On March 29, 1989, Prince William Sound became the site of the most environmentally damaging oil spill in world history when the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, spilling 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Alaskan waters over the following several days. Over 30 years since the disaster, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s Spill Emergency Response Vessel System (SERVS) program, prepared to contain future spills, includes a second line of defense consisting of commercial and privately-owned Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) to aid cleanup efforts.
On April 15, annual training drills were conducted off the Seward coast to prepare VOO crews for the eventuality of another spill. Several hundred such groups across various ports undergo spill training each year. VOO participant Mike Brittain, captain of the M/V Dora, discussed the importance of such vessels in the event of another disaster.
“If it happens again – and people say it’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when – at least they’ve got this base of Vessels of Opportunity that are capable of going out there and helping pick up the oil, pick up harmed wildlife,” he said. “There’s a whole range of equipment that they teach us to use, not just the booms and stuff, but there’s pumps and all sorts of stuff to go attack oil, shorelines.”
Brittain went on to explain that the program involves three response tiers, with Thursday’s training participants all belonging to the second tier.
“Tier one is boats that are dedicated,” he said. “They can’t go too far, and they have to be there within X number of hours, and not very many hours, too. Then we’re tier two. We’ve got 24 hours to have three days’ worth of groceries, water and fuel, and be wherever we’re supposed to be.”
Tier three, Brittain added, consists of any boats that may respond to a general call for assistance in the event of a spill. Thursday’s tier two exercises were conducted south of Lowell Point with spill response vessel Ross Chouest.
“We go up, take the gear off the boat, booms, pumps,” Brittain explained. “Pumps, they just swing them over the side. The big collection booms, we take them off the stern, and you grab one end and you pull it off. They have a reel; they unreel it out, and you tow that around with a partner boat, depending on what configuration you’re going in.”
To inquire about joining the SERVS program, visit the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council Oil Response information page at pwsrcac.org/programs/oil-spill-response/fishing-vessel-training/.
“It’s highly worthwhile,” Brittain said. “I’m proud to be part of it, to tell you the truth.”