By Donna Schantz
The Council is pleased to say that the recent transition of prevention and response services to Edison Chouest Offshore will bring many improvements in Alyeska’s capabilities to protect Prince William Sound and its downstream communities. Alyeska and the Prince William Sound oil shippers are to be commended for their significant investment and commitment in the new vessels, equipment, and crews.
Details provided by Alyeska show that the new vessels, built specifically for Prince William Sound, will have new technologies to improve safety for the crews and boost spill prevention and response capabilities. A few notable examples include:
- The new render-recover winches which the Council has been promoting for years
- Response barges with decks specifically designed to deploy and retrieve oil skimming equipment, maximizing safety for crews
We recognize and appreciate the details about the safety enhancements we have seen so far.
However, the Council’s job is to be a voice for those most affected by an oil spill. During this transition, a significant number of new vessels, equipment, and crews have entered the system in an extremely short time. From the information we have received, and the demonstrations we have observed, we have not been able to verify the new equipment and crews in the full range of weather conditions in which the tankers are expected to operate. In addition, several small incidents have raised some concerns.
The “response gap”
Outbound laden tankers are not allowed to travel through Hinchinbrook Entrance once winds exceed 45 knots (over 51 miles per hour) or waves are higher than 15 feet. Research has shown that the weather may be under-reported in this area. This is important because the escort tugs must be ready and able to adequately control, approach, connect a line to, and tow a disabled tanker in adverse conditions. This is a key oil spill prevention measure because it is in these same conditions that oil spill response efforts are ineffective.
A 2007 Council study identified what we termed a “response gap” in Prince William Sound. This response gap occurs when oil is being shipped through Prince William Sound, but environmental conditions such as wind, waves, temperature, and visibility preclude safe and effective spill response operations. The response gap is this separation between the point of maximum mechanical response capability and the established closure limits.
Council researchers compared environmental conditions (sea state and wind) from 2000 to 2005 in Prince William Sound to response operating limits.
The study found that conditions for an effective oil spill response are exceeded, on average, 37 percent of the time at Hinchinbrook Entrance. This percentage is lower in summer, but reaches up to 65 percent in the winter. In short, for 37 percent of the year, weather conditions are such that an effective response to spilled oil is not possible at Hinchinbrook Entrance.
Safe drills and exercises are needed
In order to have an effective system that is safe for both vessel crews and the environment, the crews deserve and must receive training and experience in the adverse conditions in which they may be called upon to respond during a real emergency. Crew safety is paramount. This experience can be gained starting in calm conditions and working up to more challenging conditions, with tightly controlled parameters where the exercise is stopped any time the risk to crews or vessels becomes unacceptable.
Until the new vessels and crews have demonstrated they can safely save a fully laden tanker in the full range of conditions in which tankers are allowed to operate, the Council recommends lowering the closure limits to those conditions in which a safe and effective tanker rescue has been demonstrated.
A voice for those living closest to the problem
The Council’s role, on behalf of the people who live in the region, is to advocate for the safest system possible, and to verify that key oil spill prevention and response commitments as described in the plans can be successfully carried out.
Much has been learned over the past 28 years by the escort towing company and its crews, tanker owners and crews, government regulators, industry, and members of this Council about how to keep people and the environment safe from another major oil spill. It has taken thoughtful and vigorous commitments from the industry, state and federal regulators, and citizens to ensure that the transportation of oil through Prince William Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska is the safest in the world.
The Council looks forward to continuing to promote the safe transportation of oil, and helping maintain the current high standards that make the prevention and response systems in Prince William Sound some of the best in the world.