Thirty years later, Council continues mission to combat complacency

Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz
Executive Director

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil. Congress determined that complacency on the part of industry and government was a contributing factor in the accident and they mandated citizen involvement in the oversight of crude oil terminals and tankers. For the past 30 years, the Council has filled this role for Prince William Sound and its downstream communities, advocating for environmental safeguards to prevent oil spills and a strong response system should prevention measures fail.

Improvements since 1989

Measures developed with Council participation since 1989 represent vast improvements in oil spill prevention and response. We have double-hull tankers, high-performance escort tugs, a much-improved workforce, state-of-the art equipment for recovering oil, and a fleet of over 400 trained fishing vessels and crews ready to respond promptly to an oil spill. We also have improved communications between the oil industry and the state and federal governments, and more oil spill clean-up equipment than probably any other U.S. port. This has taken considerable effort on the part of industry, regulators, the Council, and other members of the public.

Some recent examples of improvements include new purpose-built tugs and oil spill response barges that came on line with the marine services transition in 2018, and new technology that allows pipelines at the Valdez Marine Terminal to be internally inspected, which had not been done since start-up over 40 years ago.

Read moreThirty years later, Council continues mission to combat complacency

New buoys will collect data about winds and currents in Port Valdez

Photo of the Valdez Duck Flats.

In February, the Council reached an agreement with Alyeska that will improve knowledge about weather conditions in Port Valdez. Alyeska has agreed to allow a buoy to be installed in front of the Valdez Marine Terminal to measure winds and surface currents. A second buoy will collect data from a nearby salt marsh.

Agreement reached on appeal to amendment of spill contingency plan

The agreement is the outcome of an appeal to a 2017 amendment to the oil spill contingency plan for the terminal.

In that 2017 amendment, Alyeska replaced a tool used by responders in deciding whether to protect the salt marsh known as the Valdez Duck Flats, and the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery in case of a spill from the terminal. The Council, the City of Valdez, the Valdez Fisheries Development Association, and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation appealed the 2017 change. They were concerned the new tool would not adequately protect these two environmentally sensitive areas.

Read moreNew buoys will collect data about winds and currents in Port Valdez

New study analyzes weather at Hinchinbrook Entrance

A recent Council-sponsored report found that wind and waves at Hinchinbrook Entrance may be under reported as observed by the Seal Rocks weather buoy.

Researchers from Tetra Tech analyzed wind and wave data to better define weather conditions at the Entrance, as well as how these conditions might affect rescue operations by the escort tugs. To do this, researchers looked at the frequency and duration of weather events when the Entrance was closed to laden tankers.

Average closure conditions

A "wind rose" graphic that shows the speed and direction of wind as recorded at Seal Rocks.
This “wind rose” graphic shows the speed and direction of wind as recorded at Seal Rocks.

Wave height alone was found to be the cause of most of the closures, occurring 10 to 26 times a year on average. Average wave height during closures was over 17 feet and the highest recorded wave was over 26 feet. Wind speed closes the Entrance one to three times annually, as do closures for both wind and waves. Winds average just over 54 miles per hour during closure and the highest recorded wind speed was over 61 miles per hour.

Closures for winds typically last less than two hours, while waves close the Entrance for an average of just over six hours.

Seal Rocks buoy’s data may not be precise

Read moreNew study analyzes weather at Hinchinbrook Entrance

Out-of-service buoy and winter storms raise concerns

An out-of-service buoy and a series of recent storms have combined to raise concern at the Council about tanker transit procedures during period with the high wind speeds and wave heights in which tankers are allowed to travel through Prince William Sound.

Seal Rocks buoy out of service


From May until December of 2018, a critical buoy located near Hinchinbrook Entrance was out-of-service. This buoy, referred to as “Seal Rocks buoy,” collects wind speed and wave height data. That information is used by the U.S. Coast Guard to make decisions as to whether Hinchinbrook Entrance is open or closed to outbound laden oil tanker traffic. When this buoy is inoperable, the U.S. Coast Guard uses data from two nearby buoys, Cape Cleare and Cape Suckling, along with reports from Edison Chouest Offshore, or ECO, tug crews that are sent out to observe wind and waves to make Hinchinbrook Entrance open and closure decisions.

In November and December, several winter storms came through Prince William Sound that raised concern about these alternate methods for reporting weather conditions at the Entrance.

Read moreOut-of-service buoy and winter storms raise concerns