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Coast Guard investigating after 2nd accident for new spill-response operator in Prince William Sound

The Edison Chouest Offshore escort tug Commander maneuvers near the Ship Escort/Response Vessel System dock Monday, April 2, 2018 in Valdez. Every laden oil tanker that leaves the Valdez Marine Terminal is escorted by two tugboats. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A congressionally created oversight group is asking Alaska regulators to boost training requirements after the new spill-response contractor in Prince William Sound had its second mishap in days.

The U.S. Coast Guard says it's investigating both accidents. In the most recent, a skiff was crunched between a tugboat and a barge it was hauling.

No one was hurt and no fuel spilled in the incidents in late June. But they occurred around a closely watched transition involving some 250 workers, as Edison Chouest Offshore on July 1 officially took over oil tanker escort and spill-prevention duties from longtime operator Crowley Marine.

Edison has built new boats and tugs for the operation. It has hired mariners who are experienced but new to the region.

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council is concerned some crews need more time to learn how to handle the new equipment, according to a July 5 letter from the group to Larry Hartig, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner.

"We believe these two incidents are clear symptoms that this transition was too rushed," said the letter, signed by Donna Schantz, the council's executive director. The incoming crews need more training to improve communications, fine-tune vessel operations, and learn the response system and local weather, she said.

State regulators and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which hired Edison, said the training requirements are extensive and continuing.

Geoff Merrell, DEC's state on-scene coordinator, said some Edison Chouest mariners are still arriving and being introduced to the Sound. Some "hiccups" should be expected.

"I don't see these incidents as overly concerning, but I'm not saying the RCAC's concern is misguided," he said.

In the latest accident on June 29, Edison Chouest's 140-foot escort tug, the Challenger, reported touching bottom as it helped a barge anchor up, said Lt. Carlos Quintero, Coast Guard public affairs officer in Valdez.

A work skiff tied to the barge was caught between the larger vessels and damaged, he said.

The incident was reported as an unintended grounding, triggering the Coast Guard investigation, he said.

"(Edison Chouest) conducted an underwater assessment and it was reported there was no underwater damage to the hull of the Challenger," Quintero said. "The Challenger is still in full operation."

Michelle Egan, an Alyeska spokeswoman, said the diver inspection found no evidence the tug grounded.

Egan said the incident happened during a busy week before Crowley's outgoing boats had left Port Valdez, where North Slope crude oil is loaded into tankers. With Edison Chouest's new boats also in port, the Challenger and barge had to temporarily anchor in an area that isn't normally used for mooring.

"While maneuvering in shallow water, the tug briefly lost steerage and we were concerned it may have touched bottom," she said in an email.

In the earlier accident, on June 27, Edison Chouest's 105-foot tug Ingot made a "hard landing" as it helped dock the oil tanker Florida. The tanker's outer hull was dented, leading to a Coast Guard inspection before it could receive oil and sail again.

The investigation into that incident should conclude this week, Quintero said.

As far as he knows, Edison is not facing penalties in the investigations, Quintero said.

The council wants the state to hold extra exercises between now and Dec. 31, including unannounced training in complete darkness, Schantz says in the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council letter. Crews should also be able to train in rougher conditions than they've typically trained in so far.

Merrell said the DEC plans to require additional training to ensure the crews operate safely and efficiently. Training in darkness will be possible later, after the long summer days pass.

Egan said the crews won't train in weather that endangers their lives or the environment.

The crews have put in more than 35,000 hours of training in the Sound and been involved in more than 145 exercises, with more to come, she said.

"We are monitoring ECO closely and making adjustments where needed, " she said.

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