRECK CAUGHT COAST GUARD OFF GUARD

Like the Exxon Valdez, the wreck of the Norwegian supertanker Mega Borg - which threatens Texas with its greatest ecological catastrophe since a Mexican well blowout 11 years ago - wasn't supposed to happen.

At least not the way it happened."We were looking at a collision of ships out there, or a well blowout," said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Todd Nelson. "We had all kinds of expert plans lined up in those cases. But the nature of this accident threw us all off balance. We had to improvise from the beginning."

Despite a raft of government policy reviews and industry promises since the Exxon Valdez disaster, nobody expected a ship like the deep-draft Mega Borg, carrying 38 million gallons of crude and shrinking, to catch fire during routine lightering - disgorging cargo to a smaller tanker at sea.

And nobody thought such an accident would take place at such a hard-to-reach location, 57 miles off Galveston, at the edge of the continental shelf, where oil-cargo transfers have been taking place without an incident of this magnitude for more than 20 years. In addition, seas were calm, and there were no drunken captains or hidden shoals.

But the Mega Born did blow - "It was probably just one slip that nobody can put their finger on," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Frank Whipple - and to date has poured more than 100,000 gallons into the Gulf. The spill threatens rich shrimp grounds and fin fish harvest areas, and if it hits shore could endanger nesting areas for a variety of rare birds.

"Gulls and terns that breed along the Texas coast have young right now," said Ted Eubanks Jr., president of the Texas Ornithological Society, "If the oil enters the bay system, the effect on the colonies would be tremendous."

Although the Coast Guard recently completed a national review of its oil-cleanup policies and the industry pledged $35 million to find new methods and technology to grapple with large spills, the accident was virtually impossible to contain quickly, according to experts.

Some reasons:

-Fireboats, designed to quench in-port fires, did more damage than good. Water pouring into cargo holds settled the ship's stern deeper in the water, which in turn, spilled out more oil.

-Flame-retardant foam and foaming equipment were delayed by more than two days because special "wands," customized high-pressure fire hoses, and chemicals had to be flown from Rotterdam, Holland, the nearest storage point. By the time foaming equipment was in place late Monday, new fires made ship surfaces too hot to permit close work. "It's like trying to work on a hot skillet," said Steve Davis, captain of the Trade Wind supply boat.

-Delays in clearing jurisdictional questions slowed the arrival of high-seas boom from Alabama and an airplane from Massachusetts equipped with infrared systems to track the spill at night.

-Calm seas actually worked against the "weathering" of the light African crude, where wave action and evaporation are relied on to pull the slick apart.

-Results from the use of dispersants, brought in by clean-up consultant Exxon, were mixed. Exxon's Gordon Lindlom, who directed the airborne assault, said the chemicals greatly reduced the size of spill. But Coast Guard officials said they were unable to tell a difference in what they described as a heavy oil coating 3 miles long and 250 feet wide. And environmentalists worried the toxic dispersants would do more damage to marine life than oil.

-Because Houston and Galveston are shallow-draft ports, not equipped to handle modern supertankers, little equipment was on hand to staunch a supertanker disaster. "It's because of the shallow-ship channel and bay that ships like the Mega Borg had to lighter so far off coast," said James Blackburn, a Houston environmentalist and lawyer. "Evidently nobody gave any thought to what might happen to the big mother ships."

Until the Mega Borg, Texas's worst offshore spill involved the Ixtoc I well in Mexico's Bay of Campeche. In 1979, a fire and explosion spewed more than 126 million gallons of crude into the Gulf, where much of it stained south Texas beaches.