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15 oil companies agree to tanker-free zone in Keys

Fifteen of the nation's largest petroleum companies have agreed to keep their oil tankers and barges at least 10 miles away from the Florida Keys. Gov. Bob Martinez named the companies at a news conference Monday, saying he hopes the move will help protect the sensitive coral reef that lies offshore along the Keys.

The participating oil companies, which conduct about one-fourth of the shipping through the Florida Straits, volunteered to comply with the tanker-free zone Martinez proposed in the wake of last year's Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

"Given the environmental importance of these areas, we consider the costs associated with the 10-mile avoidance zone well-worth incurring," Amoco Transport Co. president Ed Roland said at the governor's news conference.

Roland is chairman of the American Petroleum Institute's Marine Transportation Committee. The 15 companies are members of the committee.

More than 5,000 ships pass through the straits each year, many of them carrying as much as 21-million gallons of oil.

Beginning April 1, 60 vessels that regularly traverse the area and 250 that pass through occasionally will avoid the area from Key Biscayne south to the Dry Tortugas.

"I suppose you could say there's always a potential for disaster, but this program moves that potential further from the coastline of Florida," Roland said.

But three-fourths of the straits traffic, much of it foreign, still can travel close to the Keys' sensitive coral reef.

In June, the U.S. Coast Guard will propose a permanent, mandatory ban on travel in the area to the International Maritime Organization, an agency of the United Nations that establishes international shipping routes.

The proposal would apply to all American and foreign vessels carrying oil and hazardous materials and all other vessels more than 175 feet long.

The Coast Guard will conduct public hearings on the proposal in Miami on March 6 and in Key West on March 8. Martinez will testify in favor of the plan at the Miami hearing.

Last fall, three cargo ships ran aground on the coral reef off the Keys within three weeks. Two of them were foreign freighters.

No oil was spilled, but the reef was damaged.

The Coast Guard's proposal would prevent such groundings, Paul Johnson, senior analyst for the governor's office of environmental affairs, said.

"There's a very good chance of getting the area off the Keys designated to be avoided by commercial shipping," Johnson said. "I think the environmental consciousness of other countries is becoming much greater."

The 15 companies that have agreed to avoid the Keys are: Amoco, Arco, Ashland, BP America, Chevron, Exxon, Interocean, Keystone, Mobil, Phillips 66, Shell, Sun, Texaco, Trinidad and Union.