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

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.”

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