The Regional Citizens Advisory Council, (RCAC) a citizen’s advisory group to the Valdez-based oil tanker shipping industry, held one of its three annual meetings in Seward last week. Seward is one of 20 member communities directly affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
While in town, the 20 board members, ex-officio board members, scientists, and shipping industry officials toured the Alaska SeaLife Center, and received an introduction to the marine facility, and participated in an Alaska seafood reception there. They also toured AVTEC’s Marine Training Center, which trains people in the shipping industry and qualifies captains and other shipping industry professionals for licenses. Prior to a maneuver at sea, they can undertake realistic simulations of their specific types of ships entering or leaving certain ports and encountering various malfunctions and ocean weather conditions.
The board now includes Jim Herbert who began representing Seward last spring, replacing Dr. John French who had been Seward’s council representative for the previous decade. Herbert was elected board treasurer at the meeting, which will enable him to participate at the executive committee level. It’s a committee that tends to have a little more power and influence on RCAC matters, he said.
The visitors were especially impressed by the AVTEC marine training center, its simulations, and by the working relationship it has established with the Alaska maritime industry, Herbert said. For example, with the kind of training it holds for officers of Polar Tankers, a shipping company RCAC oversees that owns large double-hulled oil tankers that run oil out of the Valdez terminal
Lisa Matlock, RCAC’s public relations spokesperson and educator was a guest speaker at the Seward Chamber of Commerce Forum Business Luncheon Friday, September 20, along with training-coordinator Jeremy Robida. Attendees included some small retail business leaders, and some leaders of industry, including dock managers with the Alaska Railroad Corporation; the general managers of Afognak Construction and Aurora Energy Systems, the Seward coal transfer facility.
The citizen’s oil-transportation oversight organization was set up in the aftermath of the ’89 Exxon Valdez oil spill to fight complacency in the Valdez pipe-line terminal’s oil transportation industry. “Complacency,” a broad term, was determined to have been the root cause of the oil spill, Matlock said.
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed by Congress in response to the oil spill, governs the work of the citizens’ council. In it, Congress mandated citizens’ councils for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, funded by industry. Their purpose is to promote partnership and cooperation among local residents, industry and government, to build trust and provide citizen oversight of environmental compliance by oil terminals and tankers. RCAC is funded by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the trans-Alaska pipeline and the Valdez tanker terminal.
Some of their key accomplishments to date include establishing escort tug mandates for all oil tankers operating in Prince William Sound and requirements that new oil tankers be double-hulled. The council also brought about the establishment of SERVS (oil spill response) training of small boat operators in spill- affected communities. It has four committees that work specifically on certain areas including Valdez port operations; oil spill information and education; and a scientific advisory committee that deals with oil spill response, long-term environmental monitoring, and studies detailing the ongoing effects of the spill.
RCAC sponsors some of the environmental monitoring studies at ASLC, and in other stakeholder communities, and will begin sponsoring an aquatic invasive species study at the center as tankers can carry invasive species from one port to another in their ballast water, Matlock said. She urged those with proposals for other monitoring studies to go onto the RCAC website.
RCAC also is co- sponsoring the 7th Edition Marine Firefighting Symposium for land-based firefighters taking place in Seward October 8-10th, 2013 along with AVTEC-Alaska’s Institute of Technology. It makes use of AVTEC’s vessel fire-simulator building at Seward Marine Industrial Center. Topics include cruise ship awareness, vessel familiarization, private/public response coordination, politics of a marine incident, and the course also provides hands-on training and live fire exercises.
RCAC also is sponsoring a new Incident Management workshop for regional stakeholders October 2nd at Seward Library/Museum. The workshop will present an overview of the NIMS Incident Command System and explain in detail how an oil spill would be handled, said Robida. That workshop will examine the power and decision-making structure used during a spill emergency and the role of federal, state, and local responders, and ultimately explain how the community would fit into the picture.
If there were a tanker-related oil spill incident stemming from the Prince William Sound tanker fleet, your community could be affected, Robida said. But many community leaders do not understand how they fit into the state and national spill response framework, until an accident occurs, and they discover that their own decision-making powers are limited. For the past three years, the City of Valdez has taken part in an annual industry tanker emergency tabletop exercise, and it has helped the city fill in many of the gaps that existed.
RCAC hopes to share that kind of knowledge with other spill-affected communities, Robida said. A recent workshop in Homer had a great turnout, he said. He hopes local stakeholders such as the Alaska Railroad, Sea Life Center, AVTEC, AES coal facility, and the City of Seward takes part, and also owners of shore-based businesses who would be impacted.
“After the spill, lots of people got sucked into it, and their lives changed forever,” he said. “Everybody’s got a story.”
A reporter asked whether RCAC helps other communities learn how to form similar citizen-oversight council’s, such as those in the Arctic that could be affected by an oil spill that region. RCAC has been invited by Aleutian Island risk assessment group, and by residents living in the Gulf of Mexico region following the Deep Water Horizon oil spill to educate them on the citizen’s advisory model they use, Matlock said. A founding member of RCAC recently authored a paper for the United Nations detailing their model, she added.
Mike Hansen, General Manager of Aurora Energy Services said he was confused, and asked for clarification of what the original mission of RCAC was. He commented that his own company is familiar with citizen watchdog groups, and it seemed to him that RCAC had strayed from its mission in certain areas other than oil spill response and prevention.
Matlock agreed that RCAC’s focus has changed to encompass other things that have arisen over the past two decades. Some may feel that educating elementary school students about the Exxon Valdez oil spill might have gone beyond the original intent, for instance, but many Alaskan fourth- graders today have no idea what the oil spill was like, and she feels that those lessons are important. Also, sponsoring studies on invasive species might seem to be outside RCAC’s original mission, but green crabs, if brought into Southeast Alaska, can be very harmful to the marine environment there.
RCAC can’t regulate industry, and can’t impose fines, Robida said. It’s not an anti-oil, radical environmental group, unlike what some people may perceive from the word “watchdog agency,” he added. RCAC works closely with Alyeska, not always agreeing on everything, but they have a good working relationship with the joint goal of making oil tanker traffic safer, and spill response better, he said.
There is probably the perception of “mission creep,” Herbert told SCN. But RCAC’s mandate is clearly focused on Prince William Sound, and the tanker trade, and RCAC has no jurisdiction over the rest of the oil pipeline or anything that happens in the Arctic or elsewhere.