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)

Seward community engages with on-water oil spill response training

Seward community members observing vessels pulling oil spill boom. The Council held its fishing vessel oil spill response training observation tour in Seward, Alaska, on April 14, 2022. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, this had been an annual event since 2016, rotating through several communities in the region. The Seward community was invited to join the council from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., on a Major Marine Tours vessel to observe the training.

Seward city clerk, Brenda Ballou, stated about the event, “I’ve been aware of the SERVS training for a long time, but never had the opportunity to actually take part in it or see it. I think it’s fantastic, everybody working together. It really is a service for the whole community.”

The local fishermen participating in the training are contracted by the Ship Escort/Response Vessel System, also known as SERVS, to respond in the event of a Prince William Sound tanker or Valdez Marine Terminal oil spill. SERVS is Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s oil spill removal organization and coordinates annual spill response exercises in multiple Southcentral Alaska communities, including Seward.

This Council event helps keep communities informed on what oil spill prevention and response measures are in place in Prince William Sound and downstream communities, especially those involving their local fishermen. Seward residents learned about oil spill response technology, tactics and how this program helps Alyeska operate safely in Prince William Sound. Narrators from both the Council and Alyeska were on board to describe the oil spill response resources and tactics used to help participants better understand the training. We would like to thank our partners, Alyeska/SERVS and Major Marine Tours, for helping to support this event.

When asked why it was important for community members to learn about this program, attendee Mead Treadwell said, “I was around during Exxon Valdez and around during the creation of the fisherman’s program. Practice like this is important. It’s an impressive drill.”

While a local 10-year-old participant noted his favorite part was seeing the “giant orange boat” [the M/V Ross Chouest utility tug], others found the key takeaway to be the reassurance the event provided them. Participant Cindy Mans noted, “I’m actually really just encouraged by what I saw and absolutely the idea that the local people have the most invested if something goes wrong. Unfortunately, I view an oil spill as more of a ‘when’ instead of an ‘if.’ If we can keep it as small as possible and the least amount of impact, this is one of the pieces to make that happen.”

Alyeska’s contracted fishing fleet is the backbone of their oil spill response system. It is essential to the system operating as it was designed to do and part of what makes the Prince William Sound system world-class. These contracted vessels and their crews help ensure the most comprehensive response measures are in place for both open water and nearshore resources. A major lesson of the Exxon Valdez spill was that incorporating local mariners into the spill response system helps ensure a quick, efficient and effective response.

Since the inception of SERVS after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Council has been highly supportive of local fishermen and mariners being trained annually with the best available technology to prepare for oil spills. Seward mariners have the most intimate knowledge of, and connection to, the waters near Seward. Their involvement would help protect the most sensitive areas, such as hatcheries and spawning streams, from spilled oil.

The Council has held previous fishing vessel oil spill response training tours in Whittier, Cordova and Homer. The Council hopes that through such programs communities will understand the importance of oil spill prevention and having the most robust response strategies in place in the event of a spill.

News release: 

PWSRCAC Press Release - Seward Fishing Vessel Training Tour (0.5 MB)

Drills and exercises affected by pandemic again in 2021

The Council has released its annual report on drills and exercises conducted in Prince William Sound in 2021. This report highlights the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and lessons learned.

Reduced on-water monitoring for second year

Graphic showing that 2 drills observed in 2020 and 6 in 2021, compared to a normal pre-pandemic year when usually 12-20 are monitored.For the second year in a row, the Council has been unable to monitor the on-water drills and exercises in Prince William Sound as closely as pre-pandemic years.

The Council has not been allowed on tugs or barges since early 2020, given COVID safety precautions. To be able to monitor some drills, the Council has chartered boats to observe from afar, but evaluation has proved difficult from such a distance.

“We can’t see the full evolution of the exercise or hear communications,” says Council drill monitor Roy Robertson. “We can’t tell if the crews are having problems deploying boom and we can’t time the activities like we usually do.”

A quick response is critical to prevent spills. State regulations require certain tasks like boom deployment be done within a specified time limit. These drills and exercises are good practice for responders and help to ensure that crews will be ready to respond efficiently if a spill were to occur.

At a recent Council meeting, Alyeska stated that they hope to start allowing observers back onboard their tugs and barges to evaluate drills and exercises in the near future.

First virtual drill for Prince William Sound

While activities like boom deployment must be done in person and on the water, tabletop exercises can be performed virtually.

The Prince William Sound shipping companies take turns holding an annual drill to test these activities. Usually, this takes place in the Valdez Emergency Operations Center, which can get crowded.

This year, Polar Tankers and ConocoPhilips conducted the first-ever virtual drill in Prince William Sound. Folks participated from as far away as London. Most were participating online, which reduced the number of people in the emergency operations center.

Council staff monitored the online meetings.

“This drill showed that a spill response can be managed remotely,” Robertson said. “It’s possible to do, but maybe not recommended as best practice because in-person drills facilitate relationship-building.” Relationships that can be leveraged during actual spills in the future.

A few technology issues arose. Robertson said time stamps on documents were confusing because participants were tuning in from different time zones.

First exercise involving a foreign tanker

Another first this year occurred in June. The Los Angeles Spirit, a foreign flagged tanker chartered by Hilcorp and operated by Teekay Shipping, participated in a towing exercise.

The Council has advocated for years for foreign flagged tankers to take part in drills and exercises. Since 2016, more foreign tankers have been loading oil from the terminal.

These crews may be unfamiliar with the harsh Alaska weather or the prevention and response systems that protect our unique region. The Council is concerned this may increase risk of an accident or oil spill.

During the exercise, the crews of the tanker and escort tugs went through the steps it would take for the tugs to take control of the tanker and begin towing. During the first part of this process, the tanker’s captain is in charge, giving orders and instructions to the tugs on how and when to approach the tanker and connect a towline.

Once the towline is connected, the captain of the towing tug takes over control. The tanker is then taken in tow like a barge.

Clear communication is important during these operations. Robertson said the tanker’s captain and crew performed well.

The Council looks forward to future exercises with foreign flagged tankers.

2021 Drill Report

Full descriptions of the drills and exercises described above:

2021 Annual Drill Monitoring Report (0.2 MB)

Tracking lessons over time

Each year, the Council issues an annual summary of activities and observations from the previous year. These reports help the Council track the history of spill preparedness and response by Alyeska’s Ship Escort/Response Vessel System and the associated shippers.

Archive of previous annual drill reports

New tool to support Regional Stakeholder Committee

Do you know if you or your community is prepared to advocate for themselves in the case of an oil spill? The Council recently developed resources to support affected stakeholders during such an event.

The new toolkit was designed to support citizens who would participate in a process known as a Regional Stakeholder Committee. However, some of the tools would be useful for anyone affected by an oil spill.

What’s in the toolkit?

The resources include helpful content such as:

  • A template to help capture important details during a briefing by response leaders
  • A list of potential stakeholder concerns
  • Ideas for available resources that may help support the response

The kit also includes some basic information about the spill response system in Alaska and how an oil spill response is organized.

Available on our website: Regional Stakeholders Committee Resources

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