Watchdog renews call for tougher training for Prince William Sound oil tanker escorts

One of Edison Chouest’s new tugs, the Commander, near Valdez. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Following two minor accidents, a citizens’ watchdog group is asking the state’s top environmental regulator to require tougher training for new oil spill response crews in Prince William Sound.

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In late June, an Edison Chouest tugboat hit an oil tanker during a docking maneuver. Two days later, a skiff was caught between an Edison Chouest response barge and tugboat. During both accidents, there were no injuries and no oil was spilled.

Edison Chouest is the new oil spill response and prevention contractor in charge of escorting oil tankers in Prince William Sound. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company is replacing Crowley Marine Services with Edison Chouest this summer.

In response to the accidents, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council is asking the state Department of Environmental Conservation to require the new crews and equipment to be trained in rougher weather conditions. That’s something the group has called for before.

In a letter sent July 5, the group stated it “believes a gap exists in prevention and response competency and proficiency.”

The group added the two incidents are “clear symptoms that this transition was too rushed.”

Alyeska reports it is taking measures to ensure the circumstances leading to both accidents don’t happen again. In an emailed response, Alyeska spokesperson Kate Dugan said Edison Chouest crews have undergone thousands of hours of training and will continue to train going forward.

However, Dugan said Alyeska is standing firm in its position that it won’t train crews in rough conditions.

“We won’t risk human life or environmental damage to demonstrate something where capability can be demonstrated in other, more safe ways,” Dugan wrote.

“This transition has been years in the making and has been carefully planned and executed,” Dugan added. “We have brought some of the most high-performing tugs in the world to Prince William Sound and they are operated by highly trained and experienced crews.”

Officials with the Department of Environmental Conservation are meeting with the council today, and the agency will issue an official response after that meeting.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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