Prince William Sound is home to a variety of bird species in winter

Frigid Alaska winters can be a tough time and place for wildlife. Food is scarce, the climate can be extreme, and days are short. Many species of birds head south.

However, some hardier species, such as marbled murrelets, common murres, pelagic cormorants, black-legged kittiwakes, and glaucous-winged gulls tough it out over the winter.

Since 2007, Dr. Mary Anne Bishop, a research ecologist at the Prince William Sound Science Center, has surveyed the Sound in fall and winter to document these bird species. This work is done on behalf of Gulf Watch Alaska, an ecosystem monitoring program funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. The Trustee Council documents the recovery of wildlife species after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The Council recently worked with Dr. Bishop and Anne Schaefer, the Center’s avian research assistant, to expand the survey area. The Council needed to know if marine birds congregated in areas around the Valdez Marine Terminal and near the tanker lanes. If a spill were to occur, these are the most likely areas for oil to come ashore.

Quick protection if a spill happens

When creating oil spill contingency plans, it is important to know where critical habitats are located. Plans can be created ahead of time that will help responders act fast to protect these areas before they are damaged.

The researchers noted specific areas to safeguard including Port Etches and Zaikof Bay near Hinchinbrook Entrance, the head of Port Valdez between the Valdez container terminal and the Valdez Glacier stream, and in southeastern Port Fidalgo.

This was the first of three years proposed for this study. The report notes that it is difficult to draw conclusions from a single year, because composition and density of birds can vary during the overwintering, non-breeding season.

The results of the survey will be available through the Alaska Ocean Observing System.

More information is available in the full report:

Marine Winter Bird Surveys In Prince William Sound (9.0 MB)

A journey through time: New Council report documents history of tanker contingency plan

Photo shows crews tending boom around the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, about 2 miles from the terminal. Early in the spill response, Alyeska deployed this protective boom around the hatchery and nearby Valdez Duck Flats. No oil reached either site. Both sites are particularly sensitive to oil contamination. Sensitive areas like these are identified before a spill occurs and response plans are tailored to each site. These plans save time during the critical first hours of a response.

Thousands of pages of documents. Countless meetings and workgroups. Over thirty years of oil spill drills and exercises.
That’s what you’d previously have to dig through to truly understand the oil spill contingency plan for Prince William Sound’s tankers.

Graphic that says: From 1000s of documents, researchers summarized 43 events that substantially changed contingency plans and 17 recurring issues.
Read the report: History of Tanker Contingency Plan

Not anymore. A new report has now distilled that history down into one report. The Council partnered with experts at Nuka Research and attorney Breck Tostevin to comb through decades of letters, reports, and meeting notes. They were looking for details on how the plan, and the regulations that shaped the plan, developed.

What is the plan?

The Prince William Sound Tanker Oil Spill Prevention and Contingency Plan essentially describes how Alyeska and the tanker companies prevent oil from spilling, and how they will contain and clean up the oil if a spill happens.

State and federal laws and regulations determine what details are included in the plan. The industry writes the plans and government agencies decide whether the plan meets their requirements.

Documenting the changes over time

There have been numerous changes to the plan and its governing regulations over the years.

Changes are made on a regular basis through an extensive and complicated renewal process. A lot of work and thought goes into these updates. In a nutshell, every five years:

  1. the industry proposes changes,
  2. the government reviews the changes and solicits public comment,
  3. the Council and stakeholders review and submit comments,
  4. and the comments and changes are considered and worked out between the industry and the government.

The government approves the plan once it meets their requirements.

Details are written down in various documents. The researchers started with the first plan developed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, documenting how the then-new state requirements resulted in many changes, and tracking subsequent changes through 2020.

Their work shows that many Alaskans, including industry, government agencies, and citizens worked hard to tailor the plan and regulations so that it works for our unique state.

“An Alaska contingency plan is not a generic plan on how to respond to spills,” note the researchers in the report.

Graphic text box that says: 7 functions of an Alaska contingency plan Under the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s regulations, these plans serve as: 1. An emergency plan 2. A detailed long-term plan 3. Proof that equipment and resources meet standards 4. An assessment of past incidents and how they could have been prevented 5. A description of prevention measures as required by Alaska regulations 6. Proof that the equipment and vessel technology is modern, and 7. A permit for the facility or tanker to operate

How will this report help protect Prince William Sound?

Those who wrote, organized, reviewed, and approved the plans acquired an extensive knowledge of the contents of the plans. They knew why the plans and regulations were written a certain way because they were the ones who made the changes.

Years later, many have retired, but they left a trail of details in historical documents.

The report details how the plan has improved, describes contentious issues and how they were resolved, notes significant trends, and documents remaining issues. The report also documents changes to the regulations and how regulations have been interpreted at different times.

“This project helped us understand how regulatory philosophies, requirements, oversight, and enforcement have changed over the years,” said Linda Swiss, a Council staffer who was part of the team that developed the history.

Swiss has been managing contingency plan projects for over 12 years for the Council.

“We were in a unique position to do this project because we have one of the most extensive collections of historical documents that I know about,” Swiss added. 

The researchers were able to find information on missing events not available anywhere else.

“It will be helpful for future planners and plan reviewers,” Swiss noted.

“It is hoped this history will be a useful tool in understanding past work and the rationale behind certain commitments, and perhaps more importantly to help prevent any backsliding or diminishment of oil spill prevention and response capabilities for Prince William Sound and its downstream communities,” Swiss said.

Read the report

Historical summary:

PWS Tanker Oil Spill Prevention & Contingency Plan, Summary 1995-2020 (1.3 MB)

Compendium of event summaries:

PWS Tanker Oil Spill Prevention & Contingency Plan, Compendium Of Event Summaries 1995-2020 (0.9 MB)

Graphic timeline:

Timeline of major events and changes to the PWS Tanker Oil Spill Prevention & Contingency Plan (0.8 MB)

Compromise reached over habitat protections

Photo of the Valdez Duck Flats.
The Valdez Duck Flats is one of the largest salt marshes in Prince William Sound. This habitat is home to 52 species of marine birds, 8 species of waterfowl, 18 species of shorebirds, and other songbirds and birds of prey. Salmon, harbor seals, and sea otters feed in this rich estuary. The other sensitive area is Solomon Gulch Hatchery, which incubates 270 million pink salmon eggs and 2 million coho salmon each year.

Sensitive areas guaranteed swift protection when threatened by an oil spill

Conflicting views over the timing associated with protecting two areas in Port Valdez in the event of an oil spill has been resolved. Rapid protections for two environmentally sensitive areas, a large salt marsh known as the Valdez Duck Flats and the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, are guaranteed when more than 5 barrels (210 gallons) of oil are spilled from the Valdez Marine Terminal. The protections will also be deployed if a spill occurs and the amount of oil in the water is unknown or if a lesser amount is spilled but the source is not secured.

The resulting agreement also means spill responders will gain important environmental data that will improve oil spill planning and response for Port Valdez.

Diverging opinions led to appeal

In 2017, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, or ADEC, approved an update to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s oil spill contingency plan for the Valdez Marine Terminal. One of the changes modified a decision “matrix,” which was a tool created after a 1994 oil spill to help responders decide the timing of when to deploy protective oil spill boom for the duck flats and hatchery, both east of the terminal.

The 2017 version of the matrix potentially delayed protections for these two environmentally sensitive areas. In that version, if the oil was moving west, the matrix did not require immediate deployment of the protections, even in the case of a 2.5-million-gallon spill from the terminal.

Deploying the protective boom takes time, up to 10 or more hours depending on the weather. Based on the Council’s analysis of the 2017 version of the matrix, deployment of the protective boom could have been delayed up to 36 hours.

The Council was concerned that the oil would contaminate the two sites if the incoming tide moved the oil east, which would be expected every 12 hours. The Council appealed this approval, along with the City of Valdez, and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation. The Valdez Fisheries Development Association filed a separate appeal, but both appeals were eventually joined.

Collaboration leads to consensus

Alyeska, ADEC, and the groups who appealed reached a consensus after a years-long collaborative process.

The compromise called for gathering information about the weather in the vicinity of the terminal. To accomplish this, the groups agreed that a weather buoy would be placed at the Valdez Marine Terminal. The new buoy records wind speed, gusts, and direction; wave height and direction; and current speed and direction.

Preliminary data shows that an easterly movement of winds and waves is common.

Better data on variable weather conditions in Port Valdez

Photo of new buoy deployed in 2019.
Local mariners know that the weather on the south side of Port Valdez can vary significantly from the north side, however scientific data has never been available to confirm this. Weather forecasts are typically focused on the north side, since Valdez and most of the region’s population is located there. Find out more about these buoys and the data that is helping prevent and prepare for potential oil spills: New weather buoys establish PORTS® information for Valdez, Alaska

A second weather buoy was placed near the Valdez Duck Flats, co-funded by a grant from the City of Valdez. Both weather buoys were donated to the Council by Fairweather Science.

Compromise means safe oil transportation in Prince William Sound

In over 30 years of existence, this was the first time that the Council appealed a decision by ADEC to this level. The appeal lasted almost three years and the Council considers the result a success for all those involved.

“These may seem like insignificant changes, but they add up,” said Linda Swiss, the Council’s contingency plan project manager. “Part of our job is to make sure minor changes do not become a major problem. We all share the goal of keeping oil out of the water and off the land and to ensure that environmentally sensitive areas are protected should prevention measures fail.”

News release: Public input needed to safeguard state protections

Photo of Robert Archibald
Robert Archibald is the president of the board of directors for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council and has lived in Homer since 1984. Archibald spent 46 years as a mariner, including service in the U.S. Coast Guard and 32 years as chief engineer on Crowley Marine Service vessels in various locations, 22 of which were in Valdez, before retiring in 2014.

By Robert Archibald 
Board President

Also published in the Anchorage Daily News

In 1971, the Alaska Legislature formed the Department of Environmental Conservation to take the lead on Alaska’s environmental protections. DEC’s mission, set by the legislation which formed it, is: conserving, improving, and protecting Alaska’s natural resources and environment to enhance the health, safety, economic, and social well-being of Alaskans.

Now, here we are, 30 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the creation of regional citizens advisory councils in Alaska, and coming up on 30 years since the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The world-class oil spill prevention and response system in Prince William Sound is a direct result of post-Exxon Valdez spill laws and regulations designed to protect Alaska. These strong statutes and regulations are one of the main reasons why Prince William Sound has not had a major oil spill since.

Currently, DEC is undertaking a “scoping process,” asking for comments from industry and the public on oil spill prevention and response regulations and statutes, which the DEC Commissioner has stated have become “onerous and burdensome” to business. The deadline to comment, March 16, 2020, is quickly approaching.

(Update: November 2021)

Read more

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