Coast Guard raises Y2K warning flag

SAN DIEGO— Year 2000 date-code problems in oil tankers could lead to an oil spill in a U.S. port or slow the flow of imported oil to U.S. communities, some of which have "only a three- or four-day supply of oil,'' the Coast Guard's chief information officer said last week.

Speaking here at the Navy Connecting Technology Conference, Coast Guard CIO Rear Adm. George Naccara said concerns about computer chips that control oil pumps on vessels and in on-shore storage facilities could force the Coast Guard to issue a directive telling tankers "not to offload cargo on Dec. 31, 1999." The Coast Guard can issue an order against oil offloading from tankers under its mandate to ensure marine safety in U.S. coastal waters and ports.

The Coast Guard also is worried about how the Year 2000 problem will affect the marine transportation industry, especially the 7,000-plus foreign-flagged vessels, which make more than 80,000 visits a year to U.S. ports. Over the years, these ships have been automated with information systems that have allowed ship owners to cut costs by reducing the size of crews. Today, even the largest tankers can operate with only a crew of 10.

Naccara said that at this stage the Coast Guard has little knowledge of the Year 2000 compliance of the numerous embedded systems on ships. But his concern has captured the attention of White House Year 2000 czar John Koskinen, who has made the shipping problem "one of his top five priorities."

Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, was unavailable for comment. A council spokesman confirmed that the problem is among Koskinen's top priorities.

Naccara said the embedded-chip problems in some ships could come close to halting them dead in the water. "Some [vessels] may have problems crossing the ocean,'' which also could put a crimp in the nation's oil supply.

Natasha Brown, a spokeswoman for the International Maritime Organization in London, said officials in the group's safety division are not aware of this Year 2000 issue.

Chevron in San Francisco does not anticipate Year 2000 problems to affect the importing of oil. However, the company will not operate vessels in restricted water, such as narrow passages or ports, on Dec. 31, 1999, because officials are concerned that on-board systems may receive contaminated data from systems that are not Year 2000-compliant.

Chevron is testing its 35 tankers— a process that will take nine days and cost about $15,000 per tanker.

Officials with other major oil companies and associations could not be reached for comment.

The Year 2000 marine infrastructure problems extend beyond oil tankers, Naccara said, to items such as the giant cranes that offload containers from cargo ships. The Coast Guard also has started to develop contingency plans to mitigate problems with critical infrastructure systems, such as the electrical power grid.

Naccara said the Coast Guard has an ongoing "broad outreach effort'' to provide Year 2000 information to every segment of the marine community, including briefing the International Maritime Organization and distributing Year 2000 brochures to foreign-flagged tankers and recreational boats. Despite these efforts, Naccara said, "I have no doubt we have great exposure [in the marine transportation environment] due to the weakness of embedded chips."

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