Opinion: 30 years later, applying hard-learned lessons in Prince William Sound

Exxon Valdez changed the way industry, regulators, states and nations looked at marine oil transport

  • By Tom Barrett President, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company
  • Wednesday, March 20, 2019 11:23pm
  • Opinion

March 24, 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the day Exxon Valdez fetched up on Bligh Reef and spilled almost 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska. Like most Alaskans and Americans, the disaster shocked and angered me. The massive harm to the marine ecosystems of Prince William Sound, deaths of thousands of seabirds, marine mammals and other wildlife, devastation of fisheries I knew Alaskan fishermen and families depended upon, and the failures of multiple organizations and individuals to prevent such an event was a gut-wrenching, transformative experience. Three decades on, the only real good to come from the spill were hard-learned lessons that improved how marine oil transportation is conducted and regulated in Alaska and globally.

The Exxon Valdez spill fundamentally changed the way industry, regulators, states and nations looked at the inherent risks of marine oil transportation. New laws and regulations following the spill locked multiple new safeguards into place — safeguards that are still in place and continue to evolve today. Oil is transported in double-hulled tankers; in Valdez, tanker captains face mandatory pre-departure alcohol testing; the Coast Guard coordinates and enforces tanker lanes, limits tanker speeds, sets ice routing and entrance closures. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation now approves stringent contingency response plans for the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) pipeline, terminal and tankers. The Ship Escort/Response Vessel System (SERVS) was put in place to prevent spills and provide response capabilities for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which operates TAPS.

SERVS has staged large response barges and a vast supply of equipment around Prince William Sound to use in an emergency. In 1989, a single tug accompanied tankers through the Valdez Narrows and a single response barge provided storage capacity of 12,000 barrels. Today, two powerful tugs escort each laden tanker through Hinchinbrook Entrance, and seven large recovery barges provide more than 600,000 barrels of on-water storage. Every year, Alyeska employees conduct annual Fishing Vessel of Opportunity Program training in classrooms and on the water with Alaska-based fishing captains and crews — almost 1,600 people and 400 vessels that are on contract to SERVS to assist if needed with any response.

Our systems are much improved from 1989. But we are not naïve about the inherent risks our business entails. Our personnel are extremely proud of the work we do and its importance to everyone in Alaska. We continuously assess our protection layers and our capabilities. We listen hard to our own employees, contractors, regulators, partners in the Alaska Native community and other stakeholders about our planning and readiness. We continue to innovate with advances like the Edison Chouest Offshore fleet of more powerful tugs with improved winches and fit-for-purpose barges with improved skimmers that Alyeska brought to Valdez last year. The escort tugs are the most powerful in the world for escort service. In addition to more than 200 annual drills and exercises, tanker and tug captains and pilots train for the demands of escort operations in state-of-the-art simulators. These efforts unfold with oversight from regulators and with input from stakeholders like the Prince William Sound Science Center, the Oil Spill Recovery Institute and the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council.

I know, and Alyeska leadership, employees and contractors know the safety of our people and environmental stewardship of Alaska lands and waters along TAPS rests in our hands. We are directly accountable for safely moving TAPS oil with a deep-vested stewardship. We take great pride in the work we do every day, and how well and safely we do it. Our workforce spans generations of Alaskans who live, work and play in Alaska. Prince William Sound is our home water. The 30th anniversary of Alaska’s greatest ecological disaster reminds us of the need for us to manage our risks with tight discipline and the greatest care. A former Coast Guard boss of mine, Admiral Jim Loy, would repeatedly stress, “Preparation Equals Performance.” We adhere to that perspective. We know our accountabilities and understand our obligation to make oil transportation along TAPS and across Prince William Sound safe for Alaska lands, waters and citizens.

Tom Barrett is president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.


• By TOM BARRETT, President, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company


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