Alyeska tests latest spill response gear at Shotgun Cove
WHITTIER — With flat seas, gentle clouds playing hide-and-seek with the mountains and marine life aplenty, it was a perfect scene to reemphasize just how important a place Prince William Sound is to protect.
About 20 small commercial fishing vessels were joined in Shotgun Cove near Whittier by large barges and state-of-the-art tugs practicing to do just that with the latest in oil spill response equipment.
Smaller craft towed “current buster” oil booms in tandem with larger fishing boats practiced deploying skimmers that would collect the oil out of the boom before it would be transferred to a barge tank.
On first glance it appeared to be a kind of carefully orchestrated aquatic slow dance, set to the tune of barking sea lions.
While indeed diligently planned, it was one in a continuous series of training exercises by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. annual $8 million Fishing Vessel Response Program.
“Without these fishing vessels you don’t have a response plan,” said Jeremy Robida, the spill prevention and response manager for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, or RCAC. Two RCACs, another in Cook Inlet, were formed by Congress in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill.
In all, the program includes roughly 400 boats with crews totaling 1,600 people from six Southcentral ports, Alyeska Ship Escort/Response Vessel System Manager Mike Day said.
The Sept. 25 training was not an emergency-style drill; it was a methodical annual testing of equipment to make sure that if the worst happened, everyone knows their role and how to perform it. Boats towing booms in formation focused on following tide rips and other areas oil would concentrate in the event of a tanker spill.
Day said the new booms can be towed several times quicker — up to about four knots — than older versions before they begin losing the oil they’ve trapped.
Robida added that new skimmers take a “real minimal cut of water,” meaning less oil-fouled seawater would need to be stored in the barges.
Additionally, new internal pumps installed on the barges eliminate the need for lowering the whole pump system to the water level. Now it’s just a hose that goes overboard, Robida said.
The water routines were preceded by a day of classroom training in the Whittier school.
Robida said some of the Fishing Vessel Response Program participants have been involved in the spill response efforts since the Exxon Valdez grounding nearly 30 years ago.
Day joked that the longest-tenured members of the program are sometimes tasked with teaching the classes to keep them from nodding off in class when they’d rather be on the water.
The Prince William Sound RCAC contracted with Stan Stephens Wildlife and Glacier Cruises out of Valdez for a tour boat to observe the training. Council staff then invited Whittier school children to join them on the three-hour field trip.
After observing the training, the tour vessel cut across the mouth of Passage Canal to Pigot Bay, the head of which has been deemed an area of special ecological importance and as such has its own geographical response strategy, or GSR, Robida said.
Salmon spawn in the stream that feeds Pigot Bay and numerous similar areas around the Sound have been identified for additional protections with spot-specific equipment, according to council and Alyeska officials.
If an oil spill or cruise ship or fishing vessel accident resulting in a large fuel release were to occur, a sensitive area protection team would be sent out immediately to those nearby places, whether it was already contaminated or not.
“The whole concept of the sensitive area protection is to get ahead of the oil slick,” Robida said. “The goal is not so much recovery; it’s keeping the area sectioned off.”
The FVRP training is separate, but in addition to ongoing training Alyeska continues to conduct with Edison Chouest Offshore, its new SERVS operator, out of Valdez.
While Edison Chouest took over the SERVS operation from Crowley Maritime in early July, Day said, “We’re still doing a lot more training exercises than normal.”
About 200 tanker towing, escort, docking and other practice routines have been conducted since Edison Chouest vessels began arriving to Valdez in March, compared to the roughly 35 exercises that would be done over that time in a normal year, Alyeska representatives said.
Day added that an Alyeska official is still onboard each tug to monitor each tanker escort out of Valdez. Two of the new tugs towed the spill response barge to the scene of the drill.
State House Resources Committee co-chair Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, who joined the tour as the Legislature’s liaison to the council, said he was impressed by what he saw, adding he got the sense from talking to various people that Edison Chouest “is settling in, understanding the culture and the environment.”
One of the primary ongoing challenges is helping Edison Chouest employees settle in to Valdez, said Day, who is a lifelong resident of the quiet little Prince William Sound port town.
Josephson acknowledged that there is still an open question as to whether Alyeska and Edison Chouest should seek to train in adverse weather conditions at times — the council believes so — while Alyeska contends it would be an unnecessary risk.
He commended Alyeska for the advanced spill response program, which gives local fishermen “some ownership and involvement” in protecting where they work.
“Apparently the Scotts are interested in what we’re doing” with oil spill cleanup techniques, Josephson said.
He later added, “I only wish that we would’ve had all this in March 1989.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].