The 800-mile long Trans-Alaska Pipeline System crosses some of the most remote and rugged terrain in the world. Crossing hundreds of rivers and streams, and a number of mountain ranges and earthquake faults, the pipeline system, built between 1975 and 1977, is an engineering triumph.
Oil pumped out of the ground on Alaska's North Slope makes its way to the Valdez Marine Terminal, the largest crude oil loading facility in the Northern Hemisphere. Tankers are loaded at the terminal, and take it to refineries in the Lower 48. TAPS and the terminal are operated by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., a not-for-profit contractor.
Built on the shores of Valdez Arm, the port boasts the northernmost ice-free port in North America. Surrounded by towering mountains, the town of 4,000 residents gets more than 300 inches of snow on average every year, making it one of the snowiest places in the country, especially since it sits at sea level.
The snow creates a few challenges for terminal managers. Normally, large oil tanks have floating roofs that move up or down depending on the level of contained oil. In Valdez, the tanks have to have rigid roofs to withstand the snowload. Natural gas and vapors build up inside the tanks and have to be piped out and processed. And all that snow has to be shoveled off by hand, a task that takes a 10-person crew a week to complete.
Declines in oil production have caused Alyeska to permanently shut down some facilities, including some tanks and two of the four loading berths. Additional changes were made to the operations after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled over 10 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in March 1989.
The Alyeska Ship Escort/Response Vessel System was established to meet the legal mandate imposed on the area after the spill. Tankers are now escorted through the shipping lanes in the Sound by specially built tugboats to Hinchinbrook Island, entrance to the Gulf of Alaska. Spill prevention and response equipment is also required to be staged strategically throughout the Sound, on barges and in trailers, and training is held year-round in Sound communities. A fleet of fishing vessels also undergoes training and are contracted to respond in a spill emergency.