30 years after Exxon Valdez, vigilance still No. 1 priority
This March 24 marks 30 years since one of the darkest days in Alaska’s history.
It was the day when the industry largely credited with affording Alaska the ability to become a state wounded the marine ecosystem to the point where it still hasn’t fully recovered.
For that reason and others, leaders of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council make it a point to acknowledge the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill while trying to avoid reliving the events.
“You recognize, you commemorate it, but certainly there are a lot of communities in Prince William Sound that are still very much suffering or feeling the effects of the oil spill. It’s not a happy anniversary at all,” PWSRCAC Executive Director Donna Schantz said in an interview.
The council’s approach instead has been to evaluate the changes in Prince William Sound oil tanker operations since 1989 and highlight the improvements made to safety and environmental protection as well as areas where work could still be done.
Schantz called Alaska’s largest oil tanker operation and the spill prevention and response efforts that surround it “a world class system,” but one that could still be better, according to the council.
“Our message really is:’ Hey, we’re doing really well, we haven’t had another major oil spill in 30 years; we must be doing something right,’” she said. “Let’s not let complacency creep back in. We need to remain vigilant.”
Congress concluded complacency contributed to the spill and subsequently established the citizens’ advisory councils in the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, Schantz noted. A sister council was also created for Cook Inlet.
The law was a major overhaul of spill prevention and response capabilities. It established the requirement to develop spill contingency plans for oil shippers and storage facilities and the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which can provide up to $1 billion to respond to an oil discharge.
Cleanup during 1989 of the Exxon Valdez cost more than $1.8 billion, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The requirement for two tugs to escort each laden tanker out of Prince William Sound not only provides immediate response capabilities in the event of an incident, it also adds redundancy in fighting the “human factor,” according to Schantz, who cited statistics indicating the vast majority of oil spills, including the Valdez disaster caused by the tanker grounding on Bligh Reef, are the result of human error, not equipment failure.
There are simply more people observing the entire operation with two more vessel crews involved.
“It’s a lot harder to have something like the Exxon Valdez happen with all those extra sets of eyes watching and maintaining protection. The two escort tugs really are one of the biggest oil spill prevention efforts in place,” Schantz said.
Last summer, Edison Chouest Offshore took over the escort responsibilities and many other prevention and response duties at the Alyeska Marine Terminal from Crowley Maritime. Crowley held the Ship Escort/Response Vessel System, or SERVS, contract since 1990.
There were questions from advisory council members and other observers after the contract was announced in mid-2016 about whether Edison Chouest would be able to take over the role in the relatively short time, given the company was to build many of the 10 new tugs and 8 purpose-built response barges at its Gulf Coast shipyards. The company also brought in employees who were not familiar with Alaska operating conditions.
After two minor incidents in early summer 2018 around the time Edison Chouest took over the SERVS work, the company has performed well, Schantz acknowledged.
“Edison Chouest has really good people and they’ve worked really hard. This winter we were very concerned because it was a steep learning curve coming into a new environment, a new operating system,” she said.
The council has also recently focused its attention on more closely matching condition requirements for some escort and response training exercises with what are deemed acceptable operating conditions for laden tankers.
Currently, tankers are permitted to travel through the sound in weather and water conditions of up to 45-knot winds or 15-foot seas at Hinchinbrook Entrance near the open Gulf of Alaska.
Council officials note the tanker and tug crews do not train in such adverse conditions, which they contend could leave the mariners less than fully prepared for the situations they might encounter on some working days.
The council’s position is that it could be safer for the crews to work in controlled conditions and to better understand the limits of safe operations, Schantz said, adding that if conditions are deemed unsafe to train in the operating maximums might need to lowered.
She further noted that oil recovery becomes exceedingly difficult in rough seas.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. leaders see it differently. They contend current training regimens with more than 200 drills annually, which are not usually predicated on sea conditions, and the stronger, more advanced Edison Chouest tugs offer robust spill protection while not putting crews at unnecessary risk.
Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan said the company is proud of the escort system and is committed to continually ensuring it’s the best it can be.
“It’s a professional disagreement about what is the right balance between demonstrating what we can do and protecting human life and the environment because there’s certain environmental risks associated with going out in those (rough) conditions,” Egan said. “We’ve worked with our regulators on that and we’re comfortable that we’ll be able to respond. But it’s really about prevention; that’s our focus.”
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation directed Edison Chouest to train in certain unfavorable conditions in preparation for taking over the SERVS contract, but Schantz noted that will not be a regular requirement going forward.
One of the things they agree on is that the contracted fleet of roughly 400 fishing vessels and 1,600 crew members trained in spill response across Southcentral Alaska provide a massive response force should prevention efforts ever fail.
Schantz, who’s been with the council for 20 years, said she’s confident its oversight has helped retain high standards around oil transport in Prince William Sound. The council regularly reviews operating permits, contingency plans and recommends improvements or flags potential changes deemed to potentially degrade spill defenses.
“We want to make sure that all the protections put in place after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, that we maintain those, because it’s easy to say, ‘well, we haven’t had another major oil spill, maybe we don’t need all of this,’” Schantz described. Our position is, ‘hey, we haven’t had another major oil spill. Let’s not dismantle a system that’s working well.’ We can’t weaken it; we can’t go backwards.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].