Council updates position on dispersant use during an oil spill

Prevention and mechanical recovery should remain primary options

A vessel sprays water as practice for applying dispersants during an oil spill drill.
A vessel sprays water as practice for applying dispersants during an oil spill drill.

The Council’s Board of Directors has updated the organization’s position on use of chemical dispersants in the event of an oil spill in the Prince William Sound and the Exxon Valdez oil spill region. The updated position states that dispersants should not be used on Alaska North Slope crude oil spills in the waters of our region.

Chemical dispersants are substances applied to floating oil slicks that break the oil into smaller droplets that disperse into the water column.

The Council has long endorsed mechanical recovery as the primary tool to clean up an oil spill. Unlike dispersant use, mechanical recovery with booms and skimmers removes oil from the water. Conditions in Prince William Sound often limit the feasibility of dispersant application and dispersants have not been demonstrated to be effective in marine environments with similar temperatures and salinity levels to those found in the Sound. Uncertainty exists over the toxicity caused by adding chemical dispersants to an oil slick and the long-term effects of dispersants application are not well understood. The known harms and potential risks caused by dispersants, in addition to a lack of proven effectiveness and safety, preclude the Council from supporting dispersants.

Oil spill prevention remains the Council’s top priority because once oil is spilled there will always be adverse impacts to human health and the environment. In the event of an oil spill in our region, mechanical recovery and containment of oil spilled at sea should remain the primary response method. The Council also recommends that oil spill response research and development should focus on enhancing and improving mechanical recovery technologies and methods.

The Council’s previous position on dispersant use was adopted in 2006, after years of promoting research and testing to increase knowledge about dispersants and the environmental consequences of their use. In the intervening years, the Council has continued to track developments and analyze peer reviewed scientific literature from around the world regarding the use of dispersants. Discussion and work to develop this update have occurred over the past year, with the final approval taking place at the directors’ meeting in Seward, Alaska, on September 23, 2022.


Further materials on the evidence and rationale supporting the position update are currently being finalized by the Council for publication in early 2023.

PDF of news release: 

PWSRCAC Dispersant Use Position Press Release (0.9 MB)

Board of Directors met in Seward

Glacier near Seward, Alaska. Photo by Linda Robinson, July 2010The Council’s Board of Directors met in Seward on September 22 and 23, 2022. 

The Council conducted regular business during the meeting, including 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.
    A review of new designs for the replacement of the floor, and a system to limit corrosion within the floor, for one of the crude oil storage tanks at the Valdez Marine Terminal.
  • An update from Council staff and contractors and Alyeska staff on the monitoring of repairs and next steps resulting from snow and ice damage to tank vents at the Valdez Marine Terminal in February and March 2022.
  • Introduction and remarks from Interim Alyeska President Betsy Haines.
  • A video based on field trials for a recent Council study on passing messenger lines to disabled vessels, the first crucial step in setting up a tow line between a rescue tug and a tanker in distress.
  • Discussion to potentially update the Council’s 2006 position on use of dispersants in our region during an oil spill.
  • A report on the availability of out-of-region equipment that would be needed in the event of a major oil spill in our region.
  • A review and assessment of the Council’s Peer Listener Training Program and similar programs nationwide that promote peer-to-peer community support, specifically after disasters such as an oil spill.
  • A report on plankton sampling done throughout Port Valdez in 2021, to understand how these populations varied to improve the monitoring of invasive species.
  • A presentation on marine bird surveys conducted in Prince William Sound in March of 2022.

 Council Board meetings are routinely recorded and may be disseminated to the public by the Council or by the news media.

News release: 

PWSRCAC Sept 2022 Board Meeting Press Release (0.5 MB)

Matt Cullin builds life of growth and success out of expertise in corrosion and failure analysis

Volunteer Spotlight

Cullin is a member of the Terminal Operations and Environmental Monitoring Committee. Volunteers like Cullin dedicate their time and expertise on committees who advise the Council’s Board of Directors on technical issues related to the safe transportation of oil through Prince William Sound.

At his job as the director of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s BP Asset Integrity and Corrosion Lab, Matt Cullin imagines himself as a detective.

“I do a lot of failure analysis work for the oil and gas industry,” he says. “Basically when stuff breaks, we do the CSI forensics to figure out why things broke and why they failed.”

They get big projects and a lot of smaller failures too. “Every couple of months somebody shows up with an old piece of pipe and asks us to tell them what happened.”

His goal isn’t just to solve the crime, though, he wants to learn how to prevent corrosion. For all of these projects, Cullin says his next question is always “how can you keep it from failing in the first place?”

Volunteering for the Council

Cullin also puts his background in mechanical engineering with a specialty in corrosion, materials, and failure analysis into use for the Council as a member of the Terminal Operations and Environmental Monitoring, or TOEM, Committee. He says working with the committee helps him better understand the pipeline and terminal. The students in his classes at UAA benefit too.

“Students have a lot of questions about the pipeline and the terminal,” Cullin says. “These are engineers who might go to work for the state or Alyeska and for them to have that information before they graduate is pretty neat. It’s not a given, when you get a university degree, that you’ll get to study this applied information that’s relevant to your local installation.”

“It’s a cool symbiotic relationship,” he adds.

Cullin recently partnered with a fellow TOEM member, Tom Kuckertz, and staff member Austin Love to create a model to help the committee estimate how much oil could potentially leak through a secondary containment liner at the terminal, if that liner was damaged.

“Typically, when you’re talking about modeling, you want to understand the physics,” he explains.

“I’m good at computer programming, so if you explain the model to me, and the equations that govern it, I can program almost anything. Once you have the equations, solving is the easy part.”

Cullin says you have to be willing to keep an open mind in this line of work. It requires a lot of “let’s figure this out” which he loves.

“Otherwise, it would be boring!”

Cullin says that taking things apart and figuring out how they work is the introductory spark for a lot of engineers. “You don’t have to have that to become an engineer, but it certainly helps to have that curiosity.”

“I really appreciate how it links everything together and you can describe the world in a mathematical form.”

‘Alaska gets its hooks in you’

Cullin’s dog Eva photobombs a scenic portrait. Photo courtesy of Matt Cullin.

ey figured out the physics that governed how the fluid would flow through the materials and then Cullin says it’s just a matter of programming.

Outside of work, Cullin has developed a passion for all things outdoors. He hikes, bikes, skis, packrafts, fishes, camps, and recently took up white water kayaking. He loves the variety of activities Alaska provides and just being outdoors.
“That’s what you’ve gotta do. I can’t just sit inside the house, especially during shoulder season. That doesn’t make me unique, though, just makes me like everybody else in Alaska.”

“When I was in Pennsylvania, I was not outdoorsy,” Cullin adds. “Alaska gets its hooks in you, you start doing this stuff, and then someone says ‘there’s a good job opportunity down in Arizona,’ and you’re like ‘yeah but they don’t have real mountains.’”

“The people that really embrace it, you’re not going to be able to leave.”

Council chronicles history of spill protection plans for Copper River Delta and Flats

Photo of the Copper River Delta and Flats region. The image shows a wide muddy flat delta with a small island and mountains in the distance. The Copper River Delta and Flats include salmon spawning areas, seabird nesting areas, and cultural and recreation sites that need protection from oil spills.

A new Council report tells the story of how Cordovans, the oil industry, and government agencies came together in the late 1990s to protect the ecologically rich Copper River Delta and Flats from the effects of a spill.

The Copper River region is known for its productive fisheries, wildlife and habitat, and cultural heritage. An estimated 12 million shorebirds migrate through in spring and fall. Salmon from the Copper River, arguably the most famous of Alaska fish, are a vital part of the state’s economy. Alaska Native peoples have called this area home for more than 10,000 years.

Many factors would make cleaning up an oil spill in this area difficult. It is only accessible by air or sea. Shorelines and river channels are frequently changing due to the river currents, tides, and ocean storms. High winds, surf, and varying geography could hamper cleanup efforts.

This image from Google Earth shows the remoteness of the Copper River Delta and Flats area.
Geographic Response Strategies: Special oil spill contingency plans developed for unique areas Over the years, Alaska has developed GRS for areas that need special protection from hazardous spills. These are special instructions tailored for each area. Responders can use these pre-planned strategies to save critical time in the early hours of a oil spill response. Image and data credit to: Google Landsat/Copernicus Maxar Technologies IBCAO Terrametrics CNES/Airbus Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navu, NGA, GEBCO

Collaboration results in detailed plan

In 1995, the spill contingency plan for oil tankers traveling through Prince William Sound went out for public comment for the first time since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. With memories of the 1989 spill still fresh, local Cordovans questioned if a spill in Prince William Sound could migrate into the delta and flats region and how best to prepare for this possibility.

As a result of that debate, a work group formed to develop strategies to protect the area. The group included the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the City of Cordova, and representatives from Cordova District Fishermen United. These local fishermen added knowledge of tides, currents, and other factors that could affect a spill response.

The group developed potential tactics for each zone and other logistical information.

This plan was adopted as part of the State of Alaska’s oil spill contingency plans in 1999.

Changing formats

After 1999, a standard format called Geographic Response Strategies, or GRS, was developed for sites around Alaska that needed special protection. Approximately 700 GRS exist across the state. The format uses consistent symbols and information in each GRS.

The Copper River Delta and Flats plan was developed before these protocols existed and its format is different for that reason.

In 2018, the regulator’s plans changed, and the Copper River and Delta Flats protection information was not carried forward. While the document can still be found today, information in the plan is out of date and work is needed to update and modernize the format.

The State of Alaska and U.S. Coast Guard is currently in the process of updating how the statewide GRS are managed.

“The Council sees this as an opportune time to once again discuss and capture protection strategies for the Copper River Delta and Flats region,” says Jeremy Robida, project manager for the Council.

Researchers recommend updates for the Copper River Delta and Flats plan

The Council started this work to better understand the historical context of the development of the Copper River Delta and Flats plan. The Council worked with Sierra Fletcher and Tim Robertson of Nuka Research and attorney Breck Tostevin to construct a general history of the plan.

The researchers documented the early debate which led to the work group and the current status of the plan. They also made recommendations to help incorporate details from the original plan into a modern GRS format.

“Working through this project really reinforced just how unique this area is, and how it deserves discussion and pre-planning for oil spill prevention and response,” Robida added.

The Council hopes this work will support future planning.

Read more in the report:

Geographic Response Planning for the Copper River Delta and Flats (1.1 MB)

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