"These hearings will open wounds for some people. I can feel that beginning to happen now.” Sister Lorraine Michael offers a prediction on the eve of royal commission hearings on the sinking of the
Ocean Ranger, scheduled to start this week in St. John’s. The St. John’s nun heads the Ocean Ranger Foundation, a rallying point for the dependants of many of the 84 men who perished Feb. 15, 1982, when the giant drilling rig sank in an icy nocturnal tempest 175 nautical miles off the Newfoundland
coast. Recollecting the tragedy is bound to be painful. Presenting the evidence is expected to last several months, and a preliminary report is not likely to be due until next summer. But, even before the sessions began, critics faulted the commission for its duration and expected cost—$13 million over three years. At the same time, Canada and the United States have introduced a welter of new safety regulations. There are dozens of lawsuits in progress, and the debate rages over the safety of further drilling planned for this winter.
What actually caused the Ocean Ranger to sink is still unknown. The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Inquiry, which began last spring, has not yet learned why the largest floating oil rig in the world foundered in a storm that it was supposed to withstand. The most cogent theory to emerge was that water slopped into a broken porthole and damaged the controls that kept the gigantic structure upright, in effect crippling the rig’s defences against the 21-m waves and 160-km-h blasts of a blizzard. What is known is that several men would almost certainly have survived if they had been wearing the sort of survival suits—carried on many other rigs—that will keep a man alive in frigid seas for hours. Eight or nine men died just out of arm’s reach of a rescue boat because they were too immobilized by cold to save themselves. Now, both the Newfoundland and federal governments require operators to stow the suits aboard rigs. (Federal and provincial rules overlap in Newfoundland because of the disputed offshore ownership; the federal regulations apply off Nova Scotian shores. The United States is writing similar regulations.
Newfoundland’s tougher safety rules were in the works before the tragedy, but the process accelerated after former crew members of the Ocean Ranger al-
leged that there had been sloppy safety drills and general carelessness in preparing for heavy weather. The new regulations impose stricter standards for rig inspections and maintenance, safety drills and equipment. They also require offshore workers to take marine emergency training—a requirement that the Norwegians, with the world’s most stringent standards, have had in force for two years.
Beyond the immediate tragedy, the provincial government last month announced that it favors permanent, concrete production platforms when the time comes to pump oil for commercial use. Not only would the platforms be more sturdy than floating gear rigs, the government argues, but they could be made in Newfoundland.
Although the royal commission suffered early criticism because the hearings trailed those in the United States by six months, Commission Secretary David Grenville maintains that the Canadian Shipping Act in fact requires a sequence of inquiries and interviews before public hearings into disasters. Under chairman Chief Justice Alexander Hickman of the Newfoundland Supreme Court, the joint federal-provincial commission has interviewed prospective witnesses, sent divers down to photograph and retrieve parts of the wreck, and spent three weeks in Europe studying the offshore drilling business. The inquiry also has prompted the instigation of studies of international standards for offshore training, regulations and occupational health and safety, as well as wave simulator tests with scale models in Norway and Ottawa.
The commission came under attack again last month after reports that its budget for the first year alone would be about $6 million. (David Grenville estimates that $4 million will be spent in the second year and $3 million in the third.) Newfoundland Finance Minister John Collins seemed as upset about the sum as many Newfoundlanders have been about the commission’s posh offices and huge scale. Collins said that he hoped the bill—half of which will be borne by the province—would not become “unduly onerous.” Others are less hopeful. “You can always make work for yourself if you want to,” says Steve Neary, provincial Liberal opposition leader and perennial scourge of the Conservatives. “I think the time they are going to take and the cost is absolutely absurd and ridiculous.”
Dependants of the dead men are more concerned about getting answers. They are still awaiting a U.S. federal court’s decision on whether or not Canadians can even sue the rig’s American owner, Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company (ODECO), and operator, Mobil. Last
summer Neary travelled to Washington to speak against a bill in Congress that would prevent foreigners from again suing U.S.-owned companies in any such disaster. Many relatives have already collected life insurance, while dependants of other victims have received lump-sum payments from the Newfoundland Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) averaging $39,000, plus $900 per month and an education allowance for children. “That’s a small percentage of what the claimants will have lost in terms of the support of their breadwinners,” says Leo Barry, former
Conservative energy minister and lawyer for many of the “almost 50” Newfoundlanders suing for damages that range from $3 million for married men to $1 million for single ones. Barry does not know anyone who has dropped a suit because of the WCB awards and he expects a U.S. decision within “several months.” For those who falj into the legal crevices between the funds available—“I know of two households who would be out on the street if it were not for their families,” says Sister Lorraine—the decision will be critical.
Families will be among the keenest
observers of the commission. “I have had families call me, some from as far as the States, to say they will really be watching to see if earlier complaints about safety and morale are going to be dealt with,” she says.
Addressing those complaints may prove to be the commission’s hardest task. Says Neary: “The government still hasn’t faced up to whether it’s even safe to be out there drilling in the winter.” Steve Millan, head of the provincial Petroleum Directorate, says a committee has the issue “under constant study.” He adds, “It’s a very, very difficult question to answer—whether the risk is what could be termed normal or is way above what is normally accepted.” It is a question that will dog the royal commission throughout its three-year existence. Says Grenville: “The safety of
winter drilling is at the heart of our terms of reference.”
For all its costs, the commission’s main accounting task will be to weigh the human tragedy against the technology that could provide dollars to mend the province’s threadbare economy. Technology, in some form, will likely win out. Notes one official of the federal oil and gas lands administration: “A mechanical defect, not the storm, may have caused the loss of the Ranger. I’m of the opinion that, if we have the proper equipment and procedures, technology should allow winter drilling.” Nevertheless, there is always a gamble. With four drilling rigs planned off Newfoundland’s shores this winter, the stakes are especially high.
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