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.
Eastern Lion spill in 1994 taught lesson in protecting sensitive areas
After that spill, federal and state agencies, the industry, and the Council participated in a facilitated, collaborative process to develop a tool that would protect the hatchery and salt marsh. The result, a decision matrix, was implemented in 1997 to ensure that protective boom is deployed before oil could reach these sensitive areas.
New workgroup to find a resolution
In exchange for dismissing the appeal, all parties will participate in a facilitated collaborative workgroup to reach consensus on how to ensure protection of the Duck Flats and hatchery. The 1997 matrix will remain in place until the workgroup concludes.
“The Council has long advocated that robust weather monitoring systems be placed at the Valdez Marine Terminal,” said Donna Schantz, executive director for the Council. “We are required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to study wind and water currents and other environmental factors in the vicinity of the terminal facilities, to determine how they might affect the ability to prevent, respond to, contain, and clean up an oil spill. These weather buoys will help us better achieve that goal.”
Donation and grant will help support data collection
To support these efforts, the Council has received a donation of two weather buoys from Fairweather Scientific, a subsidiary of Edison Chouest Offshore.
The first buoy, placed near the terminal, will be supported by the Council. A grant from the City of Valdez will support operating and maintenance costs of a second buoy, placed near the Duck Flats. It is anticipated that both buoys will be in operation for at least the next five years.
The wind and waves on the southern side of Port Valdez can be remarkably different than those recorded at the official weather stations located onshore in Valdez.
“Weather is a significant factor in the management of safe crude oil transportation through Prince William Sound,” added Schantz. “Marine safety, tanker escort operations, oil spill response planning, containment boom tactics, and oil tanker movements are all affected by weather. We are pleased by the support received to help us collect important scientific data to help prevent oil spills and improve response efforts should prevention measures fail.”
The buoys are expected to be in place this spring. Data from the buoys will be available online once they are in place and operating.
Photo: The Valdez Duck Flats is designated as a “environmentally sensitive area” in spill contingency planning.
How has oil transportation changed in Prince William Sound since 1989?
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation recently approved major amendments to oil spill contingency plans for both the Valdez Marine Terminal and for the tankers that transport oil through Prince William Sound. Both approvals came with conditions.
Neither the tanker plan, nor the terminal plan was due for a renewal. However, Edison Chouest Offshore is bringing so much new equipment and personnel to their new role as Alyeska’s marine services contractor that major changes were needed to both plans. Major amendments require a public comment period.
“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: