The changeover for the marine services contract for Alyeska is underway. By July of 2018, Edison Chouest Offshore, or ECO, of Louisiana will replace Crowley Marine Services for prevention and response services in Prince William Sound. Crowley Marine Services has held the contract since the creation of Alyeska’s Ship Escort/Response Vessel System after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Most of the current activity involves planning for the change. Even though the new vessels will not be arriving in Alaska until next year, ECO will be hiring personnel this year to begin training.
The Council has been participating in a series of information-sharing meetings with Alyeska, ECO, Crowley, the oil shippers, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Coast Guard. In late May and early June, Council representatives will travel to Louisiana to view the early stages of vessel construction. It is anticipated that another group will visit the shipyards in October and November when the construction is further along.
The Council will also provide input on expected revisions to the oil spill contingency plans for Prince William Sound, possibly as early as this summer. Anytime a new vessel or equipment is introduced into the system, changes must be made to the plans.
The Council is partnering with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to host a workgroup that will provide advice on drills, exercises, and training. The U.S. Coast Guard, Alyeska, and representatives from the oil shipping companies have indicated they will participate.
The Council is developing recommendations for drills and training protocols to help verify that the new ECO vessels and personnel are able to meet their intended use in the spill prevention and response system. All of the vessels, except the utility tug Ross Chouest, are brand new and some aspects of the designs are untested.
Independent Council review of tug designs finds many improvements, some areas of concern
A Council report released in February caused concern about some of the design aspects of the new vessels. After the Council received drawings and technical information, the Council commissioned a report that looked at each vessel and its intended use.
The new vessels, including five escort tugs, four general purpose tugs, a utility tug, and four open-water response barges, represent a significant improvement for the oil spill prevention and response system. In some cases, the new general purpose tugs will replace existing conventional tugs that are over 40 years old.
Winch technology has improved drastically in recent years. The ECO vessels will be equipped with “render/recover” winches, by Rolls-Royce. These new winches automatically maintain constant tension on a line, improving safety and performance, which helps prevent losing a tow.
Another upgrade to the escort tugs is the addition of forward-looking infrared and digital radar signal processing systems to improve the detection of icebergs, as well as enhancing the ability to detect spilled oil in water should prevention measures fail.
Response equipment has also improved. The barges will carry new “coated disc skimmers” developed by Louisiana’s Crucial, Inc. During testing, these new skimmers collected crude oil more efficiently than older skimmers, which means less water mixes with the oil as it is skimmed off the water.
The Council’s initial analysis found some potential flaws in the design of the tugs. In some cases, the information provided by Alyeska before the analysis was not detailed enough to fully verify certain aspects.
“Our job is to independently review spill prevention and response plans, verify equipment and personnel capabilities, and advocate for the highest level of safeguards to protect the environment as well as the economic, social, and overall well-being of the people who live and work in the region,” said Donna Schantz, executive director for the Council.
Most vessels are already under construction at ECO shipyards in Louisiana.
“While the Council is encouraged by some of the improvements that will come with this transition, our review has revealed some areas of concern that the Council has brought to the attention of Alyeska, so they can hopefully be addressed before construction is complete,” added Schantz. “Alyeska has been responsive to the concerns identified, and has stated that some modifications are already being worked.”
Alyeska has stated that some of the information covered in the Council’s analysis has been updated, and has shared some of those details with the Council. The Council is continuing to review information as it is provided by Alyeska and may modify findings and recommendations as appropriate.
The Council has also shared the report with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Coast Guard, as the state and federal regulatory agencies overseeing the transition.