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.

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