The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Oil spill response transition from Crowley and Edison Chouest moves ahead

New barges, tugs and contractor will advance SERVS capabilities according to Alyeska


Oil spill response in Port Valdez will be faster and more efficient beginning this summer according to Alyeska.

The company is fully poised to transition from its long-time oil spill response contractor, Crowley Marine, to the new guys on the block, Edison Chouest Offshore.

The move is slated for July 1.

The new custom-made tugs, barges and other support equipment are built specifically for responding to conditions in Port Valdez and officials say it will improve the ways oil tankers transit crude oil from the Valdez Marine Terminal in Port Valdez and through Prince William Sound to West Coast oil refineries and other world destinations.

SERVS - Ship Escort/Response Vessel System - is a branch of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company - and was formed in the days after Exxon Valdez Oil Spill on March 24, 1989. Crowley Marine has been the main contractor to operate the escort tugs and maintain spill response vessels since that time. Alyeska is the company owned by the major oil producers on the North Slope and it manages oil flow through TAPS, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

Mike Day, SERVS operations manager, was on hand Monday to talk to reporters about the new equipment and the transitioning process and also offered a guided tour of the Chouest vessels that were currently in port.

Day said he has nothing but praise for Crowley and its work, and stresses that the company has always fulfilled its obligations and essentially always done exactly what Alyeska has asked it to do - Edison Chouest simply brings more to the table - with brand new equipment that is built to do the job required here in Port Valdez and conditions in Prince William Sound. The new tugs, barges and the equipment are seamless - meaning they are all built the same, so crews from one vessel can easily work any of the barges for example, as the equipment and operating systems are the same from one to the next.

Last month, the barge named OSRB-1 arrived in Port Valdez, along with the escort tug Commander and the general purpose tug Elrington. The vessels and crews have begun training exercises and have also shadowed Crowley as it continues to service tanker operations.

The new ECO escort tugs combine the capability to both tow and escort tankers - while the new oil skimmers aboard the oil spill response barges are more efficient at skimming oil from ocean waters according to Day.

"To accomplish that work takes ten tugs," he said. Chouest will operate nine brand new tugs built exclusively for this contract, and one existing tug already owned by Chouest will complete the tug fleet.

Five are escort tugs, and four are general tugs that support the escort tugs.

"There's a total of six large barges in the response fleet, Chouest is building four new ones for this contract and is purchasing one barge from Crowley, and one Alyeska already owns and Chouest will operate," Day said.

The barges are also easier for crews to live on and operate during harsh weather conditions.

In addition to providing more modern and spacious living quarters, all the new barges have climate controlled cranes and many of the functions can be performed safely inside the barge, as opposed to requiring crew members to work in the elements, which is not just uncomfortable at times, but often dangerous.

An official with Edison Chouest said that while the company is staffing the new vessels with its own current staff from out of state, it's goal is to employ 100 percent Alaskan, which includes a mandatory 20 percent Alaska Native hire requirement.

The Vessels of Opportunity program is still in place also according to Andres Morales, a SERVS director.

The Vessel of Opportunity program was started in 1990 according to Alyeska, and it employs local residents in oil spill response - especially those working in the fishing industry.

"Today, the boats and their crews are an integral part of Alyeska's response readiness," the company says on its website.

During the oil spill, fishing vessels and local crews quickly became a critical component in dealing with the crude oil.

"We have over 500 vessels under contract," Morales said, ready to perform tactics near any threatened shoreline to "...keep that oil away from the beach, protect the habitat."

He also said the local fleet have "tremendous ownership" of local shores and waters - and thus motivation to protect the waters from the ravages of an oil spill.


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