Prince William Sound citizens’ council remains committed to its mission

By Donna Schantz and Robert Archibald

Donna Schantz is executive director for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. Robert Archibald is the president of the Council’s board of directors and represents the City of Homer.

Photo of Prince William Sound with water in the foreground and mountains in the background. The focs of the image is the fluke, or tail, of a humpback whale peeking out of the water.
Correcting the record: the Council is concerned about protecting whale populations from impacts of the oil industry in our region.

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council is an independent nonprofit corporation whose mission is to promote the environmentally safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated oil tankers. Our work is guided by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and our contract with Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. Although the Council is funded chiefly by Alyeska, we are completely independent from industry and serve in an advisory role.

The Council’s member organizations are communities in the region affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, as well as commercial fishing, aquaculture, Alaska Native, recreation, tourism and environmental groups.

At a recent Council board meeting, held in Valdez on May 2-3, 2024, a draft resolution in support of voluntary speed reductions for oil tankers in Prince William Sound was presented by an outside individual. A recent opinion piece contained incorrect information about the Council’s position on this issue and mischaracterized the discussion that took place. The Council would like to correct the record.

The Council has been studying the issue of vessel speed reductions to reduce whale strikes through its technical committees for some time. The Council recognizes that vessel-whale strikes are a widespread problem and that reducing vessel speed is currently the most effective way to lower the number of whale strikes. We also recognize that while there is currently a lack of information and research specifically regarding the prevalence and risk of tanker-whale strikes in Prince William Sound, lack of information does not necessarily mean an absence of harm.

We want to make it clear that the Council is concerned about protecting whale populations from impacts of the oil industry in our region.

During our May meeting, along with the above concerns, Council members discussed current speed limits for laden oil tankers; how slower speeds could reduce air emissions and noise pollution from tankers; the potential increase in crew hours resulting from slower speeds; and whether longer transit time through Prince William Sound could affect safety or have other unintended consequences.

A motion was then passed to issue an advisory letter acknowledging the known benefits of reduced vessel speeds and encouraging further scientific study to better understand the potential occurrence of vessel-whale strikes in our region. The advisory letter will outline the Council’s concerns, questions, and advice regarding the potential outcomes of reduced speeds to tanker operations as a method to mitigate whale strikes, among other environmental concerns. This letter will be directed to relevant regulatory agencies and the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) tanker operators.

The topic of full redundancy in engine and steering systems on all TAPS oil tankers has also recently been brought to the Council’s attention by a member of the public. The request we received was to promote an amendment to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requiring full redundancy in all newly built tankers in the U.S. The Council believes that, given the importance of the Act, any potential amendments to the legislation should only be considered after thorough vetting and with the utmost due diligence. The Council has not had the opportunity to vet this topic through our technical committees, which is how advice for improving safety is developed at the Council.

The U.S. Coast Guard annually certifies the Council as the federally approved citizens’ advisory group for Prince William Sound, pursuant to the Act. Since the Council was first certified in 1991, the Coast Guard has consistently determined that we foster the general goals and purposes of the Act, and are broadly representative of the communities and interests as envisioned therein.

The Council provides technically and scientifically supported advice and recommendations to promote the safe operation of the Valdez terminal and associated tankers, and reduce the environmental impacts of oil transportation through our region. Council Board and technical committee meetings are open to the public and recordings are available on request. Any member of the public interested in listening to the May board meeting is encouraged to contact the Council at 1-800-478-7221.

Council announces election of board officers to serve until May 2025

The Council held its annual board meeting in Valdez, Alaska, on May 2-3, 2024. Among other business, the Board convened to elect officers who will serve from May 2024 to May 2025.

The elected executive committee is comprised of:

  • President: Robert Archibald, representing the City of Homer
  • Vice President: Amanda Bauer, representing the City of Valdez
  • Treasurer: Mako Haggerty, representing the Kenai Peninsula Borough
  • Secretary: Bob Shavelson, representing the Oil Spill Region Environmental Coalition
  • Three Members-at-Large:
    • Ben Cutrell, representing Chugach Alaska Corporation
    • David Janka, representing City of Cordova
    • Angela Totemoff, representing the Community of Tatitlek

“Of all the advances made in the safe transportation of oil since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, perhaps the most innovative and significant was the establishment of permanent, industry-funded citizen oversight for both Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound,” Robert Archibald said. “Everyone involved should be proud of what has been accomplished since the spill, but we also should never become so satisfied with the current services or processes that we become complacent. Constant vigilance is needed to prevent a return to the pre-1989 complacency that allowed this disaster to happen. I am honored to lead our board for another year as we work toward our shared goal of protecting our communities, economies and environment.”

The Council is grateful to have the support of its many volunteers from all over the Exxon Valdez oil spill region. The new executive committee is an excellent representation of the Council.

Meet the Executive Committee


Media release: PWSRCAC May 2024 Board officers press release 

New member entity joins Council

Area recreation enthusiasts now have permanent, dedicated representation on the Council’s Board of Directors.

Jim Herbert

The newly-formed Oil Spill Region Recreational Coalition was added to the Council’s roster of member entities at the January meeting. Jim Herbert was chosen by the coalition as its representative.

Herbert had been serving as a temporary recreation representative for the past year while the while the council solicited interest from recreational organizations to potentially fill the seat. Herbert previously represented the City of Seward from 2013 to 2015. He is also the current chair of the Council’s Oil Spill Prevention and Response Committee.

The new coalition’s mission is to assist the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council in promoting environmentally safe operation of the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal and associated tankers in a manner that will protect the natural recreational resources of Prince William Sound and other areas affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The three founding members of the coalition are the Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation, the Valdez Adventure Alliance, and the Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park. The group welcomes other organizations who promote recreation in the Exxon Valdez oil spill region.

The Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping Prince William Sound healthy, clean and wild, for all to enjoy. Visit them online at: www.princewilliamsound.org

The Valdez Adventure Alliance seeks to improve quality of life through equitable access to outdoor recreation resources, education, and events. Visit them online at: www.valdezadventurealliance.com

The Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park promotes the enhancement, preservation and protection of the natural recreational, scientific and historical resources of Kachemak Bay State Park. Visit them online at: www.friendsofkachemakbay.org


This article has been edited to correct the mission of the coalition. 

35 years after Exxon Valdez

How has oil transportation changed in Prince William Sound?

In this photo, three fishing vessels practice pulling bright orange oil spill boom in proper formation, with a skimmer in the middle of the boom. This configuration creates a channel for collecting and skimming oil.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill taught many lessons about preparedness, including local mariners’ knowledge about the waters in our region is vital to spill response. Today, over 300 vessels and their crews are trained and on contract to Alyeska’s Ship Escort Response Vessel System, or SERVS, to respond in the event of a spill. The fishing vessel program is a major improvement to the oil spill response system, which was not in place during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In this photo, the crews of several Homer fishing vessels practice using oil spill boom and skimmers during annual contracted vessel training. Photo by Cathy Hart.

In 1989, the few measures in place were inadequate to prevent the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the available response resources were insufficient to contain and clean it up. Congress found that complacency among the oil industry, and the regulatory agencies responsible for monitoring the operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and vessel traffic in Prince William Sound, was also a contributing factor in the disaster.

In the years following the spill, regulatory agencies, industry, and citizens worked together to make sure the painful memories and hard lessons of the Exxon Valdez were not forgotten. Changes were enacted to reduce the chances of another spill and to prepare for an effective cleanup if another should occur.

Much has improved in the intervening decades, but there are lingering concerns.

See also: Then & Now: 35 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Laws and regulations

One of the most important results of the oil spill was the enactment of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, or OPA 90, which addressed many deficiencies, including liability, compensation, and oversight. It also established permanent, industry-funded citizen oversight groups for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.

Both federal and state laws now require more comprehensive prevention measures and planning for larger spills and require more spill response equipment to be immediately available.

An unlikely alliance of regulators, politicians, oil industry executives, and international spill response experts came together after the spill to reimagine oil spill preparedness and response in Prince William Sound. More: How Alaskans redefined oil spill prevention and response

Prevention: The most effective protection

Photo of weather buoy near Valdez Marine Terminal.
Modern technology means weather buoys can stream real-time weather conditions to help make better operational decisions. Photo by Rob Campbell.

No oil spill can ever be completely cleaned up. Preventing an oil spill is the most effective way to protect human health, local communities and economies, and the environment. Since 1989, improvements have drastically reduced the risk of oil spills.

Double hulls

All tankers transporting oil through Prince William Sound are now double hulled. Double hulls, basically two steel skins separated by several feet of space, can reduce or eliminate spills that result from groundings or collisions.

Alyeska’s Ship Escort Response Vessel System

The Ship Escort Response Vessel System, known as SERVS (SERVS’ website), was developed after the Exxon Valdez spill. SERVS’ mission is to prevent oil spills by helping tankers navigate safely through Prince William Sound and to begin an immediate response if there is a spill.

Improved tanker escorts

A major component of SERVS are the powerful tugs that escort tankers safely through our waters. Two tugs accompany each laden tanker out of Prince William Sound. These tugs can assist should the tanker experience a malfunction and begin immediate spill response if needed. SERVS also keeps trained response crews on duty around the clock and has spill response equipment ready.

Cleaning up a spill: Must be quick and effective

Photo of Prince William Sound escort tug.
In 2018, Alyeska began work with their new spill prevention and response contractor, Edison Chouest Offshore. These services include operation of escort tugs, oil recovery storage barges, and associated personnel. These resources are key oil spill prevention and response assets for Prince William Sound.
To fulfill their contract, Edison Chouest built new purpose-built tugs, such as the Elrington above; and spill response barges, such as the new OSRB-5. These vessels represented a significant improvement for the oil spill prevention and response system. In some cases, new general-purpose tugs replaced conventional tugs that were over 40 years old. Photo by Jeremy Robida.

While prevention measures are the best way to avoid damage from oil spills, even the best system cannot remove all risks. Alyeska’s SERVS has implemented many improvements since 1989, creating the world-class oil spill prevention and response system in place today.

Contingency plans

Contingency plans, extensive documents which contain details on preventing and cleaning up oil spills, are required by state and federal law.

Some changes in the contingency plans since 1989 include:

Spill drills

Before 1989, few oil spill drills were conducted in Prince William Sound. Today, three major exercises take place per year, along with several smaller drills. The drills provide opportunities for response personnel to work with equipment and practice procedures.

1989 vs 2024: Spill response equipment

In 1989, there were only 13 oil-skimming systems in Alyeska’s response inventory; today, 90 are available. Only 5 miles of oil spill boom were available in 1989; today, around 40 miles are on hand. Alyeska had only one 500,000-gallon barge at that time to store recovered oil and the water that comes with; today, storage capacity is now 37 million gallons.

This image is a bar chart graphic that shows the difference in equipment between 1989 and 2024. It compares 13 oil skimmers compared to 90, 5 miles of boom compared to 40, and 500,000 gallons of capacity compared to 37,000,000 today.

Concerns remain

Although there have been many improvements, there are still many areas of concern, meriting the continued attention and sustained efforts from the Council. A few of these include:

Council report on changes:

More about improvements and remaining concerns in the publication “Then & Now: 35 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

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