Compromise reached over habitat protections

Photo of the Valdez Duck Flats.
The Valdez Duck Flats is one of the largest salt marshes in Prince William Sound. This habitat is home to 52 species of marine birds, 8 species of waterfowl, 18 species of shorebirds, and other songbirds and birds of prey. Salmon, harbor seals, and sea otters feed in this rich estuary. The other sensitive area is Solomon Gulch Hatchery, which incubates 270 million pink salmon eggs and 2 million coho salmon each year.

Sensitive areas guaranteed swift protection when threatened by an oil spill

Conflicting views over the timing associated with protecting two areas in Port Valdez in the event of an oil spill has been resolved. Rapid protections for two environmentally sensitive areas, a large salt marsh known as the Valdez Duck Flats and the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, are guaranteed when more than 5 barrels (210 gallons) of oil are spilled from the Valdez Marine Terminal. The protections will also be deployed if a spill occurs and the amount of oil in the water is unknown or if a lesser amount is spilled but the source is not secured.

The resulting agreement also means spill responders will gain important environmental data that will improve oil spill planning and response for Port Valdez.

Diverging opinions led to appeal

In 2017, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, or ADEC, approved an update to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s oil spill contingency plan for the Valdez Marine Terminal. One of the changes modified a decision “matrix,” which was a tool created after a 1994 oil spill to help responders decide the timing of when to deploy protective oil spill boom for the duck flats and hatchery, both east of the terminal.

The 2017 version of the matrix potentially delayed protections for these two environmentally sensitive areas. In that version, if the oil was moving west, the matrix did not require immediate deployment of the protections, even in the case of a 2.5-million-gallon spill from the terminal.

Deploying the protective boom takes time, up to 10 or more hours depending on the weather. Based on the Council’s analysis of the 2017 version of the matrix, deployment of the protective boom could have been delayed up to 36 hours.

The Council was concerned that the oil would contaminate the two sites if the incoming tide moved the oil east, which would be expected every 12 hours. The Council appealed this approval, along with the City of Valdez, and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation. The Valdez Fisheries Development Association filed a separate appeal, but both appeals were eventually joined.

Collaboration leads to consensus

Alyeska, ADEC, and the groups who appealed reached a consensus after a years-long collaborative process.

The compromise called for gathering information about the weather in the vicinity of the terminal. To accomplish this, the groups agreed that a weather buoy would be placed at the Valdez Marine Terminal. The new buoy records wind speed, gusts, and direction; wave height and direction; and current speed and direction.

Preliminary data shows that an easterly movement of winds and waves is common.

Better data on variable weather conditions in Port Valdez

Photo of new buoy deployed in 2019.
Local mariners know that the weather on the south side of Port Valdez can vary significantly from the north side, however scientific data has never been available to confirm this. Weather forecasts are typically focused on the north side, since Valdez and most of the region’s population is located there. Find out more about these buoys and the data that is helping prevent and prepare for potential oil spills: New weather buoys establish PORTS® information for Valdez, Alaska

A second weather buoy was placed near the Valdez Duck Flats, co-funded by a grant from the City of Valdez. Both weather buoys were donated to the Council by Fairweather Science.

Compromise means safe oil transportation in Prince William Sound

In over 30 years of existence, this was the first time that the Council appealed a decision by ADEC to this level. The appeal lasted almost three years and the Council considers the result a success for all those involved.

“These may seem like insignificant changes, but they add up,” said Linda Swiss, the Council’s contingency plan project manager. “Part of our job is to make sure minor changes do not become a major problem. We all share the goal of keeping oil out of the water and off the land and to ensure that environmentally sensitive areas are protected should prevention measures fail.”

News release: Public input needed to safeguard state protections

Photo of Robert Archibald
Robert Archibald is the president of the board of directors for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council and has lived in Homer since 1984. Archibald spent 46 years as a mariner, including service in the U.S. Coast Guard and 32 years as chief engineer on Crowley Marine Service vessels in various locations, 22 of which were in Valdez, before retiring in 2014.

By Robert Archibald 
Board President

Recently published in the Anchorage Daily News

In 1971, the Alaska Legislature formed the Department of Environmental Conservation to take the lead on Alaska’s environmental protections. DEC’s mission, set by the legislation which formed it, is: conserving, improving, and protecting Alaska’s natural resources and environment to enhance the health, safety, economic, and social well-being of Alaskans.

Now, here we are, 30 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the creation of regional citizens advisory councils in Alaska, and coming up on 30 years since the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The world-class oil spill prevention and response system in Prince William Sound is a direct result of post-Exxon Valdez spill laws and regulations designed to protect Alaska. These strong statutes and regulations are one of the main reasons why Prince William Sound has not had a major oil spill since.

Currently, DEC is undertaking a “scoping process,” asking for comments from industry and the public on oil spill prevention and response regulations and statutes, which the DEC Commissioner has stated have become “onerous and burdensome” to business. The deadline to comment, March 16, is quickly approaching.

Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council has concerns that the current review is an effort to roll back regulations in order to reduce the burden on the oil industry, effectively shifting that burden to the citizens and the environment of Alaska.

The Spill Prevention and Response division of DEC is also suffering from reduced funding which will become critical by 2024 without a solution. Currently, this could hamper an efficient and timely review of comments from this scoping. In the future, this shortfall would be disastrous to oil spill prevention and response programs for Alaska.

Contingency plans, required by statutes and regulations, serve as a contract between industry and the State. They are an insurance policy to the citizens that their interests are being protected in both spill prevention and response preparedness. The details in these plans form the backbone of how industry has to provide prevention measures, response equipment and trained personnel, as well as perform drills and other exercises each year. These plans undergo a formal review every five years and are approved by DEC.

Practice does not make perfect, it makes better. That’s it. Being proactive in preventing oil spills and having strong response systems in place ahead of a spill is the best practice to maintain a pristine environment. Without a strong regulatory presence requiring these safeguards, they could disappear, putting our current world-class system at risk.

After 30 years with no major disasters, it would be easy to develop a false sense of security and let complacency creep back in.

One thing I learned during my 46 years as a seagoing marine engineer is that when you least expect it – that is when something beyond your imagination could very well happen.

The problem with letting your guard down is a guy named Murphy. For those that haven’t heard his law, it says: if it can go wrong, it will. Trimming details in the interest of simplicity, losing institutional knowledge as folks retire, rollbacks of regulations, reduced regulatory budgets and staff – all of this is setting up Mr. Murphy to once again prove his point. A point that will inevitably be made at a high cost to Alaskans, their livelihoods, and the amazing waters and lands in which we work, live and play.

Public input is needed to strongly oppose any legislative or regulatory changes that would erode oil spill prevention and response standards, increase the risk of a catastrophic spill or demonstrate a return of the complacency on the part of the oil industry and regulators that Congress determined to be a primary cause of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I encourage all Alaskans to make public comment in support of strong regulations that protect our pristine environment, coastal attractions, unique wildlife, healthy fish populations and businesses from oil pollution.

Submit your comments:

Public comment form for Oil Discharge Prevention and Contingency Plan Public Scoping


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Public statements by Commissioner Brune cause concern

Photo of the Valdez Duck Flats.

The recent public scoping notice issued by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, along with statements made by the department’s commissioner, Jason Brune, have caused concern at the Council.

Some of the commissioner’s statements were interpreted as encouraging a reduction in regulations, safeguards that could lead to a return to the complacency that led to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Full statements

References to “burdensome” regulations

Last March, the commissioner spoke to Alaska’s Resource Development Council, an organization comprised of representatives from Alaska’s oil and gas, mining, timber, tourism, and fisheries industries. He told the group that he has been focusing on the word “economic” in the department’s mission: ‘Conserving, improving, and protecting Alaska’s natural resources and environment to enhance the health, safety, economic, and social well-being of Alaskans.’ He specifically requested comments from members of the business group regarding which regulations they view as “overly onerous” and “unnecessary.” “We need to make sure that we hear from you what we can do to help make Alaska open for business,” Brune told them.

The commissioner spoke to the Council at two public meetings this year. At the Council’s meeting last May, he mentioned the length of the regulations for contingency plans.

“When you make things complex and you make things 49 pages, for regs [regulations] for a c-plan [contingency plan], that influences your investment climate,” he said.

These regulations cover different response planning standards for crude tankers, non-crude tankers and barges, crude oil terminals, non-crude terminals, oil and gas exploration facilities, production facilities, and pipelines.

“We’re going to look at them [the regulations] and we’re going to determine whether it’s — some things that are in there are just outdated, some things are unnecessary, they’re not protecting human health and the environment,” also told the Council in May.

“Some of the things that have been added to c-plans over the years, as I said, I think that the c-plans have gotten — and I know a lot of you disagree with me on this — but they’ve gotten overly onerous and too large to the point that they’re almost unusable documents,” the commissioner said in September.

Since 1992, the department has revised these regulations nine times to streamline the process and make creating the documents less onerous.

Lack of transparency

The Council has asked for examples of regulations that have been suggested for reform but has not received any specifics.

“Some of the examples [of recommended changes] that have been given — I mean, I’m — I can’t come up with any right now but, I mean, some of the regs that we put forward for potential changes, I don’t have that list in front of me but did come from input that we received in those processes,” told the Council in May.

“We have identified the list of regs that we think can be improved. The State of Alaska — the different departments were asked to do that by the Governor. We put a list of about a hundred came forward from the different agencies around — I think 35 or 40 of them came from DEC.”

At the Council’s meeting in September, members showed appreciation that the commissioner was open to conversations, however concerns remained.

“I’ve heard a lot of folks say they want huge changes,” the commissioner told the Council in September.

Council calls on the commissioner to uphold commitment to protect Alaska

However, at the May meeting, the commissioner also made statements that he is committed to the protection of Alaska’s environment.
“We have a responsibility to make sure that the economy of Alaska is protected and economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. Those two things we’ve proven can co-exist. We’ve also proven in 1989 that you can really screw things up. So we need to make sure we’re doing it right,” the commissioner told the Council last May.

The Council called on the commissioner to uphold this commitment to protect Alaska’s environment during upcoming reviews of regulations.

Statements made by ADEC Commissioner Jason Brune of concern to the Council:

March 21, 2019: 

May 2019: 

September 2019: 

New buoys now streaming weather conditions from Port Valdez

Photo of new buoy deployed in 2019.

Two new buoys are now in place and broadcasting weather conditions in the vicinity of the Valdez Marine Terminal.

Photo of new buoy deployed in 2019.

The buoys collect weather data such as temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and barometric pressure, as well as oceanographic information like surface current direction and speed, wave heights, and water temperature. This data will help improve understanding of the meteorological and physical oceanographic environment in Port Valdez.

Weather conditions throughout Prince William Sound

Terminal buoy result of cooperative partnership

The buoy closest to the terminal (pictured above) is the result of a partnership between the Council, the Prince William Sound Science Center, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the City of Valdez, and Valdez Fisheries Development Association.

“Partnerships like these result in collaborative science, which is the best base for providing answers to challenging questions related to planning an effective oil spill response,” said Donna Schantz, Executive Director for the Council. “The Council has long advocated for this kind of data collection at the terminal and believe the information generated will contribute to best practices for prevention and response.”

The partnership is a result of an agreement reached between the Council, the City of Valdez, Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, Valdez Fisheries Development Association, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation regarding protections in the Valdez Marine Terminal contingency plan for two nearby areas that are particularly sensitive to spilled oil, the Solomon Gulch fish hatchery and a salt marsh known as the Valdez Duck Flats.

In 1994, the tanker Eastern Lion spilled 8,400 gallons of North Slope crude oil into Port Valdez. Oil reached the Duck Flats and hatchery before protective boom was in place.

After that spill, changes were made to the Valdez Marine Terminal contingency plan to ensure that protections were deployed quickly. A rapid-decision tool, called a “matrix,” was created to help responders assess when to deploy protective boom to the Solomon Gulch Hatchery and Valdez Duck Flats during the critical early hours of a response. In 2017, the matrix was modified, and the Council, the City of Valdez, Valdez Fisheries Development Association, and Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation appealed that decision.

Earlier this year, the parties agreed to stay the appeal in lieu of a collaborative workgroup process. The workgroup’s goal is to reach consensus on how to ensure the protection of the Solomon Gulch Hatchery and Valdez Duck Flats. The buoys will provide scientific data to help the workgroup better understand how spilled oil will move in Port Valdez. This knowledge will help determine the timing for deploying protective boom.

Second buoy monitors Valdez Duck Flats

A second buoy has been deployed near the Valdez Duck Flats to monitor conditions in that location. The second buoy has been made possible by partnerships with Prince William Sound Science Center, the City of Valdez, and Valdez Fisheries Development Association.

Map

The map shows the locations of the two sensitive areas of concern, as well as the location of the new buoys. The hatchery is a little over two miles from the terminal, and the flats are approximately four miles.

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