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Vessel Response Protocols

Escort tugs critical to oil spill prevention



Because of the state’s fierce weather and remote areas, multilayer systems are integrated into comprehensive vessel response protocols for tankers and non-tankers operating in Alaska’s waters, ensuring the health of both the environment and the state’s economy.

“There are fifteen elements of a vessel response plan that the Coast Guard [USCG] evaluates. One of those is salvaging... If they ground or drift—drifting without power—they activate this plan and all of these things kind of fall in place,” explains Matt Melton, the general manager of oil spill removal organization Alaska Chadux Corporation.

The response resource categories USCG evaluates include qualified individuals (shore-based representatives who can activate or contract response resources among other responsibilities), spill management team, aerial tracking, logistical support, sustainment, on-water recovery AMPD (average most probably water), on-water recovery MMPD (maximum most probably water), on-water recovery WCD (worst case discharge), shoreline protection, shoreline cleanup, dispersants, salvage assess and survey, salvage stabilization, salvage special ops, and marine firefighting.

Federal response planning standards for oil spill response are designed around two main factors: equipment and time.

However, when National Planning criteria may be inappropriate for where a vessel intends to operate, the owner/operator may request acceptance of alternative planning criteria.

“Chadux has enough equipment, but the problem is that we don't have enough time to meet the planning standards because of the size and remote locations in Western Alaska. For a non-tank vessel, carrying non-persistent product for fuel, they can run aground… and within twenty-four hours we're supposed to have, in most cases, 30,000 feet of boom, 12,500 EDRC [effective daily recovery capacity]—those are your skimmers… and then 25,000 barrel temporary storage.

“The problem in Alaska is you don't have twenty-four hours; sometimes you need more time because of weather and distance. There are areas that are to be avoided, and there all these things that are part of the alternative plan that are risk mitigation measures, prevention measures, vessel tracking—all these things that happen as you're trying to administratively reduce the frequency of responses, because it's going to take us time to get there.”


Crowley Alaska Tankers

Crowley Alaska Tankers completes the acquisition of three tankers from SeaRiver Maritime Inc., renaming Liberty Bay as Washington.

‘Prevention is Primary’

In addition to federal and state regulations, there are also geographic specific appendices. One of those is Western Alaska, in which an operator must have specific endorsement.

In the Pollution Act of 1990, Prince William Sound has its own designation with specific requirements and regulations that go above and beyond other state and federal regulations. The Great Lakes is another area with a special planning standard.

“If we're looking at Prince William Sound and it's a Polar Tanker or Crowley, which owns a couple of the SeaRiver tankers, they're going to have a plan for coming in and out of Prince William Sound that falls under the Alyeska SERVS [ship escort/response vessel system] plan,” Melton says.

Though many of these regulations detail what must be in the theatre in case there is a leak or spill, prevention continues to be the highest priority for all involved.

“Prevention is primary: First, we established the Road to Zero—a goal of doing zero harm to people, property, or the environment. We give every employee the ability to stop work if they saw anything they perceived to be unsafe,” says Crowley Vice President Paul Manzi, who leads Crowley Alaska Tankers, a Crowley subsidiary that operates tankers in Alaska waters. “We introduced rigorous navigational assessments via simulator training and testing for all vessel operators. We provided additional safety training and a whole host of other briefings and safeguards. The program has been so successful in reducing injuries and incidents that the Secretary of the Navy is now consulting with Crowley to try to help him deal with recent deadly naval ship collisions. When you combine all the safety measures that have been put in place with the fact that highly regulated tanker transit routes keep vessels a comfortable distance from navigational hazards, we are very confident in our ability to safeguard the environment.”

In April, Crowley Alaska Tankers announced the acquisition of three tankers from SeaRiver Maritime. Tankers Washington (previously Liberty Bay) and California (previously Eagle Bay) each have a capacity of 760,000 barrels and transport crude oil from Alaska to West Coast refineries. The tanker Oregon (previously American Progress) has a capacity of 342,000 barrels and transports refined petroleum between the US Gulf and East Coast ports.

Crowley operates and manages the largest US-flag petroleum and chemical tank vessel fleet in the country. With the acquisition of these three tankers, the company now operates forty Jones Act-qualified large petroleum transportation vessels in the United States.

“With the regulatory approvals in place and the sale officially complete, we are now focused on operating these tankers in the safest, most reliable manner possible,” said Tom Crowley, chairman and CEO of Crowley Maritime Corporation in a press release about the acquisition.

Regulatory approvals are required for oil spill prevention and response plans. Additionally, all vessels are required to have a state and federal approved oil spill contingency plan. The process includes involvement from not only regulators and vessel owners but also from contractors providing oil spill response services, including Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.

Crowley is currently conducting extensive training as part of a handover to Louisiana-based Edison Chouest Offshore (ECO) as ECO prepares to take over a contract with Alyeska; the pipeline operator decided to move forward with ECO and its brand new fleet of fourteen custom ships. The new fleet—comprising four general purpose tugs; five escort tugs; one utility tug (already in the ECO fleet); and four oil spill response barges—is expected to fully take charge by late summer.

“Alyeska and Edison Chouest Offshore have developed a rigorous training program for incoming masters, which includes classroom and simulator training, observing Crowley operations, and performing several exercises and demonstrations onsite once they arrive. In their first month in Valdez, they performed more than forty-five tether and towing exercises between six captains,” Alyeska’s Valdez Communications Manager Kate Dugan says.


Crowley Alaska Tankers

Crowley Alaska Tankers completes the acquisition of three tankers from SeaRiver Maritime Inc., renaming SR American Progress as Oregon.

Escort Tugs Critical to Oil Spill Prevention

“A vessel that becomes disabled and adrift can pose a serious risk for an oil spill if it drifts to shore,” says Buddy Custard, president and CEO of Alaska Maritime Prevention & Response Network, a nonprofit and member of Chadux that is focused on reducing the risk of marine casualties and oil spills. “Being able to dispatch a tug vessel to render assistance to the distressed vessel and then take it in tow before it runs aground prevents a potential catastrophic oil spill incident.”

In July, the M/V Laura Maersk became disabled and adrift in Unimak Pass. However, because of early detection of the situation by the Network monitoring center, USCG was able to work with the vessel owner/operator in dispatching a couple of tug vessels that were located in Dutch Harbor. They rendered assistance by placing the vessel in tow before the ship ran aground, preventing more than 2 million gallons of oil from being spilled into the environment, Custard says.

“We believe there are three critical components of an effective oil spill risk mitigation and response strategy—information, time, and capabilities. Timely and accurate information is essential to confirm compliance with safe routing measures we established and detect potential incidents,” Custard says. “Early detection of a marine casualty or distress is critical in minimizing the loss of life, the consequences of an oil spill, and the loss of a vessel and its cargo.”

The Network was created by Alaskans working in the maritime industry who shared a common goal of reducing the risk of oil spills while meeting federal vessel response plan compliance requirements. The Network provides regulatory compliance for non-tank vessels operating in Western Alaska. It funds a 24/7 monitoring center to track and monitor vessels, which is operated by the Marine Exchange of Alaska, Custard says.

“We also have teaming agreements with tug companies and salvage and marine firefighting providers, as well as qualified individuals,” Custard adds.

Recognizing the essential role tugs play in safeguarding tankers and the environment, every laden tanker transiting Prince William Sound is accompanied by two tugs until the tanker reaches the Gulf of Alaska.

“They can quickly take action if a problem were to occur with the tanker, and one tug is tethered to a tanker for rapid response where tankers are particularly close to shore. The new tugs feature increased horsepower, modern winches, and technology that improves the system from today,” Dugan says.


Crowley Alaska Tankers

Crowley Alaska Tankers completes the acquisition of three tankers from SeaRiver Maritime Inc., renaming Eagle Bay as California.

Tug Capabilities

Tugs designed as tanker escorts operating in The Prince William Sound have firefighting, emergency, and oil spill response capabilities.

“Along with Alyeska, Crowley has been the guardian of Prince William Sound for the past forty years, and there is nothing more important to Crowley than the continued flawless operation of these tankers as environmental stewards,” Manzi says.

Also operating out of Valdez is Polar Tankers, owned by ConocoPhillips.

“The current fleet of five tankers were designed with two separate engine rooms, two propellers, and two rudders to provide extra layers of redundancy beyond regulatory requirements. The space between the inner and outer hulls of our double hull tankers are twice the width required by regulation,” says Daren Beaudo, ConocoPhillips’ director of media relations and crisis communications, noting that ConocoPhillips itself does not operate any vessels in Alaska waters. “The vessels were designed specifically for the transport of Alaskan crude oil in partnership with some of the world’s leading naval architecture and marine engineering firms.”

The tankers are part of the Trans Alaskan Pipeline System trade, loading crude oil in the Port of Valdez and most often delivering to terminals within Puget Sound, Washington; San Francisco and Los Angeles/Long Beach, California; and Hawaii.

Spill response equipment and training programs in Alaska are designed specifically to operate up to the maximum weather conditions outlined in the contingency plan, Beaudo explains. Larger response vessels, such as tugs and barges, are built specifically for Alaska waters with crews trained to safely operate in a wide range of conditions.

Nonetheless, USCG occasionally closes the entrance/exit to Prince William Sound due to severe weather conditions.  

“While our tankers are designed to operate in far worse conditions, tugs and other support vessels needed during a response could have a more difficult time safely maneuvering around the tanker in certain conditions. As a precaution, tanker traffic is restricted during these specific times,” Beaudo says.


Weathering Alaska’s Weather

Everyone operating in Alaska, from oil spill response organizations to marine shipping companies, understands the unique and difficult challenges the state’s weather presents.

“Most of the vessels and personnel on the water during drill or spill are Alaskan fishing vessels and fisherman who deal with Alaska’s weather every day. The larger response vessels such as tugs and barges are built specifically for Alaskan waters with crews who are trained to safely operate in a wide range of conditions,” Beaudo says.

Dugan points out that, because weather can have such an adverse effect on responses, there is heavy investment in preventative measures.

“Wind and waves can slow vessel speeds and impact recovery operations, so crews are trained and equipped to respond in the various conditions found in Prince William Sound and can adjust tactics if necessary. Fog or darkness, for example, may hinder helicopter overflights of a spill, so the new tugs have onboard FLIR [forward looking infrared] cameras that can work in hours of darkness and oil detection radar, which isn’t as impacted by weather,” Dugan says. “We can have all the response equipment in the world, but we never want to have to use it. We want to prevent an oil spill.”

Since the rollback of an export ban in 2016 on crude oil from the United States, including restrictions for Alaska crude oil (which was one of the few domestic varieties exempt from the ban), there has been a small increase in tankers using the Valdez Port.

“The federal export ban was lifted recently and we’ve seen two or three new tankers in the system since then,” Dugan says.

Prior to the rollback, exporters were required under the Jones Act to use vessels from a small fleet of US-flagged tankers. However, the changes in the restrictions now allow outside markets, such as the Asian market, to book sales on foreign-flagged tankers.

Of course, these foreign-flagged tankers are still required to abide by the stringent rules and regulations that ensure the safety of Alaska’s environment.



Isaac Stone Simonelli is a freelance journalist and former managing editor for the Phuket Gazette.


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