Valdez tug transition on track, Alyeska official says

  • A general purpose tug is seen under construction at an Edison Chouest shipyard in Louisiana. A total of nine new tugs operated by Edison Chouest will be taking over tanker escort operations from Crowley Maritime in summer 2018. (Photo/Courtesy/Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.)

WHITTIER — The major move to a new oil tanker escort firm in Valdez is going well according to Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. managers.

“All the vessels, based on schedule analysis and the visits we make to the shipyards, are on schedule,” said Mike Day, the manager of Alyeska Ship Escort/Response Vessel Systems, or SERVS.

Day reported to the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council board of directors at its Sept. 14 meeting in Whittier on the progress of the SERVS operator transition from Crowley Maritime to Edison Chouest Offshore.

Edison Chouest announced in June 2016 that it had secured a 10-year contract from Alyeska to conduct SERVS operations out of the Valdez oil terminal starting in summer 2018.

Crowley tugboats have assisted oil tankers docking in Valdez since the 1977 startup of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which terminates there. The company added the Prince William Sound tanker escort and oil spill response duties to its work in 1990, a year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Edison Chouest is building 14 new vessels and spill response barges to fulfill its duties under the SERVS contract. The new SERVS fleet will include five large tanker escort tugs and four smaller support tugs, which are under construction at Edison Chouest’s various Louisiana shipyards.

The first two tugs and a spill response barge are scheduled to arrive in Valdez in February. Shortly thereafter, the new tug captains and crews will begin five months of live training exercises — some with tankers in tow — before officially taking over for Crowley next July, according to Day.

But formal crew training will begin before the tugs arrive. Day said each of the roughly 160 people Edison Chouest plans to commit to the SERVS contract will first go through 68 hours of classroom training starting in October on how to operate spill response equipment. Those folks will then get another 12 hours of hands-on equipment training “before they ever step foot on a vessel,” he said.

In July, Edison Chouest shipped spill response equipment to Louisiana for two weeks of initial training.

A ship bridge simulator Edison Chouest built in Louisiana will also be moved to Valdez once the company is done with it down south. Vessel operators are expected to put in 36 hours of simulator time and Day said Alaska Tanker Co. officials have expressed interest in participating in simulator training.

Alaska Tanker Co. operates four 1.3 million-barrel capacity tankers for BP.

Also starting in October, each SERVS tug captain will travel to Valdez and get on a working Crowley tug for at least a week. That observational training, which will run through March, was originally planned for last winter but was rescheduled for logistics issues, according to Day.

“We’re hopeful they might find a big wave or two, or some wind, snow — find out what it’s like to operate a vessel in winter in Prince William Sound,” Day said.

Sea trials on the first tugs are set for November.

This past January, longtime Canadian naval architect Robert Allan made a presentation to the council board in which he was highly critical of the tug designs selected by Edison Chouest.

Allan outlined a long list of perceived design flaws that could hamper the ability of the tugs to operate safely and successfully in the harsh winter conditions of Prince William Sound.

However, he also acknowledged that he did not have access to the full, detailed tug design documents.

At the time, Edison Chouest Alaska leaders could not be reached for comment but an Alyeska spokeswoman said the terminal operator has confidence in Edison Chouest and also noted that Allan only reviewed high-level information.

In a separate presentation during the September meeting, Nathaniel Leonard, president of Maine-based Little River Marine Consultants, said Edison Chouest is using different design and construction methods than many in the industry are accustomed to.

“Edison Chouest is a top-notch company and they’re building top-notch boats,” Leonard said to the council board.

Day also reiterated Alyeska’s confidence in the full-service maritime company in comments to the board.

When the tugs get to Alaska they will be thoroughly tested to assure they meet performance requirements, such as the ability to stop a loaded tanker moving at 6 nautical miles per hour with wind at its stern, Day said. He noted specific weather conditions will not be sought out for the performance tests; it will be up to the tug and tanker captains to decide when weather and sea conditions permit the exercises.

Also, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation wants Alaska Tanker Co.’s largest tanker available for the tug tests, according to Day.

The tests done with loaded tankers will at least first be done in the deep and open central area of the sound and not in Valdez Narrows to minimize the risk of an incident during training, he said.

“I don’t anticipate any single test that’s pass or fail but a stepped approach to the force we put on a ship,” Day added.

Such tests, in which the tugs are tethered to the tankers, only take about 10 minutes each, so several can be done in a day, he said.

Additionally, Edison Chouest tugs will follow Crowley tugs on tanker escorts until they have passed all tether and towing exercises, Day said, which could continue through 2018 after the official July transition.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

10/18/2017 - 12:46pm