Watchdog group scrutinizes rough-weather training for new tanker escorts in Prince William Sound

Crowley Marine Services will be turning over its contract to provide oil tanker escorts and spill response and prevention in Prince William Sound next year to Louisiana-based Edison Chouest. (Photo: Eric Keto/APRN)

Next year, a whole new fleet of tugboats and barges will arrive in Prince William Sound with a big responsibility: to prevent another oil spill like the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

Listen now

But vessels aren’t the only new element arriving next year. At a meeting held last week, the official citizens’ oil spill watchdog group for Prince William Sound raised concerns about how new crews manning the vessels will be trained.

Louisiana-based Edison Chouest Offshore will soon replace Crowley Marine Services as the contractor providing the tugboats, equipment and people ensuring oil tankers move through Prince William Sound safely.

Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which operates the trans-Alaska pipeline and opted to make the switch to Edison Chouest last year, has already faced pointed questions. Those questions came from state regulators and the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, a watchdog group created by Congress in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill. Earlier this year, the council commissioned a report that raised concerns about the vessels’ design.

At the Whittier meeting, council members who visited Louisiana to see the new tugs being built said they were impressed.

“I’m not putting on my Edison Chouest hat now, but I do believe these are going to be some good boats,” Jim Herbert said. Herbert sits on the council’s Oil Spill Prevention and Response Committee.

But Brooke Taylor, a spokeswoman for the council, said they’re still waiting on more testing and modeling to see if all their concerns can be put to rest.

Beyond how the tugboats are built, Taylor said a big focus going forward will be making sure new crews are properly trained.

“That questionable factor is always going to be people,” Taylor said. “If they’re not properly trained, if they are not accustomed to a new environment, then you’re going to have a weak link in the system and that’s where most accidents are going to be triggered from.”

But what does proper training look like? Last week, the board discussed a report it commissioned concluding that new crews and equipment should be put to the test in “90th percentile conditions.” In Prince William Sound, the report said that means 22-knot winds and/or 12-foot seas.

The council hasn’t officially decided to back the report’s conclusions. But in 2003, it took the position that if it’s unsafe to train in weather conditions past a certain extreme, Alyeska shouldn’t operate in those conditions. During last week’s meeting, council member Amanda Bauer said she stands by that position.

“I don’t feel personally it’s too much to ask if you’re going to make your money in it, then you need to prove that you can prevent it,” Bauer said.

But Mike Day with Alyeska, who is managing the transition, said training in the more extreme conditions outlined in the report isn’t a good idea because it could put crews at risk.

“We believe that it’s not critical or necessary to train in storms in order to be prepared to operate in storms,” Day said. “We believe we’ve proven that we can do training in — certainly not calm conditions but somewhere in the middle…where folks are comfortable and not put at undue risk, where they develop the skills and the procedures and the techniques and the process to perform these tasks in much worse conditions.”

New tugboats are expected to arrive in Prince William Sound in early 2018. Training for new crew members is expected to begin as early as next month.