Crowley Tugs Safeguard Prince William Sound: More than $60 million is spent per year on oil-spill response in Valdez.
"We provide everything from ship docking to ship escorts to spill response," said Alex Sweeney, vice president, Crowley Alaska. "We're here to provide just about anything the customer needs." Included in those duties is tanker lighterage, in which Crowley transfers product from a damaged tanker to one of its own barges.
Crowley is under contract to the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., who is responsible for the crude piped 800 miles from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez. Since the pipeline opened on June 20, 1977, more than 16,000 oil tankers have been loaded in Valdez for transport to other ports, after being escorted by specially designed tugs through the waters of Prince William Sound.
Alyeska spends more than $60 million annually on oil-spill prevention and response in the sound, with Crowley providing all marine activities in support of the company's Ship Escort Response Vessel System, or SERVS. The function of SERVS is to escort tankers through Prince William Sound, assist laden tankers in emergencies, and to provide initial spill response. Alyeska SERVS is the largest oil-spill prevention and response organization in the world, according to Crowley.
"On a typical day, we dock and undock tankers, escort them out, and help keep them out of trouble-whether they have a breakdown, or a failure that requires us to take them under tow," said Sweeney. Crowley employs approximately 180 people in and around the city of Valdez, with an office staff of nine who support the operation year-round.
"We're in operation seven days a week, 24 hours day, 365 days a year," said Sweeney.
Crowley first began working for Alyeska in 1977, when the company won a unique design-build-operate contract with the company, which hired them to build two 155-foot, 10,192-bhp tractor tugs designed for tanker escort and spill response.
"When we first took the contract with Alyeska, we had three docking tugs," explained Sweeney. "After the 1989 oil spill, we expanded into escort work as well. Now we have 10 tugs and barges on contract."
The tugs themselves range from 5,000 to 10,000 horsepower, and vary from 136 feet to 150 feet in length. The barges measure 400 feet by 100 feet, and can hold 150,000 barrels of oil. In 2000, Crowley took delivery of three new Prevention and Response Tugs: the Alert, the Aware and the Attentive.
The new tugs, which are deployed by the SERVS program as tanker escorts, were specially designed by Seattle-based Guido Perla and Associates for Vessel Management Services, a Crowley Maritime Corp. subsidiary that owns and leases vessels. Each 140-foot, 10,000-horsepower tug has a running speed of roughly 16 knots, and is equipped for firefighting, emergency response and oil-spill recovery. A single tug can hold up to 43,000 gallons of recovered oil, as well as 16 personnel.
"These enhanced tractor tugs were built specifically to support Alyeska," explained Sweeney. "They were designed as a team effort. They not only are capable of handling the tankers in and out, but also can provide rescue and spill response in one."
After the Valdez spill, special requirements were put into place concerning tanker safety. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requires that each tanker that leaves the Valdez Marine Terminal is accompanied through Prince William Sound to the Hincbinbrook Entrance by two escort vessels that not only watch the tanker, but also are capable of assisting it in the event of an emergency, such as a loss of power or loss of rudder control. The act also increased the money spent on spill response in Valdez from $1 million prior to the spill to more than $60 million per year, and established Regional Citizen Advisory Councils in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. These councils serve as citizen watchdogs over the Alyeska Terminal, the shipping of oil throughout the sound, and government agencies that regulate the industry.
With these kinds of safeguards in place, it seems unlikely that Prince William Sound will ever see another spill of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez. More importantly, however, with the advent of SERVS and the work of the employees of Crowley Alaska, the area can continue to provide oil for America, while safeguarding its own shores.