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.”

Read more

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.

Read more

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)

Skip to content