Inoperable radar in Prince William Sound concerns Council

No plans for repair in near future

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service, or VTS, which monitors the location of vessels in Prince William Sound, has been operating without radar in recent months.

Screenshot of AIS system
This screenshot is an example of how AIS maps show the location, speed, and direction of vessels, among other details. However, smaller objects or vessels do not appear in the system.

The Coast Guard monitors traffic in busy ports around the country through these VTS offices. The VTS in Prince William Sound usually operates with a combination of Automatic Identification System, or AIS; VHF radio; cameras; and radar.

AIS is a map-based online monitoring system required to be on board larger vessels. Equipment streams the vessel’s position, along with its name, course, speed, heading, and destination to the system. VHF radio is used for two-way communications with vessels.

These various systems are integrated together and the information is relayed to the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit VTS in Valdez.

Radar is an integral part of the Coast Guard’s monitoring of vessels in Prince William Sound as many small vessels and hazards only appear on radar.

Based on a National Transportation Safety Board report on the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, lack of radar is considered a contributing factor to the spill.

U.S. Coast Guard Commander Patrick Drayer joined a Council meeting earlier this fall. In answer to questions from Council members, Commander Drayer noted that all three radar systems in Prince William Sound are obsolete.

Drayer explained that the original manufacturers are no longer in business and that original design drawings are not available. Attempts to fabricate new parts to repair the existing equipment have failed, as the parts did not fit or were not compatible. He also noted that this problem is affecting systems around the country.

Not all vessels use AIS

Many of the vessels in Prince William Sound do not have, and are not required to have, expensive AIS transmitters on board. Only vessels larger than 20 meters (approximately 65 feet) and some passenger vessels* must broadcast their location. Smaller vessels such as commercial fishing vessels, recreational boats, or kayaks may not carry AIS equipment. AIS can also miss smaller objects floating in the water, such as icebergs.

In an October 2020 letter to Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Congressman Don Young, the Council asked for help to secure funds to replace the equipment.

“Based on discussions with the Coast Guard, all of these radar systems have been inoperable for at least ten months,” the letter stated. “Based on limited funding and resources it will take considerable time to repair and eventually replace this aging and inoperable equipment. In addition to the Council’s maritime safety concerns over the lack of Coast Guard radar capability in Prince William Sound, there are also homeland/national security implications of such radar inoperability.”

“The Council is concerned that adequate resources are not yet committed to these priorities,” the letter continued.

All three members of Alaska’s Congressional Delegation responded to the Council’s letter by writing to the Commandant of the Coast Guard requesting information regarding how this problem can be addressed. The Council plans to continue to monitor and advise on this important issue.

* Correction from print edition of The Observer: The original version of this article mistakenly left out that some passenger vessels smaller than 65 feet are also required to broadcast their location, depending on the capacity of the vessel.

New weather buoys establish PORTS® information for Valdez, Alaska

Collaboration promotes navigation safety and protection of coastal marine resources

Photo of new buoy deployed in 2019.
Buoy off Jackson Point in Port Valdez with the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s Valdez Marine Terminal in the background.

The Council has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to establish PORTS® information for Valdez, Alaska. PORTS® (Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System) improves the safety and efficiency of maritime commerce and coastal resource management by providing real-time environmental observations, forecasts and other geospatial information to mariners. To help bring this resource to Valdez, the Council is streaming data from two new weather buoys to PORTS®.

In 2019, the Council worked with regional partners to deploy two buoys in Port Valdez; one off Jackson Point at the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s Valdez Marine Terminal and one near the Valdez Duck Flats. These buoys collect data to improve understanding of the meteorological and physical oceanographic environment at the terminal and Duck Flats.

The objectives of the PORTS® program are to promote navigation safety, improve the efficiency of U.S. ports and harbors and ensure the protection of coastal marine resources. The Council is mandated by Congress to study wind and water currents and other environmental factors in the vicinity of the Alyeska terminal which may affect the ability to prevent, respond to, contain and clean up an oil spill. The Council works with industry and regulators to ensure response readiness, evaluate risks and propose solutions. Allowing these weather buoys to integrate with PORTS® furthers these efforts while also meeting the system’s objectives.

“While the Council’s sole purpose for installing these buoys is to promote the environmentally safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers, we believe the integration of this metocean data into NOAA’s PORTS® will benefit and improve safety for a variety of other maritime users,” said Donna Schantz, executive director for the Council. “This is another excellent example of how collaborative science can have wide-ranging impacts for the betterment of all.”

Data from the buoys is already being provided to the Alaska Ocean Observing System. AOOS is a network that consolidates critical ocean and coastal weather observations and related information products. By monitoring the state’s coastlines and ocean waters, AOOS helps provide the information needed by residents to make better decisions concerning their use of the marine environment.

“This new system, and the others like them around the country, reduce ship accidents by more than 50 percent, increase the size of ships that can get in and out of seaports, and reduce traffic delays,” said Steven Thur, Ph.D., acting deputy director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “They also provide real-time, resilience-ready data as coastal conditions rapidly change, potentially threatening our coastal communities.”

The buoys were made possible through donations from Fairweather Science and partnerships with the Prince William Sound Science Center, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the City of Valdez and Valdez Fisheries Development Association. The installation has been permitted by several agencies and cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company has allowed the Council access into the marine security zone that borders the terminal.

The Council has a direct interest in the successful operation and maintenance of weather buoys and stations installed in Prince William Sound because weather affects safe oil transportation and spill response.

Technology study demonstrates importance of the Council’s independent research

Photo shows Coast Guard officer firing a messenger shot line from one Coast Guard vessel to another. This is one method of connecting tow lines between a tug and a tanker.
In this 2016 photo, a U.S. Coast Guard officer fires a messenger line from one military vessel to another. This is one method of connecting tow lines between a tug and a tanker. Photo by Pasquale Sena, U.S. Coast Guard.

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.

Read more about the researcher’s recommendations:

Tanker Towline Deployment BAT Review (10.3 MB)

Study evaluates places of refuge

Tanker in Prince William Sound

By Alan Sorum
Council Project Manager

Some locations won’t work for Prince William Sound tankers

A recent Council-sponsored study reviewed eight “potential places of refuge,” or PPOR, which are locations where an oil tanker in distress can anchor and take action to stabilize its condition. Of the eight reviewed in the study, none were found to be safe for use by tankers. However, several safe alternates were identified, analyzed, and proposed for future consideration.

Identifying these sites in advance allows decision-makers to save time during their critical initial response to a potential oil spill. Establishment of these places of refuge is recognized by the International Maritime Organization and other governmental agencies as an important marine safety and pollution mitigation measure.

The Council partnered with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation in 2004 to develop a matrix listing potential places a vessel in distress could shelter from weather and rough seas. A review of the department’s website showed that information developed in the 2004 effort has not been updated since it was published.

Technology helped safely evaluate locations

Working with the Alaska Maritime Training Center at AVTEC – Alaska’s Institute of Technology in Seward, Alaska, the Council sponsored development of a high-resolution navigational dataset for Prince William Sound in 2014. This upgraded navigation information, along with AVTEC’s simulators were used to verify the safety of eight sites in Prince William Sound that had previously been identified as PPOR for crude oil tankers.

Beginning in September of 2015, the Council started working with Safeguard Marine, LLC to evaluate the safety of eight of the places of refuge in Prince William Sound. Seven others have already been used by tankers and are known to be safe.

Safeguard Marine evaluated the sites using interviews with local subject matter experts and stakeholders and simulated ship maneuvers. The maneuvers were conducted by members of the Southwest Alaska Pilots Association using models representing Trans Alaska Pipeline System crude oil tankers in varying degrees of distress. Determining whether the PPOR is safe for the oil tanker in distress is a function of whether the vessel could potentially run aground if there is insufficient swing room when anchoring or mooring.

The Council has asked the U.S. Coast Guard and DEC members of the Alaska Regional Response Team to consider the recommendations developed in the study in future updates.

Establishment of preplanned places of refuge provide communities, regulators and industry a chance to consider local knowledge and conditions prior to a crisis. An accurate PPOR matrix provides the Coast Guard Captain of the Port with an additional tool in the decision-making process associated with placing a vessel in sheltered location. Gathering information on potential sites from stakeholders in advance of an incident is always a preferred planning approach and furthers the Council’s stated mission of promoting the safe transportation of crude oil thorough Prince William Sound.


Full report by Safeguard Marine, LLC:

Ship Simulation and Mariner Study of the Maritime Implications for Tank Vessels Utilizing Potential Places of Refuge, Mid-Prince William Sound Alaska (1.4 MB)

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