Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., operator of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, has assembled a diverse collection of tools to aid in its ongoing efforts to improve its emergency response capabilities.
Employees are essentially charged with seeking out better mousetraps. Not only do they troll the Internet and industry publications, but several employees attend major emergency response conferences, such as the International Oil Spill Conference, every year.
“When we find a new application, we often purchase a model and try it,” said Wes Willson, manager of Alyeska’s emergency preparedness and compliance department.
Willson’s people also have taken to interacting more with SERVS, the marine side of emergency response at the company.
“We are training together and sharing ideas,” he said. “In past years, we’d hear people saying a technology would work for marine applications or for the pipeline only. These days, we are seeing a lot more people taking these ideas and being very innovative.”
Part of the impetus for this initiative is the company’s need to fulfill the requirements of numerous regulations that govern every aspect of the pipeline system’s operation.
“We have a four-volume set of state requirements, so a lot of time and effort is put into compliance,” Willson said.
Device helps deploying boomSometimes Alyeska employees strike gold with this buy-and-try approach.
That was the case with the “BoomVane,” a device that dramatically improved the company’s response procedures on fast-moving inland rivers and streams during the past six or seven years, Willson said.
“It does so many things for us. We can deploy our boom now without a boat. If we are limited whenever we are at a remote site, we can fly a crew in and they can start deploying boom before you can get a boat there,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges facing Alyeska’s emergency response crews is getting a good anchor position for deploying boom in a rapid river current.
“There is a lot of stress and weight when that current is hitting against a long stretch of boom,” he said. “The most challenging thing is having enough weight and anchor to hold the boom in place. The way the BoomVane is designed, you can anchor on land. You don’t have to do it in the middle of a river. So it offers advantages in deploying boom in faster currents, but also in holding the boom in faster currents.”
How does the BoomVane work? Imagine a kite, but instead of flying it in the air, you would put it in a river. It flies up the river. It has a float attached and it pulls a boom behind it. Alyeska can deploy boom to collect oil or other substances spilled in rushing water using the device.
The BoomVane is lightweight and portable. Designed in Sweden by ORC, it was originally developed for use in the ocean.
“What they were attempting to do was a typical marine application in open water with boom using two boats moving side-by-side, working in parallel with each towing part of the same set of boom in a U-shaped configuration,” Willson said. “The BoomVane can eliminate that second boat. You have to be skilled to do it, but if you put the BoomVane out in the ocean and you anchor it properly to one boat and to the boom, it will take the place of a second boat.”
He said the BoomVane will swim alongside the one boat, deploying boom in the same U-shaped pattern.
The technology caught the eye of Alyeska employees who work for the company’s tanker escort service.
“They were using it to a certain extent. We happened to be working with them and we wondered how it would work on a river current. We borrowed one of the BoomVanes and put it on the Yukon River. We were pretty impressed with it,” Willson said.
But one problem that Willson’s crews had with the device was its size. Too large at 6 feet tall to work in shallower stretches of a river, the BoomVane needed a redesign for the pipeline.
“We worked with the company’s engineers to make an inland river BoomVane and to get the design down to the smallest size that they believed would still work. So our BoomVanes are about 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall. We still need some water for them to work, but they are clearly able to go into much shallower waters than the original models,” he said.
Better, quieter small boatsOther technologies with recent advances that have gotten the nod at Alyeska include air and jet boats.
“The big problem until recently with air boats was that they were designed for use in the Florida Everglades and the Louisiana marshes and not for the fast-moving rivers of Alaska,” Willson said.
Another problem with air boats is the loud noise they make in operation.
“One of the new things to come out is a counter-rotating prop. Instead of one propeller, they now have two and they rotate in opposite directions. It provides a lot greater power for a smaller engine and lighter weight. Plus, it’s also much easier on the ears of the operator and passersby,” he explained.
Recently, Alyeska began working with several Alaska vendors who now routinely custom build air boats for the company. These vessels have more safety features, and their hulls are designed for use on Alaska rivers and streams.
Another big advance in technology in Alaska was the development of the “tunnel hull” in the jet boat industry.
“Originally, there was just one design, but now there is an extreme shallow-water design,” Willson said.
The new tunnel-hull jet boats have brought versatility to Alyeska’s small boat fleet.
Before, a huge difference in where air boats and jet boats could go in the water made it difficult for the company to manage its fleet efficiently.
“A jet boat couldn’t compete at all with an air boat,” Willson said. “But what we are finding with these tunnel hulls is they are not quite as good as an air boat, but they are pretty close. When we do our operations in some of these environments, it has allowed us to interchange crews and interchange equipment much more easily than before.”
Today, Alyeska maintains a fleet of 12-14 air boats and 10 tunnel-hull jet boats. As the company purchases new equipment, it has replaced older models at a rate of four or five a year. At that rate, Willson estimated the company’s entire small boat fleet will be newer models in two more years.
Sandbags no moreAnother nifty technology tucked away in Alyeska’s emergency response inventory is one originally used as a flooding protection device. Called a “water dam,” the products are manufactured by several companies. Alyeska chose to purchase models made by a French company called Megasecur that come in various lengths and heights. Lightweight polyurethane rolls with a flap, two sides and a middle point, water dams function like instant sandbags.
A common technique in containing an oil spill is to block a culvert or build a temporary dam using sandbags, according to Willson.
But constructing a dam of sandbags takes a lot of labor and can take several hours, depending how many people are working to built it so it can hold and pull water in a way that allows oil to be collected at the location, he explained.
By contrast, two workers can pull a 50-foot water dam across an area to be blocked and effectively dam up a river in five minutes.
“It’s one of the neatest things we’ve found,” Willson said. “We’re learning how to use it. We’ve found that in some situations where the water is moving too rapidly or a stream is not straight enough, we don’t have to dam a whole river, we can just deploy the water dam straight into river and it creates a small eddy at that location. It slows down the river and the water pools up noticeably. Then we have a much better location to actually be effective collecting oil.”
The water dam is especially effective in braided rivers where oil coming downstream can be diverted into a dry channel where it can more easily be collected.
“A lot of times before, that would have required shovels or maybe even heavy equipment,” Willson said. “We’ve trained on them so that, assuming it is a shallow river, like the Sag River, we are able to direct the flow pretty precisely and pretty quickly to where we want it to go.”