Schantz: The value of learning from history and experience

Donna Schantz
Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz
Executive Director

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, many of the people impacted used lessons learned to advocate for safeguards to ensure a spill like that never happens again. Thanks to the foresight, vigilance, and tireless efforts of these elected officials, government regulators, industry, and citizens, Prince William Sound is now recognized as having a world-class oil spill prevention and response system for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated oil tankers. The biggest successes achieved in our region have been a result of these partners working together toward the common goal of moving oil safely.

Congress found that complacency on the part of industry and government was a major contributing factor to the Exxon Valdez spill. To combat this complacency, Congress established two regional citizens advisory councils, one in Prince William Sound and another in Cook Inlet. Neither council could satisfy the provisions under this federal mandate without dedicated volunteers from throughout their respective regions. Citizen oversight brings irreplaceable local knowledge and expertise to the table, and involves those with the most to lose from oil pollution in the decisions that can put their livelihoods, resources, and communities at risk. Since our formation, our work has helped bring about some changes and advancements that would not have happened had we not been in existence.

In addition to the comprehensive laws enacted through the landmark Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the Alaska Legislature introduced a series of bills immediately following the 1989 spill that resulted in some of the most comprehensive laws in the nation for preventing and cleaning up an oil spill. The legislature understood that in order to be effective, a spill response must be immediate, with adequate resources and trained personnel available to contain, control, and clean up the oil within the shortest possible time. Industry should be commended for the extensive amounts of equipment and new technologies employed in our region, especially the relatively new Crucial oil skimmers, escort and response tugs, and purpose-built oil spill response barges. This equipment, coupled with vigorous training programs for operators and oil spill responders, represents vast improvements over the response system in place in 1989.

It took a tragedy like the Exxon Valdez to create the robust prevention and response system in place today, but 33 years of successful prevention can inevitably lead back to complacency. It would be even more tragic if we ignored the hard-won lessons of our own history and let a focus on cost cutting diminish the protections resulting from that catastrophe. For our council, which represents the people, communities, and businesses hardest hit by the Exxon disaster, the cost of prevention and preparedness is marginal compared to the cost of another major oil spill.

The Council has been concerned for some time about budget cuts and reductions in staffing levels at key state and federal oversight agencies, as well as cost cutting within industry. The Council believes these reductions are putting at risk our region’s strong oil spill prevention, response, and oversight capabilities. The loss of institutional knowledge with long-time employees retiring, coupled with high turnover rates and increased workloads, are likely to elevate risk and the chances of an accident.

For instance, staffing levels at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Bureau of Land Management, and Joint Pipeline Office, agencies set up to ensure regulatory compliance, have been drastically reduced. These staffing reductions include the elimination of several qualified technical and engineering positions charged with monitoring the complex systems at the Valdez Marine Terminal. Other factors that contribute to heightened risk include ageing infrastructure, and intermittent and persistent breakdowns in communication and vessel tracking infrastructure including VHF capability and the radar coverage used to monitor and protect the shipping lanes used by oil tankers. Reductions in regulatory oversight and other protections put in place to prevent another devastating oil spill must be adequately addressed with proactive solutions if these safeguards are to be maintained. The Council stands ready to advocate for solutions that prevent this type of complacency from creeping back in.

Being a citizens’ council is more than just a title, it is the meaning behind our mission. It is only when citizens are involved in the process, working together with industry and government at all levels, that the safeguards designed to prepare for and prevent future oil spills can be maintained and continuously improved.

Schantz: Collaboration leads to better solutions for prevention and response

Image with a quote from the Oil Pollutions Act of 1990: "Only when local citizens are involved in the process will the trust develop that is necessary to change the present system from confrontation to consensus.”
Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz
Executive Director

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 notes congressional findings from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Included in those findings was the need to foster the long-term partnership of industry, government, and local communities. This is a key piece of the foundation on which the Council was formed.

The Council may not always agree with industry and regulators, but we strive to maintain positive working relationships and build trust. While we do not hesitate to raise concerns when we perceive potential rollbacks in oil spill prevention and response safeguards, it is just as important to recognize when we are in agreement.

I am pleased to report the Council will be supporting Alyeska in a recent appeal they filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (page 2). Our independent review verifies that systems Alyeska currently has in place at the Valdez Marine Terminal capture over 99% of the emissions addressed by the rule – a higher reduction goal than is currently being required. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) has also voiced support of Alyeska’s appeal to the EPA.

This collaborative approach goes both ways. For example, after months of coordination, Alyeska has also agreed to support a project proposed by the Council to look at the chemical composition and concentration of oxygenated hydrocarbons released from the terminal. Oxygenated hydrocarbons are less studied than other hydrocarbon products and they are potentially toxic in the aquatic environment. Revisions to the scope of work were necessary to satisfy Alyeska’s concerns, mostly related to COVID impacts and their desire to focus resources on their priority operational goals. This is another example of how good communication, strong relationships, and a willingness to work together can lead to solutions that support everyone’s goal of moving oil safely.

There are concerns with the integrity of the secondary containment liner at the Valdez Marine Terminal that we hope can be addressed in a similar fashion. In January, the Council requested an adjudicatory hearing with ADEC in support of the department’s decision to require additional evaluation and testing of the liner. Alyeska also requested a hearing seeking to remove any requirement for further liner testing.

Secondary containment systems are required by Alaska regulation to hold oil in the event of a spill from a tank or pipe until the spill can be detected and cleaned up. The protection of groundwater and Port Valdez, in the event of a breach of one of the terminal’s large crude oil storage tanks, is dependent largely on the integrity of the liner, so it is of critical importance that the liner be inspected to ensure there are no cracks or holes.

For two decades the Council has voiced concern over the ability of the secondary containment liners within the system to meet regulatory standards. The liners were installed during original construction of the terminal, 45 years ago, and the type of liner installed then would not be allowed by regulations today. Additionally, when relatively small sections of the liner have been inspected over the years during other maintenance work, damage to the liner has been discovered. The Council’s persistent calls for more rigorous evaluation and testing, or even replacement of the liner, have not been adequately addressed.

Image with a quote from the Oil Pollutions Act of 1990: "Only when local citizens are involved  in the process will the trust develop that is necessary to change the present system from confrontation to consensus.”

The Council is hoping to find a more collaborative approach to addressing our concerns with the secondary containment liner, in lieu of a hearing. Regardless of how this process proceeds, the ultimate goal is to work together with industry and regulators to give citizens a voice in decisions that impact the safe operation of the terminal and tankers in Prince William Sound.

We often share the following quote from the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 congressional findings, “Only when local citizens are involved in the process will the trust develop that is necessary to change the present system from confrontation to consensus.” We will continue to try and work together with industry and regulators to find solutions that improve oil spill prevention and response.

Schantz and Archibald: Safeguarding our prevention and response system

By President Robert Archibald (City of Homer) and Executive Director Donna Schantz

It will surprise no one to learn the past year has been exceptionally challenging for the Council. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes and constant uncertainty. Safety precautions required us to look for new ways to monitor drills and adapt projects. While the Council has moved projects forward in our many areas of responsibility and recognizes new realities the pandemic presents, we remain concerned with what we view as a steady deterioration of federal and state oil spill prevention, response, oversight, and enforcement capabilities that continues in Prince William Sound.

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Schantz: Safe transportation of oil requires local knowledge

Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz, Executive Director

Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

Since 2016, there has been an increase in foreign flagged tankers loading Alaska North Slope crude oil from the Valdez Marine Terminal, or VMT. While foreign flagged ships are crewed by licensed and professional mariners, these vessels may introduce increased risk of an accident or oil spill due to the lack of familiarity with the unique environmental conditions or prevention and response systems in our region.

A lack of familiarity with the operating environment appears to have been the cause of an incident in the Gulf of Alaska on April 14 with the foreign flagged tanker, Stena Suede. This unladen vessel arrived ahead of its estimated time to load oil at the VMT, with other tankers scheduled ahead of it.

Instead of the customary response in this situation – picking up a marine pilot at the Bligh Reef station and proceeding to the only designated safe anchorage for large vessels in our region at Knowles Head – the Stena Suede decided to hold off in the Gulf of Alaska. When the winds started to pick up, the crew dropped anchor about 20 miles outside of Hinchinbrook Entrance. Subsequently, they were unable to pull up the anchor due to damaged equipment and the vessel proceeded to drag anchor for more than 24 hours, losing some mooring equipment as well. Once the crew made repairs, they proceeded to the VMT, loaded oil, and left without any further issues.

Image shows the path of the Stena Suede as it dragged its anchor in the Gulf of Alaska.
Path of the Stena Suede at anchor. View full size image.

Foreign flagged tankers, such as the Stena Suede, are vetted prior to taking on oil at the VMT and provided with a number of documents in advance of sailing, including contingency plans, the U.S. Coast Guard vessel traffic system manual, the vessel escort and response plan, and more – over 800 pages in total. While these important documents describe the operating environment and regulatory requirements, it is unrealistic to expect crew members to digest this large amount of material, discern the most relevant pieces, and retain all of the essential safety measures. Additionally, there is commonly understood local knowledge that is not necessarily written down in these plans or perhaps not in a way that highlights their importance.

Licensed marine pilots, such as those stationed at Bligh Reef, are highly trained experts in ship navigation and possess extensive knowledge of the local waterways, including environmental conditions specific to that area. Federal law requires a marine pilot be on board vessels, such as crude oil tankers, when entering bays, rivers, harbors, and ports of the U.S. For the ports and waterways of southwest Alaska, including Prince William Sound, the Southwest Alaska Pilots Association, or SWAPA, provides these services. Their role is to guide ships safely through confined waters, working to ensure the protection of shipping and the marine environment, as well as life and property.

Anchoring outside of ports is common practice around the world. The Stena Suede was in compliance with all applicable regulations as it was outside of state and federal jurisdiction with no requirement for a local marine pilot to be on board at that time. Inadequate communication between the ship and those familiar with the region may have prevented the crew from being warned against setting anchor in the Gulf.

It is the opinion of many marine operators in our region that there is no safe anchorage in the Gulf of Alaska. A letter dated April 22, 2021, from SWAPA to the U.S. Coast Guard pointed out that it is inadvisable to anchor in open waters in the Gulf given the unpredictable environmental conditions which may be encountered at any time of year.

The Stena Suede incident fortunately did not result in an accident or oil spill, but it put a spotlight on a potential weak link in the robust safety systems of our region. SWAPA has clarified their guidance for anchoring large seagoing vessels and plans to recommend updates to NOAA’s Alaska Coast Pilot. Industry representatives have also said they are looking at ways to improve the process of conveying important regional safety information to foreign flagged vessels. PWSRCAC plans to monitor these developments and provide input. We must all remain vigilant and be willing to use lessons learned to continuously improve our regional safety systems designed to prevent oil spills.

 

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