To prevent oil spills, we must focus on the right risks

From the Executive Director:

Mark Swanson
Mark Swanson

Only in hindsight can we perfectly zero in on the most important details. We’d like to be able to say we can see what’s coming and prepare for the best possible outcome. Often, however, the details that matter only appear obvious after the dust has settled. We complacently assume that if nothing changes what worked yesterday should work tomorrow. We are suspicious of change, assuming that change increases risk for undesired outcomes. Perhaps.

While we have worked for 25 years to prevent a re-occurrence of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the next accident will likely come from an unexpected cause. Getting incrementally better at preventing the causes of that historical spill may not be as important as predicting the most likely cause of the next accident. To do this, we have to critically examine our near misses. We may also need to examine operations outside Prince William Sound to see what risks could apply to our local operations, and how others have prevented bad outcomes.

Some recent lessons learned from near misses

There is a sobering history of safety and oil spill near misses, as well as an impressive history of the oil industry investing in infrastructure and upgrading risk management practices in response to those near misses and other operational changes. For instance, Alyeska added back pressure control valves at the terminal and conducted extensive inspection and repairs to sections of the pipeline near Thompson Pass in response to turbulence related problems, successfully managing the risks of a spill into the Lowe River and Port Valdez.

Reduced oil through the pipeline means slower flow speeds, lower crude oil temperatures, and increased wax building up inside the pipeline. Cleaning “pigs” must run through the pipeline more often to clean out that buildup. Numerous near-misses have been associated with these developments, including the misrouting and destruction of several pigs causing, in one instance, safety pressure relief valves to be disabled. Alyeska responded to those risks by reducing water content in the crude oil, heating the oil slightly at pump stations, more tightly monitoring the pig positions and managing removal of the pigs from the pipeline.

Sections of the aging crude oil piping have historically been insufficiently inspected because they are hard to access. This has resulted in several near-misses of pipeline-threatening levels of advanced corrosion. Alyeska has repaired the known corroded areas and is proceeding with plans to render the remaining buried and other difficult to access sections of terminal piping and along the pipeline inspectable. This is a welcome focus on perhaps the most immediately pressing and troubling oil spill risk.

Focusing on the right risks for the future

Older oil tankers typically experience some degree of fatigue-related cracks or other load related minor structural failures as they age. Frequent and thorough inspections and design redundancies help detect these structural near-misses before they escalate to more serious problems. Rather than simply repairing on failure, ship operators systematically analyze the compromised structure, redesign to reduce stresses, and then implement those fixes to other ships with the same design vulnerabilities. However, even with increased resistance to fatigue required in newer ship designs, significant cracks and failures are still occurring. This is clearly one of the right risks to be focusing on.

Maximizing the effectiveness of a large fleet of fishing vessels engaged in oil spill response without exceeding their safe operating parameters in Alaska’s challenging climate is tough and risky. Spill drills have been called off or curtailed in typical seasonal weather due to safety concerns. Mechanical problems, communications issues, weather limitations, and even sinking vessels have seriously impacted oil spill exercises. These types of issues are often the harbinger of more serious failures that were only narrowly averted. Managing adverse weather and darkness are other examples of the right risks that require attention.

In looking at tug rescues, we only need to look at the Kulluk drilling rig that drifted aground in December 2012 to better understand what might go wrong in a heavy weather emergency tanker tow and escort rescue or tow situation. Fortunately, several risk management solutions are known and readily available. Tow and escort safety enhancing winch features, such as “render-recover” and “level wind” are now standard on modern escort vessels and would eliminate some of those risks and improve the safety and utility of the tugs we have in Prince William Sound during a rough sea rescue situation. The council is hopeful that industry and regulators will focus on these right risks and known solutions.

Looking just around the corner at tankers carrying oil to refineries in Cook Inlet, we see that almost none of the advances in navigation in Prince William Sound over the last quarter century have been implemented for that waterway. Vessel Traffic Control, tug escorts, and U.S. Coast Guard-enforced weather and ice risk management controls all are missing. As the recent Cook Inlet risk assessment pointed out, these risk management tools have been very effective for Prince William Sound and are sorely needed to provide comparable protection to the citizens and environment placed at risk of an oil spill by Prince William Sound crude oil tanker operations in the adjoining Cook Inlet waterway.

How do we know what needs our attention?

There is an impressive history of Alaskan industry, stakeholders and regulators coming together in Alaska and focusing on the right risks in order to prevent oil spills. If we look to our history of near-misses we can see that there is still more to be done. The significant remaining risks require great focus and attention. Let’s not wait until the next accident to focus on the most important details. If we pay attention, the near-misses and the casualties and experiences of similar operations tell us what we need to know, and what we need to focus on.

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

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