Upgrades at Valdez Marine Terminal improve safe operations

Tanker at berth.

By Austin Love
Council Project Manager

Over the past three years Alyeska has improved safety and spill prevention measures at the Valdez Marine Terminal’s ballast water treatment facility. In 2012, the Council recognized Alyeska for major improvements made to the facility that significantly reduced the emission of hazardous air pollutants from the facility. These current improvements further enhance environmental safety.

Work to improve safety and spill prevention at the ballast water treatment facility includes:

  • the demolition of one of the two crude oil recovery tanks;
  • replacement of old carbon steel piping with new stainless steel and fiberglass reinforced plastic piping;
  • new electrical wiring and conduit;
  • total refurbishment of a number of valves;
  • installation of new valve actuators;
  • installation of two new recovered crude oil pumps;
  • installation of roofs to protect equipment from snow damage;
  • upgrades to the inert gas (nitrogen) system;
  • installation of new hydrocarbon sensors;
  • move from manual operations to automated, logic control-based operation of the facility;
  • installation of an automated ventilation and incinerator system that would turn on before hydrocarbon gas levels in the system become unsafe.

In general, many of these upgrades were made to improve the safe operations of the facility. Replacing the carbon steel piping with stainless steel and fiberglass reinforced plastic reduces the risk of an oil spill because corrosion rates are much lower in the new piping materials. The move to automated, logic control-based facility operation is intended to reduce the risk of a spill or another problem due to human error. The installation of multiple, more accurate hydrocarbon sensors improves monitoring of hydrocarbon gas throughout the system, helping facility operators ensure concentrations of those gases stay in a safe range. Finally, the installation of the automated ventilation and incinerator system keeps people out of harm’s way in the event of a buildup of hydrocarbon gas and routes that gas for destruction in an incinerator before concentrations become unsafe. Currently, such ventilation is done by sending technicians out to turn on the soon-to-be replaced manual ventilation system.

Using better piping materials, reducing the chance of operator error, and decreasing people’s exposure to hazardous situations are all ways that the multiyear upgrades to the facility should result in safer operations.

What is ballast water? Why does it need to be treated?

Ballast water is seawater taken on board an oil tanker to improve stability at sea. If the ballast water has been transported in an oily cargo tank, it must be treated to remove remnants of oil before the water can be released back into the sea. Over the years, the volume of water needing treatment at the Valdez Marine Terminal has been greatly reduced because the tankers now calling in Prince William Sound all have double hulls and far fewer tankers are visiting the terminal because of reductions in pipeline throughput. However, severe weather encountered on the trip to Alaska sometimes requires extra ballast be carried in oily cargo holds, more ballast than can be contained in the clean, segregated tanks of a double hull tanker. That oil contaminated ballast is cleaned at the terminal’s ballast water treatment facility prior to discharge into Port Valdez.


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.


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.

North Slope crude oil spills into Port Valdez

Oil collected inside boom during spill. Photo by Jeremy Robida.
Oil collected inside boom during spill. Photo by Jeremy Robida.

On September 21, approximately 100 gallons of North Slope Crude oil was spilled into Port Valdez. The spill occurred during a planned annual leak-test of the pipes that load oil onto tankers out at the end of loading Berth 5 at the Valdez Marine Terminal.

To conduct the annual test, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company uses the berth’s fire system to pump seawater into the crude piping to a pressure of 190 PSI, or pounds per square inch. That pressure is held for a prescribed amount of time to allow inspectors to visually check the pipes for leaks. However, that day Alyeska was unable to achieve the necessary 190 PSI test pressure and an apparent operational error led to a mixture of crude oil and seawater being spilled into Port Valdez. Alyeska is conducting a thorough investigation of the spill.

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Corrosion found in piping at terminal; Alyeska plans fix

Council Project Manager

A temporary black carbon steel clamp was installed to prevent an oil leak from the localized corroded area. Photo courtesy of Alyeska.
A temporary black carbon steel clamp was installed to prevent an oil leak from the localized corroded area.

In 2012, Alyeska identified a 6 inch wide area of external corrosion on crude oil piping near the end of one of their oil-loading berths, known as Berth 5, at the Valdez Marine Terminal. Corrosion in the 48 inch diameter pipe is of particular concern, as it is located over water.

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