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Giant fuzzy discs and thermal cameras: New oil spill cleanup tech is coming to Alaska

A diagram for an Edison Chouest spill response barge shows an orange boom to corral oil and skimmers suspended off either side to suck up oil. (Photo provided by Alyeska Pipeline)

Protections for oil tankers crossing Prince William Sound will get major upgrades this summer, including beefy new tugs with more heat-sensing cameras to swiftly find spills and huge skimmers with fuzzy discs that sop up more oil.

New oil-capturing barges will also arrive in Alaska soon, as Louisiana-based Edison Chouest Offshore prepares to replace Crowley Marine, the Florida company that long provided spill prevention services in the Sound.

Edison won't take over until July, when a 10-year contract begins and after state and federal regulators have signed off on the new ships following sea tests in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. The first of the ships is set to arrive in March.

Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., owned by Alaska's major oil producers, has said it decided to change contractors after Edison provided the best bid, with cutting-edge technology and new vessels.

Critics have argued that Edison Chouest, which was partly responsible for the 2012 wreck of the Kulluk during Shell's Arctic drilling campaign, isn't ready for the Sound's rough conditions.

Design flaws in Edison's tug, the Aiviq, contributed to the Kulluk grounding off Alaska's coast, the Coast Guard concluded in 2014. Edison Chouest has maintained it was not at fault.

A watchdog group Congress created after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in the Sound has offered preliminary praise for the new designs, after seeing the first ships being built last year at Edison shipyards in Louisiana and Mississippi.

But officials from that group, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, say they are withholding final judgment until boats and new crews have been properly tested in Alaska.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation wants to ensure the new tugs meet current spill plan standards. That includes the ability to stop a fully loaded, 193,000-ton tanker in 46 mph winds and 9-foot seas.

Though the state agency is pleased with the improvements so far, each new vessel and all crews must meet the standards, said Geoff Merrell, the agency's central region manager.

"When there are transitions like this, you introduce a certain amount of risk with new people operating new equipment in a new area," he said.

Donna Schantz, the council's executive director, visited Edison shipyards in November and said the new tugs and gear are "impressive." But they need to be tested.

"It's 'trust but verify,' " she said.

The upgrades are "huge," said Kate Dugan, an Alyeska spokeswoman.

There are currently 10 tugs and four barges, and those numbers won't change, she said. But the new tugs will replace tugs roughly 20 to 40 years old.

At least 20 percent of the 200-person workforce is expected to be Alaska Natives, who will likely live in Alaska, said Dugan.

Skimmer discs covered in a fibrous, fuzzy material will soak up oil as the skimmer floats through an oil spill. Oil will be squeezed from the discs into collecting tanks as they rotate. Alyeska Pipeline says this new system will double the amount of oil collected from the current skimmers primarily used now, reducing the water collected. (Photo provided by Alyeska Pipeline)

Most of the workers are expected to come from Outside, at least in the beginning.

Eight oil-sucking skimmers — two would be suspended off each barge in the event of a spill — will be the largest of their kind, said Dugan. Each has 100 spinning metal discs covered with an oil-soaking, fur-like material. Squeegees will wring oil from the discs into tanks.

The new skimmers will double the amount of oil collected compared to the current skimmers, she said.

The new escort tugs will have 20 percent more horsepower, with heated decks, handrails and windows for crew safety.

They'll have infrared cameras and radar for oil detection and targeting the densest patches. Four of the existing tugs have that capability, she said.

Old tug winches will be replaced with new ones that employ motors to keep constant tension on tow chains and ropes. The feature reduces the risk that lines will snap as tankers heave.

"We pushed for that a long time," said Schantz, with the council.

The 102-foot-long Elrington is a new general purpose tug, one of four such tugs coming to Prince William Sound as a new contractor takes over spill-prevention and response services out of the marine terminal at Valdez. It will be part of a new 10-tug fleet that will include escort tugs. (Photo provided by Alyeska Pipeline)

Crowley has provided docking services since 1977 for tankers in Valdez, where oil from the trans-Alaska pipeline is loaded onto the ships. Crowley has been "amazing" and is allowing Edison pilots to go on ride-alongs, according to Dugan.

"Crowley has been very gracious about letting (Edison Chouest) folks on board and showing them the ropes," said Dugan.

Jim Herbert, chair of the council's committee for oil spill prevention and response, said he visited Edison shipyards in May.

The company took all questions and allowed visitors to go where they pleased, he said.

"I left with a great deal of confidence," Herbert said. "Everyone would agree that company builds quality boats. But we want to see those boats demonstrated in the Sound."

Uncertainties remain. One is how well a large extension to the new tugs' underside, called a skeg and designed to stop tankers by creating extra drag, will affect maneuverability.

"You want to understand the limitation of equipment and crew in a test, not an emergency," said Schantz.

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