May 24, 2023 [Alaska Public Media]- The Valdez terminal of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is at “risk of a serious accident or incident in the near future.” That’s a main takeaway of a sweeping 180-page report that was published in April, detailing wide-ranging safety concerns at the Valdez Marine Terminal, where North Slope crude is loaded onto ocean tankers.
The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company says it’s taking the report seriously, but coastal communities say time is of the essence.
Early last year, an Alyeska employee working at the Valdez Marine Terminal – which is the southern end of the trans-Alaska pipeline – reported smelling fumes. Heavy snow had damaged oil storage tanks at the facility – venting petroleum vapors into the atmosphere.
“It was noticed by an employee at Alyeska that was walking around, happened to smell toxic fumes coming out of the tanks,” said Wayne Donaldson, the city of Kodiak’s representative on the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, or PWSRCAC.
The advisory council is one of two federally mandated oil spill prevention groups formed in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which saturated more than a thousand miles of Alaska’s coastline – including Kodiak Island’s shores – in oil.
Donaldson is one of 19 members of the group and has served on the council for eight years. The federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was passed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, also led to the formation of the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council.
He said after the incident at the terminal last year, more Alyeska employees started contacting the group.
“And as time went on, more people started coming to us giving safety concerns, as well as retired people from Alyeska,” Donaldson said.
The advisory council commissioned a review of safety practices at the terminal last summer in light of the complaints. And a final report was published last month.
It encompasses nearly 200 pages of major safety concerns at the Valdez Marine Terminal: equipment the report calls “aging and obsolete;” a work culture that includes retaliation among employees, mismanagement and turnover; and shrinking federal and state budgets that have decreased regulatory oversight.
In response to the report, the advisory council sent letters to lawmakers – including Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Alaska’s congressional delegation – citing the need for federal audits of the terminal by the Government Accountability Office and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The report was prepared by corporate safety consultant Billie Garde, who has worked both with Alyeska and BP in the past. Harvest Alaska, a Hilcorp subsidiary, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil all own portions of Alyeska Pipeline, which operates the terminal.
“We don’t agree with everything in the report, but we do take it as an opportunity to improve,” said Michelle Egan, Alyeska’s chief communications officer.
Egan is also from Kodiak, and she says she – like many others at Alyeska – is acutely aware of what an oil spill does to coastal communities. She said Alyeska has formed a management team to work on an action plan in response to the report.
Much of the report, however, comes directly from Alyeska staff – many of whom said they think a “serious incident is imminent.”
Brooke Taylor is the director of communications for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council; she said the internal knowledge of problems at the terminal is one of the biggest weaknesses identified in the report.
“There wasn’t any substantive information in the report regarding safety or process safety issues that wasn’t already available to Alyeska,” said Taylor.
About 4% of the nation’s crude oil departs from the Valdez Marine Terminal – a percentage that could swell in the coming years as oil from the recently approved Willow project makes its way down the pipeline.
Taylor said an incident at the Valdez Marine Terminal has the potential to be environmentally devastating – and it threatens one of the state’s main sources of revenue.
“For us, it’s not pro or con industry, it’s: If oil is going to be transported through our region, we want it done as safely as possible,” she said.
Alyeska hired a new chief executive officer the same month the report came out – former BP executive John Kurz. Egan said he’s met with members of the group several times since then.
“He wants to work with [PWS]RCAC and with our employees to make this the safest environment we can possibly have,” she said. “So, I think that commitment has been clear. He’s communicated that repeatedly to our workforce, and to all of our stakeholders.”
The advisory council’s Taylor agrees that Alyeska has responded quickly to the report, and understands changes at the terminal won’t happen overnight.
“Time will tell on what actions are done. So, we know our biggest successes have always happened when industry regulation and citizen groups work together. And so we are hoping this will be another example of that,” Taylor said.
Wayne Donaldson said he’s also encouraged by Alyeska’s initial response to the report. But it’s been more than 30 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill – he worries that the biggest challenge now is time and complacency.
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