Council chronicles history of spill protection plans for Copper River Delta and Flats

Photo of the Copper River Delta and Flats region. The image shows a wide muddy flat delta with a small island and mountains in the distance. The Copper River Delta and Flats include salmon spawning areas, seabird nesting areas, and cultural and recreation sites that need protection from oil spills.

A new Council report tells the story of how Cordovans, the oil industry, and government agencies came together in the late 1990s to protect the ecologically rich Copper River Delta and Flats from the effects of a spill.

The Copper River region is known for its productive fisheries, wildlife and habitat, and cultural heritage. An estimated 12 million shorebirds migrate through in spring and fall. Salmon from the Copper River, arguably the most famous of Alaska fish, are a vital part of the state’s economy. Alaska Native peoples have called this area home for more than 10,000 years.

Many factors would make cleaning up an oil spill in this area difficult. It is only accessible by air or sea. Shorelines and river channels are frequently changing due to the river currents, tides, and ocean storms. High winds, surf, and varying geography could hamper cleanup efforts.

This image from Google Earth shows the remoteness of the Copper River Delta and Flats area.
Geographic Response Strategies: Special oil spill contingency plans developed for unique areas Over the years, Alaska has developed GRS for areas that need special protection from hazardous spills. These are special instructions tailored for each area. Responders can use these pre-planned strategies to save critical time in the early hours of a oil spill response. Image and data credit to: Google Landsat/Copernicus Maxar Technologies IBCAO Terrametrics CNES/Airbus Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navu, NGA, GEBCO

Collaboration results in detailed plan

In 1995, the spill contingency plan for oil tankers traveling through Prince William Sound went out for public comment for the first time since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. With memories of the 1989 spill still fresh, local Cordovans questioned if a spill in Prince William Sound could migrate into the delta and flats region and how best to prepare for this possibility.

As a result of that debate, a work group formed to develop strategies to protect the area. The group included the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the City of Cordova, and representatives from Cordova District Fishermen United. These local fishermen added knowledge of tides, currents, and other factors that could affect a spill response.

The group developed potential tactics for each zone and other logistical information.

This plan was adopted as part of the State of Alaska’s oil spill contingency plans in 1999.

Changing formats

After 1999, a standard format called Geographic Response Strategies, or GRS, was developed for sites around Alaska that needed special protection. Approximately 700 GRS exist across the state. The format uses consistent symbols and information in each GRS.

The Copper River Delta and Flats plan was developed before these protocols existed and its format is different for that reason.

In 2018, the regulator’s plans changed, and the Copper River and Delta Flats protection information was not carried forward. While the document can still be found today, information in the plan is out of date and work is needed to update and modernize the format.

The State of Alaska and U.S. Coast Guard is currently in the process of updating how the statewide GRS are managed.

“The Council sees this as an opportune time to once again discuss and capture protection strategies for the Copper River Delta and Flats region,” says Jeremy Robida, project manager for the Council.

Researchers recommend updates for the Copper River Delta and Flats plan

The Council started this work to better understand the historical context of the development of the Copper River Delta and Flats plan. The Council worked with Sierra Fletcher and Tim Robertson of Nuka Research and attorney Breck Tostevin to construct a general history of the plan.

The researchers documented the early debate which led to the work group and the current status of the plan. They also made recommendations to help incorporate details from the original plan into a modern GRS format.

“Working through this project really reinforced just how unique this area is, and how it deserves discussion and pre-planning for oil spill prevention and response,” Robida added.

The Council hopes this work will support future planning.

Read more in the report:

Geographic Response Planning for the Copper River Delta and Flats (1.1 MB)

Changes proposed to Alaska’s regulations on oil spill prevention and response

Photo of Representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and SERVS observing an oil spill exercise in Prince William Sound.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation recently proposed changes to the regulations that govern how oil spills are prevented and cleaned up in Alaska. These changes were open for public comment from November 2021 through January 2022.

Improvements

During its review, the Council noted positive changes, including:

  • increased clarity within regulations,
  • combination of redundant sections, and
  • use of technology to modernize workflow.

Read more

Prince William Sound is home to a variety of bird species in winter

Frigid Alaska winters can be a tough time and place for wildlife. Food is scarce, the climate can be extreme, and days are short. Many species of birds head south.

However, some hardier species, such as marbled murrelets, common murres, pelagic cormorants, black-legged kittiwakes, and glaucous-winged gulls tough it out over the winter.

Since 2007, Dr. Mary Anne Bishop, a research ecologist at the Prince William Sound Science Center, has surveyed the Sound in fall and winter to document these bird species. This work is done on behalf of Gulf Watch Alaska, an ecosystem monitoring program funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. The Trustee Council documents the recovery of wildlife species after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The Council recently worked with Dr. Bishop and Anne Schaefer, the Center’s avian research assistant, to expand the survey area. The Council needed to know if marine birds congregated in areas around the Valdez Marine Terminal and near the tanker lanes. If a spill were to occur, these are the most likely areas for oil to come ashore.

Quick protection if a spill happens

When creating oil spill contingency plans, it is important to know where critical habitats are located. Plans can be created ahead of time that will help responders act fast to protect these areas before they are damaged.

The researchers noted specific areas to safeguard including Port Etches and Zaikof Bay near Hinchinbrook Entrance, the head of Port Valdez between the Valdez container terminal and the Valdez Glacier stream, and in southeastern Port Fidalgo.

This was the first of three years proposed for this study. The report notes that it is difficult to draw conclusions from a single year, because composition and density of birds can vary during the overwintering, non-breeding season.

The results of the survey will be available through the Alaska Ocean Observing System.

More information is available in the full report:

Marine Winter Bird Surveys In Prince William Sound (9.0 MB)

A journey through time: New Council report documents history of tanker contingency plan

Photo shows crews tending boom around the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, about 2 miles from the terminal. Early in the spill response, Alyeska deployed this protective boom around the hatchery and nearby Valdez Duck Flats. No oil reached either site. Both sites are particularly sensitive to oil contamination. Sensitive areas like these are identified before a spill occurs and response plans are tailored to each site. These plans save time during the critical first hours of a response.

Thousands of pages of documents. Countless meetings and workgroups. Over thirty years of oil spill drills and exercises.
That’s what you’d previously have to dig through to truly understand the oil spill contingency plan for Prince William Sound’s tankers.

Graphic that says: From 1000s of documents, researchers summarized 43 events that substantially changed contingency plans and 17 recurring issues.
Read the report: History of Tanker Contingency Plan

Not anymore. A new report has now distilled that history down into one report. The Council partnered with experts at Nuka Research and attorney Breck Tostevin to comb through decades of letters, reports, and meeting notes. They were looking for details on how the plan, and the regulations that shaped the plan, developed.

What is the plan?

The Prince William Sound Tanker Oil Spill Prevention and Contingency Plan essentially describes how Alyeska and the tanker companies prevent oil from spilling, and how they will contain and clean up the oil if a spill happens.

State and federal laws and regulations determine what details are included in the plan. The industry writes the plans and government agencies decide whether the plan meets their requirements.

Documenting the changes over time

There have been numerous changes to the plan and its governing regulations over the years.

Changes are made on a regular basis through an extensive and complicated renewal process. A lot of work and thought goes into these updates. In a nutshell, every five years:

  1. the industry proposes changes,
  2. the government reviews the changes and solicits public comment,
  3. the Council and stakeholders review and submit comments,
  4. and the comments and changes are considered and worked out between the industry and the government.

The government approves the plan once it meets their requirements.

Details are written down in various documents. The researchers started with the first plan developed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, documenting how the then-new state requirements resulted in many changes, and tracking subsequent changes through 2020.

Their work shows that many Alaskans, including industry, government agencies, and citizens worked hard to tailor the plan and regulations so that it works for our unique state.

“An Alaska contingency plan is not a generic plan on how to respond to spills,” note the researchers in the report.

Graphic text box that says: 7 functions of an Alaska contingency plan Under the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s regulations, these plans serve as: 1. An emergency plan 2. A detailed long-term plan 3. Proof that equipment and resources meet standards 4. An assessment of past incidents and how they could have been prevented 5. A description of prevention measures as required by Alaska regulations 6. Proof that the equipment and vessel technology is modern, and 7. A permit for the facility or tanker to operate

How will this report help protect Prince William Sound?

Those who wrote, organized, reviewed, and approved the plans acquired an extensive knowledge of the contents of the plans. They knew why the plans and regulations were written a certain way because they were the ones who made the changes.

Years later, many have retired, but they left a trail of details in historical documents.

The report details how the plan has improved, describes contentious issues and how they were resolved, notes significant trends, and documents remaining issues. The report also documents changes to the regulations and how regulations have been interpreted at different times.

“This project helped us understand how regulatory philosophies, requirements, oversight, and enforcement have changed over the years,” said Linda Swiss, a Council staffer who was part of the team that developed the history.

Swiss has been managing contingency plan projects for over 12 years for the Council.

“We were in a unique position to do this project because we have one of the most extensive collections of historical documents that I know about,” Swiss added. 

The researchers were able to find information on missing events not available anywhere else.

“It will be helpful for future planners and plan reviewers,” Swiss noted.

“It is hoped this history will be a useful tool in understanding past work and the rationale behind certain commitments, and perhaps more importantly to help prevent any backsliding or diminishment of oil spill prevention and response capabilities for Prince William Sound and its downstream communities,” Swiss said.

Read the report

Historical summary:

PWS Tanker Oil Spill Prevention & Contingency Plan, Summary 1995-2020 (1.3 MB)

Compendium of event summaries:

PWS Tanker Oil Spill Prevention & Contingency Plan, Compendium Of Event Summaries 1995-2020 (0.9 MB)

Graphic timeline:

Timeline of major events and changes to the PWS Tanker Oil Spill Prevention & Contingency Plan (0.8 MB)

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