Systems at fault in April Valdez Terminal spill identified

This aerial photo shows several layers of oil spill boom containing the oil while workers cleaning up the spill.
In this May photo, several layers of oil spill boom can be seen in place around the Valdez Marine Terminal’s small boat harbor. This is where the sheen of spilled oil was first discovered in April. Photo courtesy of Alyeska.

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.

What happened?

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.

Photo shows Council staff member collecting water samples near the spill site.
Council staff member Austin Love collects water samples near the terminal after the April spill. Photo courtesy of Alyeska.

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

Photo shows crews tending boom around the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, about 2 miles from the terminal. Early in the spill response, Alyeska deployed this protective boom around the hatchery and nearby Valdez Duck Flats. No oil reached either site. Both sites are particularly sensitive to oil contamination. Sensitive areas like these are identified before a spill occurs and response plans are tailored to each site. These plans save time during the critical first hours of a response.
Crews tend boom around the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, about 2 miles from the terminal. Early in the spill response, Alyeska deployed this protective boom around the hatchery and nearby Valdez Duck Flats. No oil reached either site. Both sites are particularly sensitive to oil contamination. Sensitive areas like these are identified before a spill occurs and response plans are tailored to each site. These plans save time during the critical first hours of a response. Photo by Jeremy Robida.

“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.”

Investigation complete

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.

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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.

Sen. Dan Sullivan introduces legislation to make major improvements to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund

Photo of the Council delegation meeting with Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Legislation includes enhancements supported by Prince William Sound RCAC

Photo of the Council delegation meeting with Sen. Dan Sullivan.
The Council delegation meets with Sen. Dan Sullivan. Left to Right: Joe Lally, Mako Haggerty, Robert Archibald, Amanda Bauer, Sen. Dan Sullivan, Donna Schantz, Rebecca Skinner

Monday, the day after the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Sen. Dan Sullivan introduced in the United States Senate legislation entitled the “Spill Response and Prevention Surety Act.” This bill would reinstitute the financing rate for the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, establish a floor and ceiling for the Fund so as to ensure availability of funding resources to help respond to oil spills in all 50 States, provide for prevention funding grants and make other improvements to the Fund.

A delegation of Board members and staff from the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council is currently in Washington, DC and provided a preliminary response to Sen. Sullivan on this very encouraging development. The trip is an annual visit for meetings on Capitol Hill, with the U.S. Coast Guard, with federal agencies that comprise the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research, the State of Alaska, and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.

As a citizens’ organization authorized by statute after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Council had previously expressed to Sen. Dan Sullivan, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and other members of the House and Senate strong support for congressional authorization for certain important and needed improvements to the Fund. It was therefore very encouraging for Council representatives to see this bill introduced in the Senate. While visiting Sen. Sullivan at the Capitol yesterday, the Council expressed their appreciation for his work on this bill.

Council representatives are hopeful that the bill will be considered soon in the Senate and House, supported strongly across the nation, acted upon and enacted during this session of the 116th Congress. Council representatives in Washington intend to ensure the full membership of the Council, spanning the entire Exxon Valdez oil spill region, will be briefed on the bill once they return to Alaska later this week. The Council will then be able to provide Congress the organization’s views regarding any potential further recommended improvements to the bill as introduced for consideration.

The financing rate expired at the end of December 2018. It is therefore important that action be taken soon to reauthorize the financing rate and to make the other needed improvements to the Fund for the protection of navigable waters in every state, fish and wildlife and their habitats, local, state and regional economies and for the environment.

The Council delegation meeting with congressional leaders in Washington this week included Amanda Bauer, president, representing the City of Valdez; Rebecca Skinner, Board member, representing the Kodiak Island Borough; Robert Archibald, Board member, representing the City of Homer; Mako Haggerty, Board member representing the Kenai Peninsula Borough; Donna Schantz, executive director; and Joe Lally, director of programs.

For more information, contact Brooke Taylor at 907-277-7222.

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New buoys will collect data about winds and currents in Port Valdez

Photo of the Valdez Duck Flats.
Photo of VMT Buoy in Valdez harbor
Update June 2019: This new buoy, pictured here in Valdez Harbor before being moved to its monitoring location near the terminal. The buoy is now streaming data, which can be accessed through our weather tracking page

In February, the Council reached an agreement with Alyeska that will improve knowledge about weather conditions in Port Valdez. Alyeska has agreed to allow a buoy to be installed in front of the Valdez Marine Terminal to measure winds and surface currents. A second buoy will collect data from a nearby salt marsh.

Agreement reached on appeal to amendment of spill contingency plan

The agreement is the outcome of an appeal to a 2017 amendment to the oil spill contingency plan for the terminal.

In that 2017 amendment, Alyeska replaced a tool used by responders in deciding whether to protect the salt marsh known as the Valdez Duck Flats, and the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery in case of a spill from the terminal. The Council, the City of Valdez, the Valdez Fisheries Development Association, and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation appealed the 2017 change. They were concerned the new tool would not adequately protect these two environmentally sensitive areas.

Read moreNew buoys will collect data about winds and currents in Port Valdez

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