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.
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
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.”
Drills and exercises conducted last year in Prince William Sound continued to test the new vessels and equipment brought in by the new spill response contractor, Edison Chouest, in 2018. In addition, the year’s drills helped train the crews of the tugs and tankers on various aspects of spill prevention and response in Prince William Sound.
During the year, mariners practiced towing tankers, attaching tether lines between tankers and tugs, deploying and operating oil spill response equipment in both open water and near the shoreline, communicating between command posts in Valdez and Anchorage, and many other response activities.
Tracking lessons over time
The Council observes many of these drills and exercises and issues an annual summary of the previous year’s activities and observations. These reports track the history of spill preparedness and response by Alyeska’s SERVS and the associated shippers.
For example, this report notes that in the past few years, responders have become more proficient at deploying protections for the Valdez Duck Flats, an estuary which is home to numerous species of wildlife. The report recommends similar training for the nearby Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery, another area that is particularly sensitive to oil contamination.
Improving spill response
The report also included the Council’s recommendations for future exercises. Two of the suggestions would increase safety: using full personal protection equipment, or PPE, during some exercises; and conducting more drills at night.
The PPE recommendation stemmed from a 2018 exercise where Council staff observed responders struggling to communicate via radio while wearing a respirator, which some responders removed. During a real event, respirators could be needed in contaminated areas due to hydrocarbon fumes in the air.
The Council has supported conducting drills during hours of darkness for the last several years. On the shortest days of December in Prince William Sound, daylight only lasts for 6 hours or less. Responders need to practice finding and recovering oil in the dark to be able to mount an effective spill response in winter.
The reports help the Council improve the spill prevention and response system. Analysis of these reports over time can help identify operational issues and help improve the prevention and response system.
COVID-19 affecting drills and exercises in 2020
This report covers drills and exercises conducted in 2019. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the normal schedule. Drills and exercises have continued, although they have been modified to accommodate safe pandemic practices.
On April 12, a sheen was reported near the small boat harbor at the Valdez Marine Terminal. Investigations identified the source as a sump which overflowed. The primary causes of the spill have been identified as the failure of a check valve and a level indicator.
The check valve became clogged with debris.
A level indicator was not functioning. This failure also kept the high-level alarm from activating.
While the level indicator should have prevented the incident, human error also played a factor. A technician conducting rounds did not verify the sump level due to a headlamp failure. This action had the potential to prevent or reduce the volume of the spill.
When the systems are working properly, rainwater from the nearby area drains into the sump, which is then pumped into the terminal’s industrial wastewater system. That wastewater system empties into the ballast water treatment system.
The investigation showed that the check valve became clogged with debris at an unknown point and was unable to fully close. This allowed oily water from the ballast water facility’s pipes to flow into the sump.
The level indicator in the sump was supposed to sense rising liquids and automatically turn on the sump’s pump when the liquid level reached a certain height, to pump out the excess liquids. Because that level indicator failed, the rising oil and water mix overflowed the sump.
Discovery, containment, and cleanup
The sump was identified as the source of the spill within a few days, however the pathway the oily water took from the sump to the water took time and extensive excavation to discover.
When the systems failed, the oily water seeped through the soils around the sump and entered an old drainpipe, which directed the spill into Port Valdez. The pipe had been installed before the terminal was built to prepare the site for its construction. It was later buried and forgotten until Alyeska discovered it while investigating the spill’s path.
Oil continued to seep into Port Valdez until the end of April as oil already in the ground worked its way to water. In early May, a temporary pipeline was completed, which captures the seeping oil and redirects it to the ballast water treatment facility. No more oil is reaching water, however cleanup on land is expected to continue through the fall.
The spill and subsequent cleanup activities did not impact the tanker loading berths and oil shipping continued throughout the incident response.
All responders have been required to adhere to safety guidelines to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Council staff and volunteers continue to monitor the situation from a safe distance.
Communications with Council
“While preventing oil from reaching the water is always the ultimate goal, Alyeska was proactive and responded to this incident with trained personnel and pre-contracted fishing vessels who were successful in mitigating impacts to the environment,” said Donna Schantz, executive director for the Council.
“Additionally, the Unified Command, including Alyeska as the responsible party, provided us with information and included us in meetings and updates,” she added.
“This was a great example of how we were designed to work together.”
Alyeska’s investigation into the cause of the spill was completed in early July. The Council has received information regarding the investigation from Alyeska, including information about the causes and other contributing factors, and will be following up on next steps. Many sumps like this are located throughout the terminal and the Council is interested in Alyeska’s measures to prevent this type of occurrence in the future.