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.

What has improved in oil spill prevention since the Exxon Valdez oil spill?

Double hulls

All tankers transporting oil through Prince William Sound are now double-hulled. Double hulls, basically two steel skins separated by several feet of space, are an effective design feature which can reduce or eliminate spills that result from groundings or collisions.

Alyeska’s Ship Escort/Response Vessel System

A fishing vessel practices using oil spill boom and skimmers during fishing vessel training last year. The fishermen bring valuable knowledge about local waters during a spill response. Fishing vessel response was a major improvement in oil spill prevention and response since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Photo by Cathy Hart.
A fishing vessel practices using oil spill boom and skimmers during fishing vessel training last year. The fishermen bring valuable knowledge about local waters during a spill response. Fishing vessel response was a major improvement in oil spill prevention and response since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Photo by Cathy Hart.

The Ship Escort/Response Vessel System, known as SERVS, was developed after the Exxon Valdez spill. SERVS’ mission is to prevent oil spills by escorting tankers to ensure they navigate safely through Prince William Sound, provide assistance in order to avoid an accident should the tanker experience an engine failure or other malfunction, and to begin immediate response if there is a spill. SERVS maintains a fleet of large escort tugs, keeps trained response crews on duty around the clock, and has spill response equipment ready to respond.

Improved tanker escorts

The system’s powerful tugs escort all loaded tankers from the terminal at Valdez, through Prince William Sound and Hinchinbrook Entrance, and out into the Gulf of Alaska. Two tugs accompany each laden tanker out of Prince William Sound, with one tug tethered to the tanker until it reaches Central Sound where there is more room to maneuver. One tug will stand by at the Entrance to the Sound until the tanker is 17miles out into the Gulf of Alaska.

Risks from human error

All tanker captains, and any crew member suspected of consuming alcohol, are now subject to alcohol tests before sailing. Crews now receive more training and work hours are limited to reduce accidents caused by fatigue.

Monitoring marine traffic

The Coast Guard now monitors the speed and heading of all tankers and other vessels in Prince William Sound through improved radar and the Automatic Identification System. Vessels equipped with this system transmit real-time information about their locations and movements that is made available to the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic System offices in Valdez, as well as Council offices, and others.

What has improved in oil spill response since the Exxon Valdez oil spill?

While prevention measures are the best way to avoid environmental damage from oil spills, even the best system cannot remove all risks. Oil spill response in Prince William Sound has seen many improvements since 1989. Alyeska’s SERVS is now considered one of the best oil spill prevention and response forces in the world.

In 2018, Alyeska began work with their new spill prevention and response contractor, Edison Chouest Offshore. These services include operation of escort tugs, oil recovery storage barges, and associated personnel. These resources are key oil spill prevention and response assets for Prince William Sound. To fulfill their contract, Edison Chouest built nine new tugs and four spill response barges, which represents a significant improvement for the oil spill prevention and response system. In some cases, new general-purpose tugs replaced conventional tugs that were over 40 years old.
In 2018, Alyeska began work with their new spill prevention and response contractor, Edison Chouest Offshore. These services include operation of escort tugs, oil recovery storage barges, and associated personnel. These resources are key oil spill prevention and response assets for Prince William Sound.
To fulfill their contract, Edison Chouest built nine new tugs and four spill response barges, which represents a significant improvement for the oil spill prevention and response system. In some cases, new general-purpose tugs replaced conventional tugs that were over 40 years old. 

Contingency plans

Contingency plans, extensive documents which contain details on preventing and cleaning up oil spills, are required by state and federal law. The requirements in these plans have expanded since 1989 and now must demonstrate that larger spills can be contained and cleaned up with more spill response equipment and trained crews that are immediately available.

Some changes in the contingency plans since 1989 include:

  • Local fishing vessels are an integral part of the response plans. The crews, located in the ports of Valdez, Cordova, Whittier, Homer, Seward, and Kodiak, are contracted by Alyeska to respond in the event of a spill, and trained every year in spill cleanup methods.
  • More emphasis on shoreline protection and wildlife protection.
  • Special strategies have been developed to protect specific areas that have been identified as a sensitive area or a critical resource, such as salmon streams or hatcheries.

Spill response equipment

Photo of Crucial skimmers and Buster spill boom systems with caption: The combination of the new Crucial skimmers with Buster boom systems have increased oil skimming efficiency since 1989.
The combination of the new Crucial skimmers with Buster boom systems have increased oil skimming efficiency since 1989.

In 1989, there were only 13 oil-skimming systems in Alyeska’s response inventory; today, 100 units are available. Only 5 miles of oil spill boom were available in 1989; today, over 50 miles of various types of boom are available. Alyeska had only about 220,000 gallons of storage capacity for recovered oil and oily water immediately after the Exxon Valdez spill; today, on-water storage capacity is now over 34 million gallons.

Spill drills

Before 1989, few oil spill drills were conducted in Prince William Sound. Today, three major exercises take place per year, along with several smaller drills. The drills provide opportunities for response personnel to work with equipment and practice procedures.

Improvements at the terminal

For the first twenty years of operations at the terminal, thousands of tons of toxic vapors were emitted annually during the tanker loading process. These harmful vapors threatened the health of the terminal’s workers and Valdez residents. In 1997, Alyeska installed vapor controls at two loading berths, which nearly eliminated the pollution from loading operations.

The Ballast Water Treatment Facility, designed to clean oily residue from tanker ballast water before it is released back into the environment, has also seen improvements. A system has been installed to reduce the vapors released into the environment from the facility. Over the years, emissions from the Ballast Water Treatment Facility have been reduced.

Concerns remain

Although there have been many improvements, there are still many areas of concern, meriting the continued attention and sustained efforts from the Council. A few of these include:

  • Complacency: Rollbacks or weakening of state and federal environmental protections.
  • Heavy weather operations: The safety of escort tug crews and their ability to respond during strong winds and waves has been questioned due to lack of training in all conditions in which the tugs are expected to operate.
  • Response gap: Studies by the Council have shown that it is not possible to effectively clean up an oil spill during the strong winds and waves in which tankers are allowed to transport oil.
  • Aging infrastructure: The terminal is over 40 years old and was originally designed for 30 years of service.

Then and Now

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


 

Protecting Winter Wildlife from Oil Spills

By Lisa Matlock

Steller sea lions are just one species of many found in Prince William Sound during the winter. Photo by Dave Janka.

“What lives here in the winter?” This is a question anyone might ask when visiting Prince William Sound in the off-season. It is also a question recently asked by local organizations in order to better protect these rich waters and their wildlife occupants year-round from oil spills.

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council worked with the Prince William Sound Science Center in 2016 to complete a biological resource inventory of winter species in the Sound. The goal of this project was to develop a detailed bibliography documenting the presence of all wildlife studied in the Sound during the winter since 1989. This project allows this information to be shared with anyone working or visiting the region.

The resulting paper also identifies gaps in knowledge regarding the Sound’s winter species to be filled by future researchers. It provides valuable, scientifically accurate information that can be used by the Council and others to identify sensitive biological resources which informs oil spill contingency plans and helps spill responders and spill drill participants better consider winter species when protecting sensitive areas from harm.

To see the list of winter species download the final report:

Winter Species in Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1989-2016

 

Community Corner: Citizen scientists help the Council monitor our region

By Lisa Matlock, Outreach Coordinator

Lisa Matlock

One of the Council’s federal mandates involves environmental monitoring. With a small staff and vast geographic area, this monitoring takes many forms. Monitoring is often done by staff or contractors, but some monitoring takes place thanks to the Council’s volunteers and interns – all citizen scientists.

Since 2014, the Council has had high school interns in the community of Cordova who help monitor for aquatic invasive species. Three interns, Sarah Hoepfner, Cadi Moffitt, and currently Cori Pegau, have volunteered to hang sturdy plastic “settling plates” in the Cordova harbor each spring, to be picked up in the fall. The interns check the organisms that accumulate on the plate for critters such as invasive tunicates and bryozoans.

Read moreCommunity Corner: Citizen scientists help the Council monitor our region

Plan for applying dispersants to crude oil spills in Alaska waters updated

Stricter rules applicable in certain areas

This map from the ARRT (larger image at the link) shows the “preauthorized area” between 24 and 200 nautical miles from shore (within the green boundaries). Within the preauthorized areas, some “avoidance areas” have been reclassified (striped areas) and will require the case-by-case approval.

The Alaska Regional Response Team, or ARRT, recently updated a list of areas that would receive extra scrutiny before dispersants are applied to a crude oil spill. The update completes the planned changes to the Dispersant Use Plan for Alaska. The plan is a guide for spill responders, and it spells out how oil spill dispersants would be used during a crude oil spill. The previous dispersant use plan had not been updated since 1989.

The first changes went into effect in 2016. Two different processes for deciding whether to use dispersants, depending on the location of the spill, were developed at that time. The application of dispersants is now considered “preauthorized” except for “avoidance” areas. In an avoidance area, a decision to use dispersants must undergo more extensive scrutiny on a case-by-case basis.

By pre-authorizing use of dispersants in certain areas, the ARRT can speed up the decision-making time on whether or not to use dispersants. Consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries Services is still required before dispersants would be used in a preauthorization area. For avoidance areas, additional consultation and a consensus between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Department of Commerce, and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is required prior to use.

There is a short window of time after a spill when dispersants should be applied. Dispersants work best on freshly spilled oil.

Read morePlan for applying dispersants to crude oil spills in Alaska waters updated