Schantz: Safe transportation of oil requires local knowledge

Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz, Executive Director

Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

Since 2016, there has been an increase in foreign flagged tankers loading Alaska North Slope crude oil from the Valdez Marine Terminal, or VMT. While foreign flagged ships are crewed by licensed and professional mariners, these vessels may introduce increased risk of an accident or oil spill due to the lack of familiarity with the unique environmental conditions or prevention and response systems in our region.

A lack of familiarity with the operating environment appears to have been the cause of an incident in the Gulf of Alaska on April 14 with the foreign flagged tanker, Stena Suede. This unladen vessel arrived ahead of its estimated time to load oil at the VMT, with other tankers scheduled ahead of it.

Instead of the customary response in this situation – picking up a marine pilot at the Bligh Reef station and proceeding to the only designated safe anchorage for large vessels in our region at Knowles Head – the Stena Suede decided to hold off in the Gulf of Alaska. When the winds started to pick up, the crew dropped anchor about 20 miles outside of Hinchinbrook Entrance. Subsequently, they were unable to pull up the anchor due to damaged equipment and the vessel proceeded to drag anchor for more than 24 hours, losing some mooring equipment as well. Once the crew made repairs, they proceeded to the VMT, loaded oil, and left without any further issues.

Image shows the path of the Stena Suede as it dragged its anchor in the Gulf of Alaska.
Path of the Stena Suede at anchor. View full size image.

Foreign flagged tankers, such as the Stena Suede, are vetted prior to taking on oil at the VMT and provided with a number of documents in advance of sailing, including contingency plans, the U.S. Coast Guard vessel traffic system manual, the vessel escort and response plan, and more – over 800 pages in total. While these important documents describe the operating environment and regulatory requirements, it is unrealistic to expect crew members to digest this large amount of material, discern the most relevant pieces, and retain all of the essential safety measures. Additionally, there is commonly understood local knowledge that is not necessarily written down in these plans or perhaps not in a way that highlights their importance.

Licensed marine pilots, such as those stationed at Bligh Reef, are highly trained experts in ship navigation and possess extensive knowledge of the local waterways, including environmental conditions specific to that area. Federal law requires a marine pilot be on board vessels, such as crude oil tankers, when entering bays, rivers, harbors, and ports of the U.S. For the ports and waterways of southwest Alaska, including Prince William Sound, the Southwest Alaska Pilots Association, or SWAPA, provides these services. Their role is to guide ships safely through confined waters, working to ensure the protection of shipping and the marine environment, as well as life and property.

Anchoring outside of ports is common practice around the world. The Stena Suede was in compliance with all applicable regulations as it was outside of state and federal jurisdiction with no requirement for a local marine pilot to be on board at that time. Inadequate communication between the ship and those familiar with the region may have prevented the crew from being warned against setting anchor in the Gulf.

It is the opinion of many marine operators in our region that there is no safe anchorage in the Gulf of Alaska. A letter dated April 22, 2021, from SWAPA to the U.S. Coast Guard pointed out that it is inadvisable to anchor in open waters in the Gulf given the unpredictable environmental conditions which may be encountered at any time of year.

The Stena Suede incident fortunately did not result in an accident or oil spill, but it put a spotlight on a potential weak link in the robust safety systems of our region. SWAPA has clarified their guidance for anchoring large seagoing vessels and plans to recommend updates to NOAA’s Alaska Coast Pilot. Industry representatives have also said they are looking at ways to improve the process of conveying important regional safety information to foreign flagged vessels. PWSRCAC plans to monitor these developments and provide input. We must all remain vigilant and be willing to use lessons learned to continuously improve our regional safety systems designed to prevent oil spills.

 

New tool to support Regional Stakeholder Committee

Do you know if you or your community is prepared to advocate for themselves in the case of an oil spill? The Council recently developed resources to support affected stakeholders during such an event.

The new toolkit was designed to support citizens who would participate in a process known as a Regional Stakeholder Committee. However, some of the tools would be useful for anyone affected by an oil spill.

What’s in the toolkit?

The resources include helpful content such as:

  • A template to help capture important details during a briefing by response leaders
  • A list of potential stakeholder concerns
  • Ideas for available resources that may help support the response

The kit also includes some basic information about the spill response system in Alaska and how an oil spill response is organized.

Available on our website: Regional Stakeholders Committee Resources

Corrosion protection system for terminal’s crude oil pipes in good shape overall

Keith Boswell from National Pipeline Services observes cathodic protection system equipment at the Valdez Marine Terminal in 2019.

A recent study of operations and maintenance of Alyeska’s cathodic protection system found that the program was “very good;” however improvements are still needed.

National Pipeline Services, a consulting company that specializes in cathodic protections, conducted the study for the Council. They looked specifically at the systems that prevent corrosion in the metal piping that carries crude oil through the terminal to the large oil storage tanks.

The researchers based their report on a review of documents, procedures, testing, and results from previous inspections of those systems.

The final report summarized the systems currently in use at the terminal, as well as Alyeska’s methods for monitoring and testing the systems.

The researchers concluded that overall, it appears Alyeska has a “very good corrosion and cathodic protection program.” The procedures for operating and monitoring the system are adequate and within standard industry practices and Federal guided requirements.

The report also noted that certain improvements could further reduce the risk of a crude oil spill, such as ensuring data collection procedures are adequately implemented. Data used to ensure that the crude oil piping’s cathodic protection system is operating effectively does not appear to have been collected properly.

The researchers commended Alyeska on their use of remote monitoring systems, which continuously monitor and evaluate the systems. They added that Alyeska’s annual reporting for integrity management is exceptional and well documented.

Report:

Review of Cathodic Protection Systems at the Valdez Marine Terminal (1.9 MB)

Review of maintenance records finds improvements needed for oil storage tank

Oil spill unlikely as long as planned repairs are not delayed further

Photo of Tank 8, which is one of the large crude oil storage tanks at the terminal. This tank is 63 feet tall, 250 feet in diameter, and can hold up to 21,420,000 gallons of crude oil.
Tank 8, seen here being cleaned in preparation for an internal inspection, is one of the large crude oil storage tanks at the terminal. This tank is 63 feet tall, 250 feet in diameter, and can hold up to 21,420,000 gallons of crude oil. Photo by Austin Love.

Last year, COVID-19 delayed planned repairs to one of the large crude oil storage tanks at the Valdez Marine Terminal. Alyeska rescheduled those repairs for 2023. A recent Council study found that, as long as these repairs are not delayed any longer than 2023, a spill is unlikely.

Taku Engineering, an engineering firm with expertise in tank and piping inspections, assessing and controlling corrosion, and cathodic protection conducted the tank inspection review for the Council. Taku’s engineers analyzed Alyeska’s documentation of inspections and maintenance for Tank 8 located within the East Tank Farm at the Valdez Marine Terminal.

2019 inspection raised concerns

After some concerning findings during a 2019 inspection of the inside of Tank 8, Alyeska planned to replace the tank floor and cathodic protection system. The repairs were scheduled for 2020. However, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed those major repairs. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation extended the deadline for completion to 2023. The tank will then be removed from service and repairs made.

Council conducted study to minimize risk of oil spills

Taku’s report concluded that the immediate risk of a leak from Tank 8 between now and 2023 is low. The engineers made several recommendations that would help ensure that a spill remains unlikely. They found that an unmaintained seal around the perimeter of the tank allowed rain and snow melt to migrate and accumulate under the tank’s floor. Under certain circumstances, this could lead to damage. Taku recommended that Alyeska maintain the seal so water cannot cause these problems.

Taku also found that some of the cathodic protection system testing data was inadequate. That data is used to ensure that the system is operating effectively, safeguarding the tank’s floor from corrosion.

Report

Details are available in the final report: 

 

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