New tug boats have started arriving in Prince William Sound as Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. moves to replace one contractor that has long helped prevent oil spills in the area with another.
The transition from Crowley Marine to Edison Chouest Offshore of Louisiana is generating guarded praise from Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, an organization created by Congress to prevent a repeat of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The group is pleased with the incoming tugs' features but looks forward to seeing the boats and crews tested in the sound's tough, winter conditions, said Brooke Taylor, the group's spokeswoman.
"We want to make sure crews become proficient on the boats, and if there are any adjustments that need to be made, that they can fix them," Taylor said.
On March 11, two of Edison's tugs arrived in Port Valdez, along with an oil-holding barge.
The Elrington and Commander are the first pieces of a 10-tug fleet that will escort oil-filled tankers and prepare for spills, starting this summer, assuming state and federal regulators approve.
The improvements follow Alyeska's decision in 2016 to replace Florida-based Crowley, its longtime contractor for spill-prevention in the Sound, with Edison, a shipbuilder that promised newly built tugs and barges. Alyeska company operates the Valdez Marine Terminal where North Slope oil is loaded onto tankers for ocean shipment.
The official transition date is July 1.
The change has generated concern from the watchdog group in part because Edison's workforce is expected to come largely from outside Alaska. The workers will replace Crowley's 250-person force that is familiar with the Sound's worst weather.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the state must approve the change, said Geoff Merrell, central region manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
The two tugs have started undergoing tests, Merrell said. The demonstrations will continue as additional tugs, barges and crew arrive in the coming weeks and months.
Crowley's five escort tugs are about 20 years old, but still effective, said Andres Morales, Alyeska's director of the spill-prevention system. The five incoming ones will be better, he said.
"The new ones, as far as I know, are the most effective escort tugs on Earth," he said.
The escort tugs will have 20 percent more horsepower than the older ones and more ability to stop tankers if needed, officials said.
Five general purpose tugs, doing work like hauling barges and monitoring tankers, will replace five others.
Mike Day, Alyeska's transition manager, said Edison captains spent the winter training on Crowley tugs escorting oil-filled tankers.
"They've seen a 15 or 20 or 10 (foot) — pick your wave size — they've experienced it," he said.
Also new are eight oil-sucking skimmers — suspended off the sides of four barges in the event of a spill. They will be the largest of their kind, Alyeska officials said.
The new skimmers roughly double the amount of oil collected compared to the current skimmers, allowing faster cleanup if necessary, he said. Fur-like plastic on the skimmers' rotating discs will help absorb oil.
"We call the fuzzy discs magic unicorn hair," said Day.