Nearly 20 years have passed since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. The anniversary will no doubt resurrect images of oiled beaches and wildlife, and bring back painful memories for many Alaskans directly impacted by the spill.
The oil spill was clearly one of the darkest events to occur in Alaska since statehood. But the oil spill experience is not only one of harm and recovery, it is also of lessons learned and actions taken.
Alaska today has the best marine transportation system in the world, thanks to extensive industry investment, strengthened state and federal laws, and dedicated efforts by local communities.
- A series of state and federal laws now give the Sound the strictest spill prevention and preparedness regulations in the world. Detailed spill prevention and contingency plans are in place, developed by individual shippers and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and approved by the state. Extensive spill drills are held each year by major shippers.
- Special double-hull tankers have been built especially for the Alaska trade and are now in operation. The new ships have special features like duplicate engine and steering systems to avoid losing power and maneuverability. The last of the single-hull
tankers will be phased out in 2012.
- A fleet of spill response vessels and state-of-the-art, highly maneuverable tugs now escort loaded oil tankers some 70 miles through Prince William Sound into the Gulf of Alaska.
- Two separate Coast Guard systems a marine radar and a satellite and land-based vessel tracking system closely monitor the movement of each tanker through the Sound. Today’s technology gives virtual real- time locations of tankers and escort vessels 70 miles out into the Gulf of Alaska. A separate system even tracks the movements of icebergs in the Sound.
- Barges containing oil spill containment and cleanup equipment are now positioned at strategic locations across the Sound, giving responders the capability to contain and control a major spill in 72 hours.
- Alyeska conducts more than 80 oil spill drills and exercises every year to test equipment and techniques, train responders and ensure rapid and effective responses if they are needed.
In 1989, there was no ship escort system. The Coast Guard’s marine radar extended only a few miles beyond Valdez. Only five miles of oil containment boom was available in Valdez at the time, along with 13 oil skimming (cleanup) machines with a combined capacity of 27,800 barrels of oil in 72 hours. There was one barge stationed in Valdez with 12,000 barrels of on-water storage for recovered oil.
Today the Sound now boasts the world’s largest stockpile of oil spill equipment and materials. There are now over 71 miles of specifically selected types of boom stationed in the Sound and more than 100 skimming systems capable of recovering 59,000 barrels per hour. There are eight strategically located response barges with advanced skimming systems and a total storage capacity of 900,000 barrels (the 1989 spill was 257,000 barrels in size). There are 54 smaller barges for near shore work. The barges carry reels of durable boom that responders can quickly inflate and deploy around spills to prevent oil from spreading and to protect fragile marine shorelines.
Twenty years ago there were no fishing vessels under contract to respond to a spill. Now there are more than 350 local fishing vessels under contract with 1,100 fishermen to assist in an emergency.
In 1989, there were no response centers outside Valdez. There are now five response centers in the Sound. Key equipment is pre-staged at the five hatcheries and sensitive areas throughout the Sound.
Alyeska now has SERVS (Ship Escort Response Vessel System) to provide escort of loaded tankers in the Sound. Laden tankers transiting the Sound are now escorted by two vessels, one of which must be a specially equipped prevention and response vessel or tug. Laden tankers are tethered to escort tugs from the terminal through the Valdez Narrows and Valdez Arm. There are also speed limits for tankers and weather restrictions.
SERVS was established in July 1989 to prevent new spills and assist tankers in safe navigation through the Sound and to protect the environment by providing effective response services. The enhanced tractor tugs (ETTs) commissioned under the SERVS fleet offer state-of-the-art exceptional maneuverability in assisting tankers, especially a disabled tanker. The powerful tugs are designed to keep a disabled tanker from grounding or to begin immediate containment and cleanup if there is a spill in or near the Sound.
The ETT propulsion system is mounted underneath the tug, with vertical propeller blades shaped like gigantic eggbeaters that make it highly maneuverable. It can push or pull in any direction, and turn on its own length, virtually spinning. The tractor tugs can each store 70,000 gallons of recovered oil. Each are equipped with 3,300 feet of boom and have a highly trained crew of seven.
Beyond the Valdez Narrows, a system of tugs and response vessels are positioned as sentinels at different points in the Sound. Smaller, highly maneuverable tugs are positioned in Port Valdez and larger, more powerful tugs and escort vessels are positioned in the Sound. At Hinchinbrook Entrance, where high waves and winds are common, a large vessel is stationed nearby at Port Etches.
In March 1989, there was no organized citizen involvement in oil spill plan development and oversight. Today the Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet regional citizen advisory councils ensure local needs are addressed. In 1989, there was no consistent management structure in place for spill response, but today a unified command/ incident structure has been adopted by state and federal agencies, industry and shippers for response to oil spills in the region.
Over the last 20 years, industry, government and local communities have worked together to ensure Alaska’s environment is protected. The prevention and response procedures in place today sharply reduce the possibility of a major spill and ensure a rapid, effective response should an event occur.
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