Repairs to Prince William Sound’s radar in the works

Screenshot of AIS system
The Coast Guard is using other technologies, such as the Automatic Identification System (AIS) pictured here, to monitor traffic while radar repairs are underway.

Coast Guard planning long-term project to replace entire system

Radar that helps the U.S. Coast Guard monitor vessels in Port Valdez is undergoing repairs.

This radar is part of the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service, or VTS, which monitors and manages vessel traffic movements in busy waterways such as Prince William Sound. Three radar sites across Prince William Sound relay information to Valdez, where the data is integrated with other technologies onto an electronic display.

All three sites have struggled to stay online recently because of the harsh Alaska environment coupled with normal wear and tear. The Coast Guard plans to have at least one radar at each of the three sites operational by September 2021.

Planning for further upgrades

U.S. Coast Guard Commander Patrick Drayer joined a Council meeting in January to report that the Coast Guard’s long-term plan is to develop plans to upgrade all of the VTS radar systems nationwide. The Coast Guard will begin an in-depth review starting this summer to help plan these upgrades. The timeline and cost for replacement is not yet known as it is still early in the planning process.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is monitoring the Sound using other technologies. While other technologies serve valuable roles, the Council does not believe that other technologies can adequately replace the surveillance and collision avoidance capabilities that modern radar provides.

The Council is planning a review to better understand how these technologies work together to prevent accidents and potential oil spills.

Escort tug Courageous damages the tanker Polar Endeavour in January incident

One of the Polar Endeavour’s ballast water tanks was damaged during the incident. The Endeavour, seen here participating in a 2009 towing exercise, is undergoing repairs.

Just before midnight on January 11, the escort tug Courageous allided with the tanker Polar Endeavour, which had just finished loading crude oil at Berth 4 at the Valdez Marine Terminal.

An “allision” occurs when a moving vessel comes in contact with a stationary object or vessel.
A “collision” occurs when both objects or vessels are moving when contact occurred.

The Courageous is owned and operated by Edison Chouest Offshore, the contractor who provides spill prevention and response services for Alyeska.

The tug was approaching the fully loaded tanker to assist the tanker as it prepared for departure. The tug struck the hull of the Endeavour, damaging a ballast water tank. Some of that ballast water was released into Port Valdez. The Endeavour carries crude oil in cargo tanks that are separate from the ballast water tanks, so there was no oil in the damaged tank and none was spilled.

ConocoPhillips, the company that owns the Endeavour, made temporary repairs onsite. The U.S. Coast Guard inspected the tanker and approved it to sail to Long Beach, California, for permanent repairs.
One mariner aboard the Courageous received minor injuries and is expected to fully recover.

The U.S. Coast Guard is still conducting its investigation, however initial reports indicate it appears that the incident was caused by human error.

At the January meeting of the Council’s Board of Directors, Alyeska noted several remedial actions, including restricting the use of autopilot in certain areas and clarifying standing orders.

The Council is tracking this incident and the subsequent changes and will provide advice on how to prevent a similar incident in the future.

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.

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