Environmental initiatives for Alaska’s shores, ports, and vessels
Valdez Small Boat Harbor, summer 2017.
With roughly 6,640 miles of ocean coastline, Alaskans have enjoyed the economic benefits of its many marine-based industries such as commercial fishing and tourism. According to the September 2017 report “The Economic Value of Alaska's Seafood Industry” compiled by the McDowell Group, approximately 56,800 workers are directly employed by Alaska's seafood industry which accounted for $5.2 billion dollars of economic output in 2016. Of those employed, roughly 36,800 are full-time equivalent and 26,800 are Alaska residents. Additionally, the seafood processing sector includes an astonishing 169 shore-based plants, 73 catcher processors, and more than a dozen floating processors across Alaska's fifty-eight ports.
With regard to marine tourism, the impact of cruise ships and ferries is evident by the sheer volume of tourists traveling to Alaska via its waterways. In 2014–2015, nearly 1 million visitors made their way to the Last Frontier on large cruise ships and an additional 90,000 took advantage of the ferry system. A major piece of Alaska’s marine transportation picture is the Alaska Marine Highway System, which serves thirty-three Alaska communities from Metlakatla to the Aleutian chain with their eleven vessel fleet. In 2014, AMHS reported $273 million in total economic impact after toting 319,000 passengers, 108,000 vehicles, and almost 4,000 container vans.
With a bustling marine industry, maintaining the safety and cleanliness of Alaska's waterways is tantamount to continued success. This ongoing effort in the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Sea, and Gulf of Alaska is a tremendous task that requires the statewide cooperation of dedicated individuals and a whole host of programs and initiatives.
New Valdez Boat Harbor commercial basin on April 5, 2018.
In early 2017, Washington state native Jeremy Talbott assumed the helm as Valdez Ports and Harbor director after serving as the harbormaster for three years under former director Diane Kinney. Talbott, who came to Valdez with ten years of experience as the assistant harbormaster at Friday Harbor in Washington, brought with him a passion for marine safety and cleanliness education.
“My staff and myself take the 24-hour HAZWOPER [Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response] class, which is an operational-level class, and then our seasonal staff will take an 8-hour awareness-level class,” says Talbott.
HAZWOPER classes are operated through OSHA and cover a variety of topics including hazardous materials recognition, decontamination, hazardous waste sampling methods, and spill management and containment. Although the certifications Talbott and his team receive do not enable them to perform high level decontamination, they do give them the ability to spot a problem early.
“If there was a problem, we could immediately address it until the owners of the vessel could get there and takeover or contract out for help. The big thing is that we don't wait. Sometimes when we get a sheen in the harbor we use our UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] to locate the fuel spill and we can pretty much figure out exactly which vessel it is,” says Talbott.
With a 511-slip harbor that frequently operates at 150 percent over capacity, as well as a commercial port to oversee, early detection is crucial. But as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, which is why Talbott is excited to welcome a new addition to Valdez—a state-of-the-art upland facility and harbor basin.
According to Talbott, the extension will add another 140 commercial slips to the harbor which will aid with the overcrowding. But the crown jewel of the project is the upland facility that will be home to a bilge water treatment facility. As Valdez's aging fleet continues to take on wear and tear, the need for an onsite bilge water processing facility is becoming ever more important. .
John Thomas Kelsey Municipal Dock as of May 2016.
“The new harbor is going to be sort of the tip of the sword when it comes to marine environmental stewardship,” says Talbott. “We will have a bilge water treatment facility onsite that will process 10,000 gallons of bilge water a day. So a vessel will be able to pull up and clean out their engine compartment completely and have it a vacuumed right out of their bilge into our treatment facility.
They'll also be able to take on water, recycle their oil, and take on supplies and fuel and get back out on fishing grounds that much faster.”
With very few points of reference for handling bilge water, the city of Valdez hasn't yet determined where their water will go after being treated, but it is likely that it will get recycled by the sewer department.
The facilities aren't the only thing Talbott is looking forward to. In June 2018, Valdez will receive its first Clean Harbor Certification. Talbott takes great effort to ensure that his aquatic domain follows best management practices, so receiving an official Clean Harbor Flag is something he is particularly proud to have earned.
“It just tells everybody—all the harbor users—that we care about the environment and not only do we say it, we do it. But really, it's not about the certification. We have salmon in our harbor—they spawn on the side of the walls of our harbor so we are pretty cautious about trying to keep as many pollutants out of the water as we can because it's just the right thing to do,” Talbott says.
The cruise ship Europa at the John Thomas Kelsey Municipal Dock in May 2017.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Water Cruise Ship Program was established in 2001 in response to concerns about sewage and air emissions from large cruise ships. Gradually, the program expanded to cover smaller cruise ships and wastewater sampling, but the program was drastically revamped by Ballot Measure 2 in 2006. Known as the Alaska Cruise Ship Tax Initiative, Measure 2 included provisions that would impose a $46 per person per voyage tax on large cruise ships as well as a $4 per passenger fee to employ state-employed marine engineers.
Department of Environmental Conservation marine engineers, or Ocean Rangers as they are more commonly referred to, are responsible for monitoring cruise ship wastewater treatment systems as well as safety sanitation both while the ships are docked and at sail in Alaska waters. According to Cruise Ship Program Director Ed White, Alaska is the only state that actively puts environmental vanguards physically on the vessels to monitor environmental compliance issues in real time.
Although White's seventeen Rangers are based in Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway, one is more likely to see them on the water than dry land.
“What the [Ocean Rangers] do is ride on the cruise ships, and then, for example in Juneau, they might get off one ship and immediately board another either for an import inspection or to travel part of the voyage… During the summer season, they will do something like 1,500 observations and daily reports. So if you look at the number of days that cruise ships are in Alaska, 60 percent of the time there will be a Ranger on board,” explains White.
Despite their reach, the Rangers do not have the legal power to write citations for environmental violations. As White puts it, their main focus is on reporting violations to either the State of Alaska or the US Coast Guard.
“Many issues [the Rangers] find are minor or are safety violations that are more of interest to the Coast Guard because the state doesn't regulate the safety on cruise ships. But we are required to share all of our reports with the Coast Guard and other federal agencies, so if they do find something, often it gets corrected immediately,” says White.
Cruise ships and Alaska harbors are not the only entities working towards a cleaner marine environment. In 2015, TOTE Maritime announced its intention to produce the world's first natural-gas powered containerships. The original Marlin-class vessels were constructed at the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego and operated between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. In the last three years, TOTE Maritime's vessels have successfully transferred more than 18 million gallons of LNG (liquefied natural gas) through their patented truck-to-ship bunkering process.
Now in their second phase of operations, TOTE Maritime's Alaskan partner has completed the first of four planned conversion periods that will enable their Orca-class vessels to use LNG as fuel. The transition to cleaner burning fuels means a drastic reduction in air emissions, virtually eradicating sulfur oxides and limiting both nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. During the winter months over the next four years, TOTE Maritime Alaska plans to finalize their transition to an all LNG fleet.
“We are excited to be the first shipping company in the United States to undertake this important environmental effort. And we are appreciative of our customers and partners who support our ongoing effort to innovate in ways that reflect our commitment to the environment and communities we serve,” said President of TOTE Maritime Alaska Mike Noone in a February release.
O'Hara Shipe is a freelance writer in Anchorage.