30 years after Exxon Valdez

Title is Then and Now: 30 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

How has oil transportation changed in Prince William Sound since 1989?

Image of cover of Then and Now 30 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Read more about the changes and remaining concerns in our new publication: Then and Now: 30 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (PDF)

The immediate cause of 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was a navigational error on the part of the tanker’s captain and crew. However, Congress found that complacency among the oil industry and the regulatory agencies responsible for monitoring the operation of the Valdez terminal and vessel traffic in Prince William Sound was also a contributing factor in the disaster.

Few prevention measures were in place and cleanup resources were inadequate.

Since 1989, regulatory agencies, the industry, and citizens have been working together on improved methods to prevent oil spills and how to be better prepared to clean up if another spill should occur.

Laws and Regulations

One of the most important results of the oil spill was the enactment of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, or “OPA 90,” which addressed many deficiencies, including liability, compensation, and oversight. The law required two citizens’ oversight councils, one for Prince William Sound and one for Cook Inlet.

Both federal and state laws now require more comprehensive prevention measures and planning for larger spills and require more spill response equipment to be immediately available.

Read more30 years after Exxon Valdez

Drills test new response equipment and personnel

Photo of representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservations and SERVS monitoring as as responders from the fishing vessel fleet deploy boom in Golden Bay, northwest Prince William Sound.

Exercises required for marine transition

A series of drills and exercises, including one large no-notice drill, helped assess the new system in Prince William Sound.

Throughout the past year, Alyeska conducted a series of exercises designed to meet requirements from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and train the crews aboard Edison Chouest Offshore’s new vessels. Some exercises were conducted during windy conditions and others during darkness.

Photo of crews practicing oil spill response at night.
The Council believes safely incorporating realistic challenges into drills and exercises increases safety during a real response. This photo from a July 2018 exercise shows how response crews practice deploying oil spill boom at night.

In June, the department approved major amendments to the oil spill contingency plans for the Valdez Marine Terminal and the tankers that transport oil through Prince William Sound. These amendments stemmed from the change of spill prevention and response contractors to Edison Chouest Offshore, who took over from Crowley Maritime last July. The approval came with conditions, which required specific exercises and training for the new equipment and personnel.

The department required each of the five escort tugs, the four general purpose tugs, and the Ross Chouest utility tug to conduct exercises with oil spill response barges. In addition, the department specified that some of these exercises had to occur in winds of at least 20 knots (23 miles per hour) and in darkness.

Some exercises tested the tugs’ spill prevention capabilities. Each of the five escort tugs stopped a laden tanker traveling at 10 knots (over 11 miles per hour) and at 6 knots (almost 7 miles per hour). All tugs demonstrated their abilities to stop and tow a stricken tanker.

Many of these exercises were completed during the summer prior to July 1, when Edison Chouest officially took over the contract, but some of the darkness and heavier weather events took place after the transition.

Alyeska was given until December 31, 2018 to complete these exercises, however they were completed earlier. All vessels met the department’s standards.

With these new assets approved, the current version of the tanker plan will be in place through February 2022. The terminal’s plan is up for renewal later this year.

Annual fall shippers’ drill

Crowley Alaska Tankers hosted a large-scale table-top exercise in October.

For this annual drill, the role of the “spiller” alternates among the shipping companies that move oil through Prince William Sound. Crowley Alaska Tankers’ new role in the Prince William Sound system means they join the rotation. (Approximately 200?) Two hundred people participated in this drill.

This year, the scenario involved a tanker colliding with an out of control vessel causing an instantaneous release of 140,000 barrels, or almost 6 million gallons, of crude oil into central Prince William Sound. Simulated weather moved the spill towards the village of Tatitlek; a trajectory typically not usually played in these sorts of large exercises.

One of the exercise highlights was the Regional Stakeholders Committee. This committee is an avenue for stakeholders to offer their support, resources, and expertise, as well as to express their concerns, to the response leaders in the event of a spill. Representatives from the City of Valdez, the City of Whittier, and the Council participated during this drill.

No-notice drill included equipment deployments

In November, the department surprised Alyeska with a larger-scale unannounced drill. This was the first unannounced drill in recent memory to be held at night.

The call came at 5:57 p.m. on November 6. The scenario was that the crew of a tug smelled spilled oil while escorting a loaded tanker through the Sound. The department asked Alyeska to deploy two open water task forces, each of which included an oil spill response barge and associated equipment. Five fishing vessels under contract with Alyeska for spill response participated in the drill.

Council staff were on hand for the exercise, and observers were pleased that the drill included several challenges that added realism, including:

  • The drill was planned to last 18 hours to simulate the long hours of a real event.
  • Crews were asked to don protective gear which would be needed in the event of an actual spill. Previous drills had not required as much gear. Council observers noted several issues, including the challenge of communicating while wearing a respirator and that not all personnel wore the protective equipment.
  • A buoy was set adrift for responders to simulate tracking an actual oil slick.

    Photo of responders removing a section of boom.
    Five previously untested “geographic response strategies” were deployed in September.
    Geographic response strategies are oil spill response plans tailored to protect specific environmentally sensitive sites. By selecting and mapping these locations in advance, these strategies can save time during the critical first few hours of oil spill response.
    Deploying equipment at these sites is important to verify that the plans work as intended. In this photo, responders from the fishing vessel fleet remove a section of boom after it was discovered anticipated boom lengths were too long at this site.
Photo of representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservations and SERVS monitoring as as responders from the fishing vessel fleet deploy boom in Golden Bay, northwest Prince William Sound.
Representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservations and SERVS look on as responders from the fishing vessel fleet deploy boom in Golden Bay, northwest Prince William Sound.

More details

There are just a few highlights of the drills and exercises observed by the Council every year. Additional details are available in our annual drill monitoring report, available online: Preparedness Monitoring

Community Corner: Council fosters pathways to engaged citizens

Photo of Betsi Oliver, outreach coordinator.

By Betsi Oliver
Outreach Coordinator

What makes the difference between youth who develop careers and other roles protecting our ecosystem versus those who don’t?

When youth develop a personal connection to the outdoors, an understanding of and interest in science, and civic engagement experience, they develop into young adults who are engaged, informed, and passionate.

In previous jobs I implemented youth education programs that were supported by the Council. As a mentor for the young participants, I saw that a web of interconnected experiences provides a strong foundation for their development. For a young person, finding a next step gives meaning to the fun field trip they did in elementary or middle school, turning it into their context for participating in Science Bowl, an internship, a volunteer effort, or an academic path.

Read moreCommunity Corner: Council fosters pathways to engaged citizens

Outreach coordinator Matlock leaves the Council

Lisa Matlock makes a new friend at the 2014 Copper River Wild! festival in Cordova.
Outreach Coordinator Lisa Matlock makes a new friend at the 2014 Copper River Wild! festival in Cordova.

After five years spreading awareness about the Council’s work to citizens in the communities affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Lisa Matlock recently left the Council. As outreach coordinator, she worked with all of the Council’s committees, but particularly with the Information and Education Committee, fostering public awareness, responsibility, and participation in the Council’s activities through information and education.

Matlock joined the Council in 2013 with twenty years of experience in science education and extensive knowledge of coastal Alaska. From her first days at the Council, she traveled the region, presenting educational programs, talking to city councils, and coordinating community receptions. She promoted programs that involve students in the Council’s mission and took the information booth to many conferences each year. Along the way, she encouraged young and old alike to become stewards of Prince William Sound.

Matlock is responsible for one of the Council’s most popular new programs in recent years: community tours of Alyeska’s oil spill response training for local vessels. Local mariners, mostly fishing crews, are trained each year in spill response techniques so that they are prepared to help in case of a spill. The trainings are held in Valdez, Cordova, Whittier, Seward, Kodiak, and Matlock’s former home, Homer.

“Each spring I watched a fleet of fishing boats carrying noisy, funny-looking machines and pulling long orange and yellow lines around in circles near the Spit,” Matlock has said about the program “I can remember asking, “What are they doing out there?””
When Matlock joined the Council in 2013, she found out. She decided more people needed to know about Alyeska’s program, so she set about making sure that happened.

The resulting program, a partnership between the Council, Alyeska, local businesses, and nonprofits, has travelled to Seward, Cordova, Homer, and Whittier so far. Hundreds of local residents now understand how this unique spill response program works. Today, this program strengthens an important bond between communities, fishermen, industry, citizen oversight groups, and marine conservation efforts.

New outreach coordinator

Betsi Oliver

Matlock’s replacement, Betsi Oliver, joined the Anchorage staff in September.

Her science educator background began with a job as a science camp counselor which led her to an internship as an environmental educator at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge soon after college. In the ten years since, she has served as an AmeriCorps volunteer creating outreach materials about Prince William Sound, worked at the Bureau of Land Management’s Campbell Creek Science Center, guided sea kayak tours from Seward for two summers, and ran the youth engagement program at Alaska Geographic.

Oliver created a new program for Alaska Geographic, guiding teens and local teachers on sea kayak expeditions in Prince William Sound, part of the Chugach Children’s Forest program. The program was co-funded by the Council as part of efforts to involve students in the mission of the Council.

Prior to joining the Council, she worked as the grants manager for Anchorage Park Foundation, taught wilderness first aid, and led courses for the Chugach School District.

“The overlapping combo of science, teaching, outreach, travel, connection to small Alaska communities, complex partnership cultivation, volunteer coordination, and in particular long-term impact to the communities and environment creates a work profile that feels very meaningful and fulfilling,” Oliver says about her new position.

Popovici moving on

Shawna Popovici
Shawna Popovici

Shawna Popovici, the project manager assistant for the Anchorage office, resigned in January.

Popovici worked closely with the Council’s Information and Education, Scientific Advisory, Legislative Affairs, and Board Governance committees and managed the Council’s extensive internal document management system.

Popovici accepted a management position with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. She will be heading up the Interpretation and Education efforts for the division.

Popovici joined the Council in 2015.