The Council conducted regular business during the meeting, including committee updates from Council ex-officio members, staff and committees. Other topics included on the agenda were:
An activity report by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company on the Valdez Marine Terminal and Ship Escort/Response Vessel System operations, including impacts to operations from COVID-19 and an update on the sump pump spill which occurred in April at the Valdez Marine Terminal.
An update from Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune regarding the oil spill prevention and response regulatory reform public scoping process initiated in October 2019.
A presentation by representatives of Hilcorp/Harvest Alaska on its Spill Response Organization.
A report on genetic analysis of 2018-2019 plankton samples from Prince William Sound to look for and potentially identify marine invasive species.
A virtual simulator demonstration by AVTEC staff.
A report of the Council’s monitoring of drills and exercises in 2019.
Council board meetings are routinely recorded and may be disseminated to the public by the Council or by the news media.
Both Council offices (Anchorage and Valdez) are currently closed as a safety precaution due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More information: COVID-19 Updates
On April 12, a sheen was reported near the small boat harbor at the Valdez Marine Terminal. Investigations identified the source as a sump which overflowed. The primary causes of the spill have been identified as the failure of a check valve and a level indicator.
The check valve became clogged with debris.
A level indicator was not functioning. This failure also kept the high-level alarm from activating.
While the level indicator should have prevented the incident, human error also played a factor. A technician conducting rounds did not verify the sump level due to a headlamp failure. This action had the potential to prevent or reduce the volume of the spill.
When the systems are working properly, rainwater from the nearby area drains into the sump, which is then pumped into the terminal’s industrial wastewater system. That wastewater system empties into the ballast water treatment system.
The investigation showed that the check valve became clogged with debris at an unknown point and was unable to fully close. This allowed oily water from the ballast water facility’s pipes to flow into the sump.
The level indicator in the sump was supposed to sense rising liquids and automatically turn on the sump’s pump when the liquid level reached a certain height, to pump out the excess liquids. Because that level indicator failed, the rising oil and water mix overflowed the sump.
Discovery, containment, and cleanup
The sump was identified as the source of the spill within a few days, however the pathway the oily water took from the sump to the water took time and extensive excavation to discover.
When the systems failed, the oily water seeped through the soils around the sump and entered an old drainpipe, which directed the spill into Port Valdez. The pipe had been installed before the terminal was built to prepare the site for its construction. It was later buried and forgotten until Alyeska discovered it while investigating the spill’s path.
Oil continued to seep into Port Valdez until the end of April as oil already in the ground worked its way to water. In early May, a temporary pipeline was completed, which captures the seeping oil and redirects it to the ballast water treatment facility. No more oil is reaching water, however cleanup on land is expected to continue through the fall.
The spill and subsequent cleanup activities did not impact the tanker loading berths and oil shipping continued throughout the incident response.
All responders have been required to adhere to safety guidelines to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Council staff and volunteers continue to monitor the situation from a safe distance.
Communications with Council
“While preventing oil from reaching the water is always the ultimate goal, Alyeska was proactive and responded to this incident with trained personnel and pre-contracted fishing vessels who were successful in mitigating impacts to the environment,” said Donna Schantz, executive director for the Council.
“Additionally, the Unified Command, including Alyeska as the responsible party, provided us with information and included us in meetings and updates,” she added.
“This was a great example of how we were designed to work together.”
Alyeska’s investigation into the cause of the spill was completed in early July. The Council has received information regarding the investigation from Alyeska, including information about the causes and other contributing factors, and will be following up on next steps. Many sumps like this are located throughout the terminal and the Council is interested in Alyeska’s measures to prevent this type of occurrence in the future.
A new study evaluating methods of establishing tow lines between an escort tug and a tanker in distress is a prime example of why the Council’s studies are vital.
The Council often hires experts to review equipment technology used in the Prince William Sound oil transportation industry. Sometimes these studies fill a hole or gap where independent research is lacking.
“Very little has been previously written on this topic,” said Alan Sorum, who managed this project and other similar technology reviews for the Council. “In a literature review it conducted, the Council’s contractor, Glosten, found that there is a general lack of published material on this subject and in particular, little guidance on best use practices or what is the most appropriate device to use for a given situation.”
The study looked at a specific piece of equipment called a “messenger line.” Passing a messenger line is the first step in setting up a tow line between a tug and a tanker in distress. The lighter weight messenger line helps responders connect the heavy tow lines.
Retrieving a messenger line can be difficult and dangerous in the rough weather often encountered in Prince William Sound. Depending on the vessel and the technology on board, they may be passed by hand, heaved or thrown aboard, projected by mechanical means, or picked out of the water.
Tough equipment required for Alaska’s harsh climate
Alaska has a state law that requires tankers to carry specially designed towing equipment when traveling through Prince William Sound. This equipment includes a towing wire, floating line and buoy, and a heavy-duty shackle.
These components are all specifically sized to match the weight of the vessel and be able to handle the high winds and seas often encountered in Prince William Sound.
Having this specialized equipment on hand allows rescue tugs to quickly and safely help move a stricken tanker to a safer location.
Conducting the study
Researchers reviewed what devices are commercially available for deploying messenger lines. Next, they developed criteria to evaluate the equipment according to: effectiveness, feasibility, transferability, compatibility, age and condition, availability, environmental impacts, and cost.
These eight criteria were based on another Alaska law, which requires industry to use “best available technology.” This requirement is intended to ensure that equipment meets and is maintained to a high standard.
The equipment options were each assessed and scored.
How will the Council use this information on tow lines?
The Council’s influence depends on quality, accurate research. The Council uses reports like this to help make sure advice given to industry and government officials is well-informed and supported by the best science available. The findings of this latest research effort are being shared with equipment manufacturers, the oil transportation and shipping industries, and regulators.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a Council project assessed the social impacts of the spill and developed resources that could be used by small communities to help with healing. An oil spill has complex and long-lasting impacts on the social and emotional health of a community, more than a natural disaster. Substance abuse, domestic violence, self-isolation, and suicide all increase as a result of stress that can be felt throughout a community. Activities that strengthen community connectedness help counteract these effects.
Mental health professionals today are making comparisons between the ongoing mental health impacts of disasters such as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and those of COVID-19. Many of the elements that make an oil spill so challenging can also be applied to the current COVID-19 crisis, in particular the high levels of uncertainty about when the crisis will end, how long recovery will take, and whether individuals are doing the right thing in response. Like an oil spill, the pandemic will have long-lasting impacts on individual physical health, the economy, and communities’ social fabric. All of this has a cumulative impact on mental health.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, many people needed a friendly ear to listen to their struggles and stories with empathy. The Council sponsored creation of the Peer Listener Training, which empowers residents in our region to support each other through effective listening. In a disaster, mental health professionals are swamped and costly. In small communities, like many rural villages in Alaska, professional support may not be readily available. A neighbor who shares your culture, lifestyle, and experience may be more approachable than a professional counselor, especially for those who may not have a positive view of mental health counseling.
Trained peer listeners, unlike therapists or counselors, do not give advice and are not experts. Instead they actively listen and help their peers vent strong emotions, feel heard, and have their experiences normalized. A peer listener is connected to resources in the community and knows when to make referrals to professionals or other support systems.
The Council offers a “train the trainer” event every few years to individuals who are positioned to bring the training home to their community. Trained peer listeners increase the resilience of the Exxon Valdez oil spill region should another disaster threaten the fabric of life so deeply. One of the primary takeaways is that even a regular citizen, someone who is not a mental health expert, can make a big difference in their community. Checking in on neighbors, asking intentional questions about well-being, and listening with empathy make a big difference for connectedness and healing. These lessons apply broadly, to all disasters that impact our communities.