Report pinpoints concerns over new oil tanker escorts for Prince William Sound

Crowley Marine Services currently holds the contract to provide oil tanker escorts and spill response and prevention in Prince William Sound. (Photo by Eric Keto/Alaska’s Energy Desk)N

A watchdog group is raising questions about whether new tugboats planned for Prince William Sound are up to the job of escorting oil tankers through the region.

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The new tugs are part of a major transition taking place in the system set up to prevent oil spills after the Exxon Valdez.

Last year, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the operator of the trans-Alaska pipeline, surprised communities in Prince William Sound when it announced it would be parting ways with its longtime tugboat operator, Crowley Marine Services, and bringing in a new company: Louisiana-based Edison Chouest Offshore.

Alyeska said one reason for the switch is Edison Chouest’s commitment to build brand new vessels to replace the current, aging fleet. That fleet includes the tugboats that escort oil tankers to and from the pipeline terminal in Valdez and barges standing by in case of a major spill.

But now a report is raising questions about the design of those new boats.

Donna Schantz is the executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council , which commissioned the report. She said tugboats play a major role in preventing oil spills – and they have to be able to do that work in pretty rough conditions.

“They need to save a fully laden tanker in seas of up to 15 feet and winds of 45 knots,” Schantz said.

The citizens’ council was created by Congress to provide local oversight after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Schantz said they’re closely watching the transition between operators.

“It’s the largest change-over of equipment and personnel that the system has seen since it was created after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill,” Schantz said. “So we just want to make sure the level of care is taken to make sure we don’t lose any of the safeguards that we worked so hard to put into place.

Alyeska’s choice of a new operator raised some eyebrows when it was announced last year. Edison Chouest has operations around the world, but it’s perhaps best known in Alaska for the Aiviq tugboat, which was towing Shell’s Arctic drill rig, the Kulluk, when it grounded near Kodiak in 2012.

The citizens’ council hired Vancouver-based naval architect Robert Allan to review Edison Chouest’s plans for the new tugs (designed by the Dutch shipbuilder Damen). Allan’s firm raised concerns about several issues, including a bow shape he worries might slow the tugs down and collect water in high seas. In an interview, Allan called the designs “less than ideal” for what’s supposed to be a state-of-the-art new fleet.

“I don’t in any way, and certainly didn’t say in my report, that there’s anything about either of these designs that is any way unsafe,” Allan said. “It’s just a question of, could be better.”

Allan also said the information he received didn’t include evidence that design testing was done to make sure the boats could handle rough conditions.

An Edison Chouest representative referred questions to Alyeska, which said it’s confident in the tug designs. Alyeska spokesperson Michelle Egan said the company takes Allan’s report seriously. But, she said, his firm only reviewed limited, preliminary plans, which — in some cases — have already changed.

“We’ve gone through the report. We have identified a number of areas where changes were already made in the design,” Egan said. “And then there are clearly places in the report where there is a professional difference of opinion between two different sets of marine architects.”

One of those differences of opinion is the bow shape, which Egan said hasn’t changed.

Egan said the new vessels come with new benefits, including more horsepower and updated winches for towing; and she said Alyeska will be sharing more information as the transition unfolds. Donna Schantz, of the citizens’ council, said that information can’t come soon enough. Edison Chouest is slated to take over the oil spill prevention and response contract in Prince William Sound in July 2018.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the new tugs would be built by the Dutch shipbuilder Damen. Damen designed the vessels; it is not building them.