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Spill prevention and response capabilities are improving for Prince William Sound

  • Author: Tom Barrett
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 1, 2018
  • Published March 1, 2018

The general purpose tug Elrington, in drydock in Port Fourchon, La. A few hours later, the tug launched in anticipation of sea trials that began in January 2018. (Courtesy Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.)

Tanker operations in Prince William Sound are safer today than ever before. Fewer tankers travel through the Sound; those that do are double-hulled and equipped with rapidly improving technology, communication and safety features. Alyeska's escort and response capabilities have proved out over the past 20 years. Our people live our commitment to the environment on the water every day.

And we will drive operational excellence on the sound higher this summer with transition of Alyeska's marine services provider to Edison Chouest Offshore (ECO). Alyeska's investment in a new, more capable fleet will enable their experienced Coast Guard licensed crews to better protect the resources of the Sound for all of us.

This change is far more than a new business arrangement for Alyeska. The marine service contract is one of Alyeska's, and Alaska's, most important. ECO will share our stewardship and responsibility obligations working with Alyeska's people and stakeholders to prevent, and, if needed, respond to, marine spills.

The contract brings a fleet of 13 new, fit-for-purpose vessels with 20 percent more power than those in the current fleet, better towing equipment, and electronics. Response barges have decks specially designed to operate new, more efficient skimmers that are the world's largest. Many marine architects deem these designs ideal for the unique and difficult work in the Sound's often challenging conditions.

Lead vessels of each class will arrive in Valdez this month: the escort tug Commander, general purpose tug Elrington, and oil spill response barge OSRB-1. They will then conduct operational training and more than 50 demonstrations of crew and equipment. By summer, the entire new fleet will be in Valdez, as well as an existing ECO large anchor-handling tug and response barge. All will be U.S. Coast Guard classed and American Bureau of Shipping certified.

Alyeska brings a rigorous management and readiness resource transition plan to manage this change. In 2017, ECO mariners conducted over 10,000 hours of initial mission training. This winter ECO captains have been riding Prince William Sound waves on vessels operated by our current marine services partner, Crowley. Training activities are increasing, most recently at AVTEC simulator facilities in Seward, and will up-tempo more as vessels arrive, to include exercises with Alaska fishermen.

ECO has a 50-plus-year marine operations legacy and commitment to safe, reliable operations. Its safety record was stronger than all other bidders, and its crews support private companies and specialized U.S. government missions around the globe.

The contract change is not an attempt to save money, as some with personal interests in the bid outcome have publicly suggested. Like any business we must be efficient but this award is a significant investment in vessels, technology and people to sustain long term TAPS' operations. Safety, reliability, and operational excellence are key business drivers for any contract we award.

Stakeholders are making this journey with us. They joined our staff at ECO's training facilities, shipyards and construction centers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Oregon. Prince William Sound residents and fishermen shared their concerns and lifestyles directly with ECO leaders. So have members of the Southwest Alaska Pilots Association, the PWS Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, and local, state and federal regulators.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Coast Guard are closely involved, ensuring standards of equipment performance, testing and training are satisfied. And Crowley is committed to a safe and smooth transition.

There are some lines that Alyeska does not cross. Training and demonstrating vessels and crews for emergency response in uncontrolled conditions is a dangerous and disappointing demand from the PWS Regional Citizens' Advisory Council. It is also not how effective emergency response training is conducted or proficiency developed.

I once oversaw training for the U.S. Coast Guard – emergency response proficiency is built and proven in controllable settings. Fire departments no longer conduct live fire exercises inside derelict buildings, because doing so caused unnecessary deaths. Purposely maneuvering massive vessels close to each other or putting lines across in difficult conditions when there is no operational need is inconsistent with strong safety and risk management and does not build capability.

Alyeska and ECO have developed a rigorous transition management and readiness assurance plan to safely and efficiently prepare proficient crews for Prince William Sound while avoiding unnecessary risks. We will demonstrate the proficiencies and capabilities of these vessels, their crews and equipment to regulators, stakeholders and residents of Valdez and communities around Prince William Sound this spring.

Alyeska personnel, our mariners, and business partners know that when this transition is accomplished, we will enjoy the satisfaction that comes from knowing we have substantially improved prevention and response capabilities for marine operations in Prince William Sound.

Tom Barrett is a retired U.S. Coast Guard vice admiral, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation and president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.