Alyeska, Prince William Sound council clash over tug training

  • A Damen 3212 support tug is seen in this company photo. Four of the 102-foot tugs will assist in support and docking for oil tankers in Prince William Sound beginning in July 2018 as Edison Chouest Offshore takes over for Crowley Maritime. Training in bad weather conditions is at the center of a dispute between Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and a citizen advisory council for the Sound formed after the Valdez spill in 1989. (Photo/Courtesy/Damen Shipyards Group)

Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. is at odds with the advisory group that monitors oil tanker activities in Prince William Sound over how far Alyeska’s tugboat operators should have to go to demonstrate they can operate safely in poor weather and wave conditions.

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council board unanimously passed a resolution Jan. 18 insisting that oil tankers and their tug escorts should not be allowed to operate in the Sound if weather conditions deteriorate beyond what has been deemed safe for training.

“If it is unsafe to train personnel, it is unsafe to transport oil. This position does not just apply to the incoming contractor, but sets the standard to which the council feels all future new contractors, equipment and crews should be held,” Advisory Council board President Amanda Bauer said. “We believe strongly that these standards are needed to ensure the economic and environmental safety of the communities and groups we represent.”

The incoming contractor Bauer referenced is Edison Chouest Offshore, which Alyeska announced in June 2016 would be taking over tanker escort and spill response duties for Crowley Marine Services in July 2018 with a new fleet of tugs and spill response barges.

Crowley has provided tanker docking services in Valdez since the startup of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in 1977. It added the Prince William Sound tanker escort and spill response to its work when those duties were first mandated in 1990, a year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. is owned by the “big three” North Slope producers BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil. It manages TAPS operations and oversees the associated oil tanker activities in Prince William Sound.

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council was formed after Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act in 1990 in response to the Exxon Valdez spill. The legislation mandated the groups be established for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.

While the advisory bodies made up of technical experts and community representatives from their regions do not have enforcement authority, they are generally well respected for taking informed positions.

The resolution specifies that the advisory council believes “it is unsafe to require crews to respond to a vessel emergency in Prince William Sound during adverse weather with inadequate or no training or experience in these conditions, and that new crews must receive training and experience in the full range of operating conditions in which they are expected to perform.”

It continues to assert that it is reasonable and prudent to limit loaded tanker traffic through the Sound to the range of conditions in which the escort vessels and crews have been trained.

Alyeska responded with a formal statement that it shares the advisory council’s commitment to protecting the environment, which it demonstrates each day in often challenging conditions, but the company strongly disagrees with requiring demonstrations in potentially dangerous and uncontrolled conditions.

“It is entirely inconsistent with a strong safety and risk management culture and not an accepted or proven training method for operational proficiency,” Alyeska stated. “There are many ways to demonstrate the competency and proficiency of crews and vessels that don’t create the level of risk to human life and the environment that the RCAC is promoting.”

Alyeska further insisted it is hiring an experienced contractor with state-of-the-art vessels and training that will meet or exceed “current requirements for safe operations as well as the very high standards we set for ourselves.”

Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan compared it to firefighters no longer setting fire to derelict buildings with limited safety parameters for live training events.

Loaded oil tankers are tethered to tugs as they leave the Alyeska oil terminal port and are then released but still escorted until they clear Hinchinbrook Island and hit the open Gulf of Alaska.

Inbound, empty tankers are not escorted to the port unless an escort or other assistance is requested by the ship’s crew, according to Egan.

If an emergency occurs, the tugs could come alongside the tanker and re-tether to it to either take it under tow or stop it, Egan said. It is specifically practicing those emergency situations in bad weather with a loaded tanker that Alyeska objects to.

“That’s where the real danger and risk occurs and it’s not a part of normal operations,” she said in an interview. “To do that part of it in those closure conditions, we do not. It’s showing that you can handle the emergency under those conditions that we think is too risky.”

Advisory council Executive Director Donna Schantz said in a formal statement that the council agrees with Alyeska and the regulating agencies that crew safety is the first priority, but that doesn’t preclude additional training.

“We believe that drills and exercises, including in adverse weather, are controlled events, as they can be stopped at any time that the risk to crews or vessels becomes unacceptably high,” Schantz said.

Alyeska Ship Escort/Response Vessel Systems, or SERVS, manager Mike Day told the council in September during an update report on the transition to Edison that he hoped the new tugs and crew would encounter some adverse weather in their training exercises, but said the training had to be scheduled well in advance for logistical reasons and specific wind and waves conditions would not be sought out.

The advisory council noted in a white paper accompanying the resolution that Crowley has completed exercises in waves up to 15 feet with 35-knot winds.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Coast Guard allow loaded tankers to operate in conditions up to 45-knot winds and 15-foot seas, according to the council, citing the tanker operational and escort response plans submitted to the agencies.

DEC Central Region Manager Geoff Merrell wrote in a Dec. 12 letter to the Prince WIlliam Sound Response Planning Group that the new tugs will be expected to stop and control a fully laden 193,000-ton deadweight tanker in nine-foot seas and 40-knot winds, based on performance criteria in the existing operating plans, or closure conditions at Cape Hinchinbrook.

Merrell wrote that the department acknowledges tankers are rarely loaded that full, however.

“The department also understands that the scheduling of demonstration exercises combining both a fully laden tanker and inclement weather conditions may prove impossible during the transition timeline,” he wrote further. “The department remains open to the discussion of alternative demonstrations, surrogate ships or other options, but, ultimately, will require the satisfactory demonstration of system performance before a fully laden 193,000 (deadweight tons) tanker will be allowed to depart the Valdez marine terminal and transit Prince William Sound.”

The advisory council also contends it has evidence indicating the buoy used by the National Weather Service to measure Gale Warnings, which equate to closure conditions, is somewhat protected from what can be worse wind and wave conditions at the adjacent Hinchinbrook Entrance at the same time.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

01/24/2018 - 12:26pm