Working together effectively is a matter of balance and finding the middle road

Council Executive Director

Mark Swanson
Mark Swanson

Almost every issue of significance comes to us with strongly divergent viewpoints. In the oil transportation industry, for example, some say more regulations are needed while others say less regulations would be better. Often we as human beings dismiss a view opposite our own. Today, people have the opportunity to segregate and isolate themselves to a great extent. They may have little occasion to associate with others or be exposed to information about differing viewpoints or beliefs. With political re-districting, politicians in the majority party get to pick their voters instead of voters picking their politicians. These tendencies can lead to increasingly polarized viewpoints on the issues that affect us all. We are losing the ability to find common ground and mentally stand in the other person’s shoes enough to see balanced viewpoints. Combine these trends with winner take all style elections and decisions by authority figures and we end up with hostile and marginalized losers and arrogant and callous winners on virtually every issue. Eventually, when things get so lopsided that the pendulum swings the other way, it is often abrupt and disruptive. This is neither good nor sustainable.

Council strives to find middle ground

The council aims to come up with sound advice and reasonable solutions that are balanced and benefit a broad collection of stakeholders with disparate views, all affected by the environmentally safe operation of Alyeska’s terminal and tankers. For example, the council would like to see the risk of oil spills from previously uninspected piping or crude oil tanks at the terminal eliminated or at least reduced to a level as low as reasonably practicable. Currently, the terminal’s pipe and tank inspections are expensive and disrupt operations. However, oil spills are also expensive, disrupt operations, and damage reputations. The council has recommended the application of industry and regulatory best practices as a balanced tried and true solution to address these intersecting concerns and balance cost with benefits.

Often there is no tried and true answer. Finding a solution can be difficult. Sometimes, as a mental exercise, simply articulating the extremes that neither side would advocate for helps to paint a path and better define the middle ground where a consensus or acceptable compromise can be found. Another method is a robust exposure to and familiarity with the opposing view holders’ concerns. Based on who we work for, how we were raised and other differentiating factors, some viewpoints are naturally opposed. So often we don’t really all want the same thing, at least not as a primary motivator. However, we often could accept many of the same things, preserving elements that are important to us, and letting go of our lesser concerns that are more important to other parties.

Workgroups help find a balanced solution

Workgroups are one common way to find middle ground when the workgroup’s principals are appropriate to ensure success. To achieve their intended purpose of finding a compromise, all participants in a workgroup need to share a commitment not only to participate and advocate for their own positions, but to listen, respect and make a good faith attempt to accommodate the concerns of other participants. Supervisors of work group participants, back in their own potentially more homogeneous and polarized work environments, with less exposure to and concern for divergent viewpoints, need to resist the urge to subvert that consensus building process that naturally arises among good faith workgroup participants.

Extreme solutions are fundamentally unhelpful and unsustainable. The council is looking for balanced solutions to help us and our industry and regulatory counterparts promote and ensure the environmentally safe operation of the Alyeska Marine Terminal and associated tankers. Let’s roll up our sleeves together.

From the Executive Director: Dispersant use in spill response a concern for many

By Mark Swanson
Executive Director
Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

The council has long been skeptical about the use of dispersants in responding to oil spills in our local waters. Until they can be shown to be effective and environmentally beneficial, the council does not recommend their use and advocates for mechanical clean-up options with booms and skimmers that physically remove the spilled oil from the environment.

How do dispersants work?

The theory behind dispersants is that in some situations it may be environmentally preferential to chemically disperse spilled oil into the water column rather than allow spilled oil to hit a beach or shoreline. In theory, this would dilute the oil throughout the water column, reducing the acute concentrations and toxic effects of oil on the water’s surface. The increased surface area and smaller oil droplet size then helps expedite biodegradation from oil degrading bacteria.

Why is the council concerned about dispersants?

Council research has shown that dispersant effectiveness is significantly decreased in the cold and low salinity waters of Prince William Sound. Our research indicates that the underwater mixing depth available for dispersion in deep coastal Alaskan waters is reduced, in warmer months, to a shallow freshwater lens of glacial runoff and snow melt water sitting atop the denser saltwater. Council-funded laboratory studies have also shown that chemically dispersed oil is more toxic than naturally dispersed oil. These studies have demonstrated that key local species like herring, salmon and cod are adversely affected when exposed to far lower hydrocarbon concentrations than previously suspected, in the parts per billion realm rather than parts per million. Actual experience with dispersed oil in Alaskan waters is relatively limited and includes only small dispersant applications trialed during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s listing of dispersants as an approved response product in the National Contingency Plan is currently based on manufacturer-supplied effectiveness and toxicity data. The agency is in the process of updating this part of the plan, but the process has been slow. As of July 2013, the updated rule is with Office of Management and Budget and will next go out for public comment. There are many shortcomings with the current “approved product schedule” that need to be addressed, including:

  • The toxicity data provided by the manufacturers is based on short term exposure mortality results for two species that don’t even exist in Alaskan waters: mysid shrimp and silverside minnows.
  • There is no consideration of human exposures.
  • There is no consideration of dispersed oil impacts to other locally important or endangered species, unless local response teams decide to require toxicity testing.

The council is conducting limited research on one whale species but the impacts of chemically dispersed oil on other endangered species present in Alaska is largely unknown.

In summary, due to our cold and highly stratified water column and the lack of research on local species in regards to dispersant impacts, dispersants simply do not seem like the best option for our local waters.

The BP spill focused public attention on dispersants

Due to the unprecedented extensive application of dispersants both at the surface and at the ocean floor well head during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, significant additional public attention and research has been focused on dispersants. Whether it was dispersants or other factors, it appears that much of the oil stayed in the water column instead of collecting on the surface and impacting beaches and life on the surface. The short and long term environmental impacts of dispersant use in the Gulf of Mexico are still being studied but initial reports generally appear less than positive.

Diverse views on dispersants

Following the Deepwater Horizon spill, the scientific community and a wide swath of environmental organizations seem to have increased their anecdotal and research-backed reasons for questioning the use of dispersants. At the same time, some federal oil spill response managers appear to see dispersants as a far more effective oil spill response tool than mechanical recovery. These agencies are pushing to ensure that dispersants are pre-approved for use in every state and region. The ongoing update of the Alaska Regional Response Team’s Dispersant Usage Guidelines is part of that larger national process, and the council has provided comments. These comments support the idea of basing dispersant use decisions on the clarification of critically important local effectiveness and environmental impact-benefit questions. This can in part be achieved by directing spill response coordinators to appropriate incident specific consultations with resource trustee agencies.

Other groups are becoming galvanized around the issue of dispersants. Dozens of coastal Alaska Native tribal councils have signed resolutions opposing the use of dispersants in their subsistence waters. In May, three environmental organizations won a lawsuit requiring the federal agencies in charge of oil spill response in the San Francisco area to establish the impact on their local endangered species prior to pre-approval of dispersants. Three other organizations coordinated a national day of action to ban dispersants on June 18th.

The bottom line is that dispersant use is a concern to many. With national public response policy running in apparent opposition to gathering public environmental and human health concerns, the need for stakeholder engagement on this issue is great.

For a summary and links to key council research on this issue please visit our website:

Sustaining our resolve to push for improvements in the face of lingering complacency

From the Executive Director


Another year has passed marking yet another anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. That spill changed everything about the way spills are prevented and cleaned up, not only for the U.S. but worldwide.

24 years later, much has changed for the better, but we are still confronting many familiar concerns about industry, regulatory and even public complacency. We have a great system of spill prevention and response. We also have many areas where we have unaddressed vulnerabilities where we can and must do better. Often, there doesn’t seem to be sufficient interest or an obvious mechanism to drive the needed improvements. Here are just a few examples.

We know there are internationally recognized best practices available to make the Prince William Sound escort tugs safer and significantly increase their capabilities in rough conditions. Unfortunately, both industry and regulators have expressed their comfort with the current system and have questioned the timing and definition of best available.

Both regulators and industry acknowledge that existing regulations requiring routine inspections of the 800 mile pipeline do not apply to pipes at the terminal. As a result, many pipes at the terminal have gone uninspected for three and a half decades, allowing, in one instance, corrosion to consume almost 70% of the original steel on a few overwater piping welds. Regulators feel compelled to accept assurances of rigorous maintenance and inspection processes in lieu of explicitly requiring actual maintenance and inspection.

We still cannot effectively clean up oil at night, pick up oil in rough weather, or achieve anywhere near the recovery rate that our contingency plans assume. However, many regulators fret that there is insufficient leverage to challenge long standing assumptions and require substantial amendments to these cleanup plans.

We have cold oil in the pipeline with associated issues that have resulted in damage to cleaning pigs and elements of the safety systems at the Valdez Marine Terminal. Many of these risks of cold oil and some potential solutions, including heaters, were identified over 25 years ago. Alyeska is starting to address these risks by recirculating oil at pump stations, which helps, and by studying longer-term solutions.

The terminal has 18 crude oil tanks that can each hold half a million barrels of oil. The tank roofs are not rated for the heavy snows routinely seen in the Valdez area and often must be shoveled to stay within safety margins. While only 14 tanks are still in active use, routine once-a-decade inspection of internal tank structures does not actually include a detailed verification of the internal tank roof structures.

We have a terminal designed for magnitude 8.5 earthquakes in a region that has historically experienced magnitude 9.2 and greater earthquakes.

Sometimes, the known remaining risks are being comprehensively addressed albeit slowly. Objectively, older ships are riskier to operate than newer ships. As a result, most major oil companies will no longer charter oil tankers over 20 years old. In Prince William Sound, a few carefully maintained but nonetheless 35 year old tankers still continue to operate. Brand new tankers are currently being constructed to replace these older ships and should be in service in Prince William Sound sometime in the next 2 or 3 years.

The council continues to work to bring issues and concerns to the attention of the public, regulators and industry. Objectively, we can be glad that overall we have a good prevention and response system in place. We also have areas of complacency with well-known vulnerabilities and risks that industry and regulators and even the public have been unable or unwilling to address.

It’s not a question of just endlessly pushing for additional prevention and response measures. Many risks have been understood for a long time and are still inadequately addressed. So, how does one sustain the resolve to push for improvements and to patch the known holes and thin spots in an otherwise sound system of prevention and response?

Perhaps the answer is by focusing on the stark reality of the consequences if we don’t.

Another spill could happen.

The achievements of the oil industry in Alaska and its contributions to the state are tremendous. We should all be justifiably proud of what has been achieved and optimistic about what we may continue to achieve, but we shouldn’t get overly comfortable that all risks of oil spills have been reduced or eliminated. They have not. Overcoming complacency is seldom easy. We need to simply remember that accepting and living with complacency has costs. Let’s continue to work hard and work together with regulators, industry, and the public to try to avoid another real life reminder about the tremendous costs of getting complacent with undermanaged risks.

  • Mark Swanson is executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

From our Executive Director: What will it take to get the best available escort and towing technology for Prince William Sound?

• Mark Swanson is executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

Alaska law requires the use of best available technology in certain areas of state-approved spill prevention and response plans, also known as contingency plans.

Theoretically, these requirements should help us keep abreast of advances in technology. In reality, this provision of Alaska law is difficult to enforce and is achieved only infrequently.

In our view, the recent incident with Shell Oil’s Kulluk offshore drill rig is an object lesson in the need for best available technology in towing operations and equipment, a lesson that should be applied in Prince William Sound.

The citizens’ council, working with the internationally respected naval architecture firm of Robert Allan Limited, completed a major study last fall that recommended, among other things, the installation of best available technology in the context of towing equipment on the tugs that escort loaded oil tankers through Prince William Sound.

Specifically, the study spotlighted the need for more modern tow and escort winches that can render and recover (that is, pay out and reel in) a tow line under full load. The winches now on the Sound’s tugs represent 15-year-old technology and they don’t reel in or pay out well under load.

The more modern winches recommended by the Robert Allan study help preserve the ability to apply full towing force while reducing or eliminating the huge tow line surges that come from vessels getting thrown around in big seas. This newer type of tow winch is designed to help prevent tow line failure by reducing shock loading on the system.

Most towing and tethering exercises in Prince William Sound are conducted in relatively calm weather. The vulnerabilities of the old winches and the advantages of the new winches do not become apparent until the weather gets rough. With so many successful escorts and exercises, industry and the regulators have grown comfortable with the old-style winches on the Sound’s tugs. Confident we have a great escort system, Alyeska, and the state declined to act on any of our towing equipment study recommendations. Similar recommendations arising from an escort tug study by the international ship classification society Det Norske Veritas or DNV a year earlier were also dismissed by industry and the state.

Now, however, we have the example of a real-world heavy-weather emergency towing effort before us and the results are not reassuring. The Kulluk incident, which saw loss of tow no fewer than five times before the rig grounded on a small island near Kodiak, demonstrated just how difficult it is to make towing vessels and equipment work in severe Alaskan weather.

With its recent approval of the tanker contingency plan prepared by the oil industry, the state has signed off on the notion that the Prince William Sound tugs and their towing gear can prevent serious incidents involving loaded oil tankers in Prince William Sound and offshore out to about 17 miles. We regard this proposition as unproven.

Bad storms just outside of the Hinchinbrook entrance are definitely well within the realm of possibility. Storms of the magnitude encountered by the Kulluk are actually somewhat more frequent where the tankers travel than in the western Gulf of Alaska where the Shell rig ran into trouble, causing meteorologists over the past four decades to give the northeast corner of the Gulf of Alaska the nickname “Coffin Corner”.

Tankers are not allowed to leave the Sound if weather exceeds 15-foot seas and 45-knot winds, but that is no guarantee they will avoid extreme conditions. The well-known coastal weather phenomenon called barrier jets often creates high winds and big waves just outside Hinchinbrook Entrance, even when the weather inside is much milder. The question raised is obvious: What if the Kulluk had been a loaded oil tanker experiencing a loss of power in similar wind and sea states or during a barrier jet event along the rugged coast just outside Hinchinbrook?

I don’t think the citizens’ council, the oil industry, or its regulators know the answer to that question, and it’s time we did.

Our group will persist in our polite requests for information on the performance of the Prince William Sound tugs, as well as the equipment and failure modes on the other vessels involved in the Kulluk incident.

This is directly within our mandate. In fact, it’s at the heart of that mandate, as it pertains to design and operation of a robust tug escort system capable of making sure there’s not another Exxon Valdez-scale catastrophe in the Sound or along the coast.

There will likely be resistance by the oil shipping industry to sharing this knowledge. Experience has shown that procedural and secrecy issues surrounding official accident investigations delay and dilute the release of information, but it is important that we and others with shared concerns keep up our calls for transparency and accountability.

A new study commissioned by our council is just getting under way. It will look at all the roles the Prince William Sound tugs are asked to fill not only in preventing tanker accidents, but also in starting the response if prevention fails.

We look forward to receiving the results of that study and combining it with what we learn from the Kulluk incident to advocate for the best available technology to reduce risks for tankers inside and outside of Prince William Sound.