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.”

Industry drills test equipment and personnel

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.

Council staff and a monitor from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation observe a June drill while maintaining a safe distance between each other. 

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.

More details in the full report:

2019 Drill Monitoring Report (0.2 MB)

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.

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