Oil Spill prevention much better, but will it be enough?

SEWARD, Alaska -

Jim Herbert, Seward's representative on the PWS RCAC, and 15-year SERVS captain. Heidi Zemach photo.

Jim Herbert, Seward’s representative on the PWS RCAC, and 15-year SERVS captain. Heidi Zemach photo.

By Heidi Zemach for SCN – Jim Herbert, a mariner and commercial fisherman who serves as Seward’s representative on the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, spoke about oil spill response capabilities in his modest home on Third Avenue, as his aging budgie chimed in. He spoke on the approach of the 25th anniversary of the March 24th 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Part II of the series for Seward City News.

“While there could certainly be an oil spill again, and may well be in the future, it would not happen the same way. Anything that happened in PWS would be jumped on very, very quickly,” Herbert said. “There are a lot more preventative measures there, the duel tug escorts, the abundance of trained people and equipment. A lot of money is spent by the shippers to prepare for something that nobody really wants to have happen again.”

Herbert owns one of the 350 Alaska fishing vessels contracted to serve in the SERVS (Ships Escort Response Vessel System) program, and stands ready to respond immediately if there is another spill originating from the Alaska Pipeline terminal in Valdez. All of the SERVS crews train regularly for their own particular roles, he said. Seward’s annual three-day SERVS training will be April 14-16th.

Those in the PWS region make up the initial or in-region responders. Cordova has about 125 vessels, Valdez has 35-40, Whittier has about 30, Seward has 35, Kodiak has about 60, and Homer has about 45. The distant coastal communities, including Seward, are involved in near-shore response. These vessels would not be put in the hot zones, where there are volatile fumes or oil bubbling out of the tanker, Herbert said. Rather, their job would initially be to protect sensitive areas such as the mouths of salmon streams and hatcheries. They would be harassing birds to chase them away from oiled areas, recovering oiled sea otters or birds to send them to rehabilitation, and gathering up the carcasses of dead animals so that their predators wouldn’t spread the oil. They also would recover the distant oil.

Of course the picture was different at the time of the ‘89 oil spill. Alyeska had only five miles of boom available then, but now there are 49 miles of various types or boom. Its entire response inventory had only 13 oil-skimming systems, whereas now it has 108. Each coastal community involved in SERVS program now has boom stored in strategic locations along the water’s edge, ready for use. Hatcheries even have hookups along their shores to quickly attach each end of boom to and roll out if should it be needed, Herbert said.

Jim Herbert taught classes in the maritime department at AVTEC that spring, and fished out of Kodiak during the summertime. After classes ended, he spent much of his spring and summer in ’89 in Homer, standing by with his vessel and crew, waiting for a commercial salmon fishery that never opened. He could have called it quits and joined the massive cleanup effort in Seward, but chose not to. But many local boat owners who leased their boats out to VECO earned millions and became the town’s “Spillionaires.”

“It was pretty apparent early on in the whole fiasco that Exxon, through VECO, was just throwing a lot of money and resources at a problem that was much bigger than they could deal with, hiring lots and lots of people to do ineffectual things, not having sufficient equipment,” Herbert said. “They just could not cope with the scale of the spill. It already had gotten away from them within a week. And I wanted no part of that.”



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SERVS training in Seward during the spring of 2013. Jeremy Robida, PWS RCAC photo credit.

SERVS training in Seward during the Spring of 2013. Jeremy Robida, PWS RCAC photo credit.

Complacency had already set in during the years since the Alaska Pipeline had begun flowing with oil, and promises broken, he said. Since the spill, efforts to assure safer tanker transport through Valdez have improved, and a more robust response to protect our coastal areas has been created. There are mandatory spill contingency plans that detail a company’s prevention and cleanup efforts, each with several layers of government and citizens’ oversight. There’s better marine traffic monitoring, tug escort systems, double- hull tanker requirements in place in Prince William Sound, and many different types of large response vessels are stationed at Valdez—no longer buried in snow and inaccessible as they were in March, ‘89.

Those in first line of defense, the in-region fishing vessel responders, are fitness-tested. They’re clean-shaven so that their respirators fit snugly over their faces, they receive 24-hour HAZWOPER training, attend at least three in-depth training drills a year, and they have to respond to an accident within six hours, Herbert said. Those contracted on Tier II vessels, those further from the sound, also receive HAZWOPER training, wildlife response training and annual SERVS training. These vessels must get underway in 24 hours, if they can safely do so, and be on scene within 72 hours. These would be tasked with gathering distant oil with equipment such as boom, drums, skimmers, and power packs supplied from mini-barges. There is a third tier available for additional vessels that might be needed at the time of a spill. These are vessels and crews that would be contracted and quickly trained if there is a spill.

Nevertheless, Alaska weather being what it is, uncertainties remain about how an actual accident would play out, Herbert said. High winds and 6’-10’ seas played havoc on a training drill last December near Valdez for instance. Fishing vessels from distant communities couldn’t risk the dangerous journey to the Sound, and even small fishing boats from Cordova had difficulty getting there. The fishing fleet was ordered to anchor up for their own safety.  Tugs from Valdez arrived on the scene, but throughout the drill’s three days, no one could deploy boom due to the high seas.

Another limiting factor to a SERVS response in the Winter is that a majority of contracted fishing vessels can only work during daylight hours, which would be reduced in the wintertime, Herbert said. Nor are the drills as realistic as they might be without any actual oil in the water to practice booming off, or oiled birds or similar objects to practice collecting. RCAC is looking into locating an acceptable form of harmless simulated oil that could be used for drills. But even a proposal to lasso floating oranges with boom was forbidden by the Coast Guard.

Herbert also is concerned about another possible gap in SERVS effectiveness. As there weren’t enough fishing vessels contracted to participate in the SERVS program, charter boats and some other types of vessels of varying capabilities are also included on the response teams, Herbert said. RCAC would like to analyze the various types of vessels contracted under SERVS in each port in order to determine whether they are actually a good fit for the jobs that need to be done. But Alyeska claims that the vessel’s names and the fleet makeup is proprietary information, and refuses to provide it to RCAC.

One might hope that having 350 vessels, well-trained crews, and response equipment available in Alaska to respond to a shipping accident would be useful in the case of other area oil spills or vessel accidents. Ironically, due to the contractual arrangements vessels that are made exclusive to each shipping company, and contingency plans that require a minimum number of certain response vessels on call in Valdez, this is not necessarily so, Herbert said. SERVS’ only jurisdiction is for Alaska Pipeline terminal-related spills. So when the Royal Dutch Shell Oil drill rig Kulluk, returning from oil exploration in the Arctic in December 2012 lost its tow line and drifted in high seas toward the eastern shores of Kodiak Island, a response vessel stationed at Valdez that could have helped in the response needed to receive special federal authorization exempting it from its SERVS mandate with Alyeska, which took valuable time, Herbert said.

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