Science Night 2023 – Videos now available

Systems and Methods: Connecting across the Exxon Valdez oil spill region

Science Night is an annual event hosted by the Prince William Regional Citizens Advisory Council. Topics focus on research related to the safe transportation of oil through Prince William Sound.

Individual presentations can be viewed below, or you can view the full playlist directly on the Council’s Youtube Channel: Science Night 2023

On this page:

  1. Let the Hydrocarbons in Prince William Sound Talk
  2. Forage Fish Update
  3. Tsumani/landslide hazards in Prince William Sound
  4. Alaska Spill Response Wildlife Aid

Let the Hydrocarbons in Prince William Sound Talk: 30 years of Environmental Monitoring through PWSRCAC’s LTEMP

Presenter: Dr. Morgan Bender, Senior Scientist, Owl Ridge Natural Resource Consultants, Inc.

The PWSRCAC’s Long-Term Environmental Monitoring Program (LTEMP) is one of the longest-standing hydrocarbon assessment programs of its kind and provides us with annual data on how and where hydrocarbons enter Prince William Sound and the potential effects they may have on the marine ecosystem. Morgan, an Alaska-based ecotoxicologist, will lead us through the 30-year LTEMP investigative process and major findings to inform and excite Science Night participants on LTEMP’s past, present, and future.

View Let the Hydrocarbons in Prince William Sound Talk directly on YouTube.

Forage Fish Update

Presenter: Scott Pegau, Research Program Manager, Oil Spill Recovery Institute

Forage fish provide a critical link between plankton and large predators like birds, mammals, and other fish. Pacific herring, sand lance, capelin, and juvenile pollock are a few of the many forage fish in PWS. Most of the information we have on forage fish is associated with herring because of its historic commercial importance but there is some information on other species. This presentation takes a look at some of the existing research into forage fish in Prince William Sound.

View Forage Fish Update directly on YouTube.

Advancing our understanding of tsunamigenic landslide hazards in Prince William Sound, Alaska

Presenter: Dennis M. Staley, Research Physical Scientist, U.S. Geological Survey – Alaska Volcano Observatory

Exposure to landslide and tsunami hazards are a part of life for those who reside in the seaside communities of coastal Alaska and the people who work or recreate in coastal waterways. Recently, the recognition of the landslide-generated tsunami hazard posed by the Barry Arm landslide in northwestern Prince William Sound has attracted considerable attention in the public and media, at local, state, and federal governments, and in the scientific community. This presentation focuses on the ongoing effort to assess hazard and warn for a tsunami produced by the Barry Arm landslide, and on scientific investigations into the prevalence of this type of natural hazard at other locations in Prince William Sound.

View Advancing our understanding of tsunamigenic landslide hazards in Prince William Sound directly on YouTube.

Alaska Spill Response Wildlife Aid

Presenter: Bridget Crokus, Deputy Oil Spill Response Coordinator, USFWS Alaska Region

Protecting fish, wildlife, and their habitats is a primary response objective after an oil spill. First-hand accounts of wildlife in or near an oil spill are invaluable to a successful wildlife response. Bridget will present the Alaska Spill Response Wildlife ID Aid, a tool developed to help spill responders “take a wildlife minute” and record the wildlife they see.

View Alaska Spill Response Wildlife Aid directly on YouTube.

Annual Report now available

Front cover of the report. Image is of a rocky beach in Prince William Sound covered with mussels and other tidal critters. Mountains and ocean in the background. Clicking on the image will download a PDF of the report.The Council’s annual report, Year in Review 2022/2023, is now available. This report covers the many programs and projects we’ve been working on over the past year, such as oil spill prevention and response, environmental monitoring, oil spill contingency plans, operations at the Valdez Marine Terminal, invasive species monitoring, our outreach efforts, and much more. Highlights from this year include:

  • An assessment of risks and safety culture at the Valdez Marine Terminal
  • Ensuring the adequacy of secondary containment liners for the terminal’s crude oil storage tanks
  • Supporting solutions for sustainable funding for state spill
    prevention and response
  • Improvements to how the Council monitors weather and sea currents in our region
  • Monitoring oil spill drills and exercises
  • Reexamining the Council’s position on use of dispersants in our region

Download: 2022-2023 Annual Report

Decades-old monitoring program still innovating

Thirty years ago, a new Council program was just getting underway. The assignment for the new Long-Term Environmental Monitoring Program was to identify adverse impacts of the oil industry on the ecosystems in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.

Just a few years prior, as a result of the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill, the U.S. Congress had passed a law requiring such a monitoring program.

The Council worked with researchers to develop the program’s plan that, with some modifications to incorporate new technologies, is still in existence today.

Copying the approach taken by NOAA to monitor other areas, the program developers included two main tasks. Those were to combine chemical and biological assessment tools to determine whether hydrocarbons from the nearby oil industry:

  1. Accumulated in nearby sediments
  2. Affected nearby aquatic organisms

Starting in 1993, researchers began collecting samples of the sediments and blue mussels. Ten locations were chosen throughout Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska, largely following the path of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The monitoring in Port Valdez is mostly focused on assessing the environmental impacts of the Valdez Marine Terminal while the monitoring elsewhere is focused on assessing the impacts of oil tankers, including possible lingering oil from the Exxon Valdez spill. In addition to sites that were heavily oiled in 1989, the monitoring is also done at clean, unoiled sites for comparison.

Mussels were chosen because they filter large amounts of water and they remain in one location. They have been shown to accumulate hydrocarbons when they are nearby, and to eliminate the hydrocarbons during cleaner conditions. This means mussels reflect what is happening in their environment better than other organisms.

The program today

Three types of samples are analyzed today. Mussels and sediments are collected as in years past, and in 2016, researchers added a new tool called a passive sampling device. These are special plastic strips deployed underwater to which oil particles adhere. They can detect lower levels of hydrocarbons than the mussel and sediment sampling.

All three sample types are sent out to laboratories for chemical analysis. The labs measure and report the various types of oil contamination. Then scientists interpret the data.

Effects on genes: In 2019, the Council began looking into new methods to measure the impacts of oil on organisms in the environment. Researchers conducted a pilot study, analyzing genes of mussels using a technique known as “transcriptomics.”

Transcriptomics involves measuring how particular genes are expressed in an organism. This expression can be affected by conditions in the environment, such as exposure to hydrocarbons.

Read more about this work: Long-Term Environmental Monitoring

Under-studied component of hydrocarbons documented in discharge from terminal

A new report examined hydrocarbons that enter Prince William Sound from the Valdez Marine Terminal that until recently have received little attention.

Researchers Maxwell Harsha and David Podgorski from the University of New Orleans investigated the current process of removing crude oil residue from tanker ballast water. They were specifically looking for a type of compound called oxygenated hydrocarbons, as well as heavy metals.

What are oxygenated hydrocarbons?

Hydrocarbons are made of hydrogen and carbon molecules. There are a variety of types, depending on how these molecules are arranged. Crude oil is a mixture of types of hydrocarbons.

Hydrocarbons can become “oxygenated” when atoms of oxygen become attached to hydrocarbon molecules. This family of compounds is currently not monitored or regulated because they cannot be detected with the same process as other components of crude oil. Concerns about these compounds are emerging due to potential risks to human health and the environment.

Residue left in ballast water

Three treatment processes are employed to remove hydrocarbons from oily ballast water: gravity separation, pressurized air treatment called dissolved air flotation, and biological treatment.

Harsha and Podgorski compared samples of water taken at different points during the process of cleaning ballast water at the terminal.

The study’s results demonstrate that the treatment process effectively removes most hydrocarbon compounds, such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX). These are considered the most harmful to humans and other organisms, known to cause cancer and neurological impacts. The concentration of hydrocarbons in the water after treatment is at historically low levels. The researchers also found that one of the steps in the treatment, which uses dissolved air to remove small particles of hydrocarbons from the water, may lead to the formation of oxygenated hydrocarbons that are then released into Port Valdez.

Traditional monitoring techniques used at the Valdez Marine Terminal identify other hydrocarbons, but don’t catch oxygenated hydrocarbons.

Image describes cycle of removing oil from ballast water as described in the photo's caption.
How are hydrocarbons cleaned from ballast water? Oily ballast water is pumped into the treatment facility where it is processed to remove contaminants. It is first allowed to settle, which separates most of the oil by gravity. That oil is skimmed off, and then the water is treated with an air bubble process that removes additional compounds. The final stage is a biological treatment where oil-eating bacteria digest more of the hydrocarbon residue. In this image, the red asterisks note the points where researchers took samples.

What is ballast water?

Tankers sometimes pump seawater into empty crude oil storage tanks to help balance the vessel during rough seas. When a vessel carrying oily ballast water arrives at the Valdez Marine Terminal, the water is treated to remove hydrocarbons before discharged into the sea at Port Valdez.

Read the report: Examining the Effectiveness of Ballast Water Treatment Processes: Insights into Hydrocarbon Oxidation Product Formation and Environmental Implications

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