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Valdez terminal oil spill bigger than initially thought as cleanup continues

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 25, 2017
  • Published September 23, 2017

Responders use a Current Buster and sorbent boom to collect rainbow sheen that has been contained near the Valdez Marine Terminal. Photo shows Berth 4 and the surrounding area on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. (Courtesy Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.)

An Alyeska crude oil spill in the Port of Valdez is bigger than first estimated, the company said Saturday as cleanup continued.

As of Saturday evening, crews recovered an estimated 400 gallons of oil and oily water mix, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. said in a written statement.

That was up from 221 gallons Friday and an initial estimate of less than 100 gallons of crude oil residue.

"The cause of the spill, piping that released an oily water mix, makes it very difficult to give a precise estimate of the amount spilled," Alyeska's Scott Hicks, the incident commander, said in a written statement. "But any crude oil in the water is too much, and we will bring all necessary resources and expertise to the response."

The spill is relatively small and Alyeska is aggressively cleaning it up, but it is a concern whenever oil reaches water, said Donna Schantz, executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council.

"Any spill in the water is a big deal, of course. And it's been a number of years since we've had a spill to water," Schantz said Saturday afternoon.

The spill came from an isolated section of pipe that was quickly closed off.

"It wasn't like an uncontrolled source," said Schantz, whose staff members were at the emergency operations center where the response is being managed. The oversight council was formed after the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound. The board vice president was helping with the cleanup from his fishing boat, she said. Fishing boats are what Alyeska calls "vessels of opportunity."

The spill and cleanup are affecting oil shipments. Alyeska says it worked with federal and state officials as well as shippers and oil companies to reschedule the next oil tanker. It was supposed to arrive late Saturday but now will come early next week.

Inventory of oil at the Valdez terminal is at 26 percent, so production on the North Slope is not expected to be affected by the delayed tanker.

The spill occurred Thursday when Alyeska was conducting a planned test of the equipment that loads oil into tankers, according to Kate Dugan, Alyeska's community relations manager in Valdez.

The system is drained of oil before the test, but residue remains. A water pump, intended for fighting fire, draws in seawater at a specific pressure to test the loading arms, Alyeska said.

During a pause in testing, oily water and crude oil residue flowed backward through the hose and piping and into the harbor, Dugan said.

The company and state Department of Environmental Conservation are investigating. DEC said the problem might have been a failed check valve, but Dugan said Alyeska is still trying to determine what went wrong.

Response personnel work to contain and collect rainbow sheen near the Valdez Marine Terminal on Saturday. Yellow containment boom is used to concentrate oil so it can be picked up. (Courtesy Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.)

Saturday night, Alyeska said that it had confirmed the cause was not mechanical or piping integrity. Rather, "a problem occurred during the execution of the loading arm testing."

The testing began during low tide and the pressure may have been too low, Schantz said she was told. The work paused while crews waited for high tide but then the leak began.

About 230 people have been working on the spill, including 165 on scene over the course of the cleanup, Dugan said. They are working around the clock, she said.

"Right now there are 100 in the field," she said Saturday afternoon.

Boats are pulling absorbent boom across the water, and self-propelled skimmers also have been deployed, Alyeska said.

More than 23,000 feet of boom has been deployed and more than 25 vessels were on the water Saturday to help with cleanup.

A task force was mobilizing Saturday night to decontaminate three large tug boats and clean oiled berth pilings.

The water was calm Saturday, making cleanup easier. Still, fog made assessing the area for sheens difficult. Flights occurred during the day Saturday and were planned to resume Sunday, Alyeska said.

Crews put boom around the Solomon Gulch Hatchery and the Valdez Duck Flats. Such actions are part of the oil spill response plan in Valdez, and Schantz said it was good to see them carried out.

The shoreline in Valdez around the terminal is being assessed for cleanup. Crews are watching wildlife but haven't seen any oiled animals or birds.

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