Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry
March 2018

Vol. 23, No.9 Week of March 04, 2018

DEC grants hearing

Questions raised over changes to Valdez Marine Terminal contingency plan

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

Larry Hartig, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, has granted a request for an adjudicatory hearing, reviewing the approval of revisions to the oil discharge prevention and contingency plan for the Valdez Marine Terminal. The hearing request had gone before the Alaska Office of Administrative Hearings, which had subsequently found that the hearing request was justified.

The Valdez Marine Terminal is the facility at which crude oil carried through the trans-Alaska pipeline is loaded onto tankers for export from Alaska. The contingency plan at issue relates to operations at the port: The transits of tankers to and from the port are covered by a separate tanker contingency plan.

Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp., the City of Valdez and Valdez Fisheries Development Association have challenged the approval of the most recent version of terminalís contingency plan on the grounds that the revised plan unacceptably lowers the level of protection for the Valdez Duck Flats and the Solomon Gulch Hatchery in Port Valdez, near the marine terminal. At issue is the speed with which protections for these two sites must be put in place, in the event of an oil spill at the terminal.

Decision matrix

According to Administrative Law Judge Cheryl Mandala, who filed the recommendation to grant the hearing, the issues in the revised plan arise from changes to a decision matrix used to prioritize actions to be taken during the first few hours of a response, and to changes to the specification of a worst-case discharge at the terminal. Mandala wrote that the decision matrix was originally developed in the aftermath of an oil spill in 1994, following which both the duck flats and the hatchery experienced oil sheening earlier than protective models had anticipated.

The contingency plan revisions at issue involved the first changes made to the decision matrix since 1994. The changes included the removal of some criteria, such as wave height, visibility and current direction, from the matrix. Also changed was the point system and point criteria that the matrix uses to indicate appropriate response actions.

The worst-case spill scenario changes included reducing the worst-case spill volume from 89,595 barrels to 85,595 barrels, but with the assumed wind conditions from the northeast increasing from one knot to seven knots.

Impacts deployment timing

Under the decision matrix scoring system and the worst-case scenario for the previous version of the plan, a worst-case scenario would trigger the need to mobilize resources within five hours, to boom the hatchery and the duck flats. However, the decision matrix and worst-case discharge conditions in the revised plan would postpone the deployment of response resources to the hatchery until hour 12 of the response, and to the duck flats until hour 36, Mandala wrote.

In its challenge to the revised plan, Valdez Fisheries Development Association expressed concern about the need to take into account shifting weather and sea conditions, especially during the winter. The association also pointed out that the spill in 1994 resulted in oil reaching the hatchery under weather conditions similar to those in the revised planís worst case.

PWSRCAC challenged the changes to the decision matrix, commenting that under the revised matrix there are circumstances where a large spill at the terminal would not trigger a decision to protect the hatchery or the duck flats. PWSRCAC, while acknowledging that the new worst-case scenario changes the oil spill trajectory, argued for the need for the immediate enactment of protective strategies for the hatchery and duck flats in the event of any significant spill, Mandala wrote.

Flaws in original matrix

Mandala wrote that DEC, when it approved the revised contingency plan, had commented that the revised decision matrix would allow decisions to be made correctly and quickly. Spill response exercises had demonstrated that the original version of the matrix was inefficient and had sometimes resulted in the deployment of resources to the hatchery and duck flats in circumstances where those resources would have been better used for the protection of other sensitive areas in Port Valdez. The revised matrix does not change the commitment to the protection of the hatchery and duck flats, DEC said.

The organizations requesting an adjudicatory hearing have clearly stated both their interests in the issues and nature of the issues at stake, Mandala wrote. And although DEC has opposed the hearing, DECís arguments revolve around issues that a hearing needs to resolve, not around issues determining whether the hearing should be held, she wrote.

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