By Rick Smeriglio for SCN — Prevent oil spills and eliminate the need for clean up, works as a slogan. As a plan B practical matter, twenty-seven Seward fishing vessels worked to prepare for a day if a tanker fails to prevent an oil spill. Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Committee and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company conducted annual training for a civil armada of vessels that could prove extremely valuable in cleaning up spilled oil. Vessels and crews around the region earn pay while spending two days in class and one day on the water practicing with booms and other specialized equipment. This year brought ideal weather conditions for training on Resurrection Bay.
Each year, more than 1,600 crew members from 430 vessels train in Cordova, Valdez, Whittier, Kodiak, Homer and Seward. They spend two days learning the ins and outs of our equipment, tactics and safe operations before even deploying equipment on water. The days are long and the training does not end at the conclusion of these sessions. Many crews in the program also participate in additional wildlife training to further support a response; most vessels are also called upon to respond to planned and unplanned exercises, which occur year-round. In 2015, Alyeska successfully conducted 180 drills and exercises in all seasons and weather conditions, at varied settings and waterways, from the North Slope to Prince William Sound.
Participants of these exercises are enrolled in the Vessels of Opportunity Program. The Vessels of Opportunity Program, its work in Prince William Sound and the Seward area was recently recognized by a local prominent organization. In 2015, the Vessel of Opportunity Program received a Stewardship and Sustainability Award from Seward’s Alaska SeaLife Center. The SeaLife Center noted that, “The local knowledge and commitment of the Prince William Sound fishing communities is evident in this program’s ongoing success – ensuring that the fisheries and environment are protected and sustained for years to come.” Alyeska, SERVS, hundreds of fishing crews participating in the program, and residents in communities around Prince William Sound and beyond couldn’t agree more.
Steve Johns, operations supervisor for Alyeska ship escort response vessel system (SERVS) said, “The fishermen are critical to this whole program because they have local knowledge. They are the ones who understand tides, currents, rock piles, how to operate. It’s very similar to towing a net, a boom system, so they are very good at that.”
In the years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, booms to corral oil on water have advanced well beyond the desperate improvisations of floating fire hose and logs chained end-to-end seen in those days. Industry no longer stores equipment in frozen yards far from shipping lanes. In addition to skimmers, escort tugs, and barge-loads of other gear, state regulations now require oil shippers to have purpose-built booms ready to hand. The oil industry has several kinds of boom and lots of it cached all over Prince William Sound and beyond.
On display in simulated action on Wednesday, an observer could have seen; “exclusion boom” sinking with the tide to seal off streams and shores, “protected water boom” always floating, and “harbor buster boom” the final collection pen of the near-shore response for oil spills. The medium-sized fishing vessels from Seward did not work with heavy-duty “ocean-class boom”. None of the four spokespersons for RCAC or Alyeska SERVS knew of any boom or skimmer capable of working in broken ice or brash ice such as that found in arctic waters in summer or found year around near glaciers in Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords.
When asked directly if such a thing as oil-spill boom capable of working in ice-clogged water even existed, Johns of SERVS would not answer directly, but said that the decision to work under those conditions would happen on scene. Booms and skimmers work together. Booms towed by boats concentrate floating oil so that the skimmer or floating pump can slurp oil off the surface and pump it into a floating container. Johns gave a recovery ratio of about 80 percent water to 20 percent oil for the skimmers practicing with water only on Resurrection Bay.
Arnie Hatch owns and operates F/V Miss Melody, a 55-foot salmon seiner home ported in Seward. He worked on the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and trained with his boat and crew towing oil containment boom again this year.
When asked how to improve the realism of the training scenarios, Hatch said, “I think that a lot of people would like something to target. We used to use floating oranges instead of just pulling booms through water. I guess that was deemed too polluting. Without having something to keep in the booms it’s hard for two [boom-towing] boats when turning.”
Johns set the operational limit for effectiveness of near-shore boom at six-foot seas. He said that ocean-class boom could operate in up to 10-foot seas. Too high a towing speed or too high waves cause oil to slop over the floating portion of the containment booms. Robertson noted the extreme difficulty of towing booms through broken ice given the weight and strain that would place on vessels and equipment even in calm water
After describing the limitations of existing oil-spill clean-up tools of removing mechanically, burning in place, fertilizing to stimulate bacteria, and applying dispersants, RCAC regional outreach coordinator Lisa Matlock said, ”We, Prince William Sound Regional Council, believe it should be mechanical removal before anything else. Our, Prince William Sound RCAC, goal number one is to keep the oil out of the water in the first place, prevention.”