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.

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Council report documents the history and intent behind Alaska’s standard for spill response planning

Alaska, and Prince William Sound in particular, is known for its world-class oil spill prevention and response system. But it wasn’t always that way. In March of 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil, responders were ill-prepared.

“Nothing arrived. There was nothing there.”

– Marilyn Heiman
Staff member for the Alaska House Resources Committee,
on the experience of waiting days for equipment to arrive.

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Link to more photos of new equipment
More photos of new equipment.

Prince William Sound was a hive of activity this summer. On July 1, Alyeska’s marine services contractor transitioned from Crowley Maritime Corporation to Edison Chouest Offshore.

This transition means all of the escort tugs and much of the spill prevention and response equipment in Prince William Sound are brand new, or new to the Sound.

Demonstrations of the new equipment

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Extensive amendments due to transition

Photo of oil spill contingency plans with the caption: What is a contingency plan? A contingency plan, or “c-plan,” outlines steps to be taken before, during, and after an emergency. An oil spill contingency plan contains detailed information on how to prevent an oil spill, as well as response activities in the event a spill occurs. Preventing an oil spill from occurring in the first place is the most effective way to protect human health and the environment. If an oil spill occurs, however, a systematic and well-organized approach is necessary to quickly contain and control a spill. Responding efficiently and effectively to a spill requires advanced planning and preparedness.
What is a contingency plan?

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation recently approved major amendments to oil spill contingency plans for both the Valdez Marine Terminal and for the tankers that transport oil through Prince William Sound. Both approvals came with conditions.

Neither the tanker plan, nor the terminal plan was due for a renewal. However, Edison Chouest Offshore is bringing so much new equipment and personnel to their new role as Alyeska’s marine services contractor that major changes were needed to both plans. Major amendments require a public comment period.

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