Ship Escort/Response Vessel System (SERVS)

Ship Escort/Response Vessel System (SERVS)

The mission of SERVS is to prevent oil spills by assisting tankers in safe navigation through Prince William Sound, and to protect the environment by providing effective response services to the Valdez Marine Terminal and Alaska crude oil shippers, in accordance with oil spill response agreements and plans.

SERVS is considered to be one of the best oil spill prevention and response forces in the world. With input from the Regional Citizens Advisory Council (RCAC), the State of Alaska and the U. S. Coast Guard, SERVS has grown steadily over the last five years to meet the requirements of the Prince William Sound Tanker Spill Prevention and Response Plan, which has been amended to accommodate new state and congressional oil spill legislation.

In response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and executive order was issued by the governor of Alaska mandating every laden tanker be escorted by two tugs through Prince William Sound to Hinchinbrook Entrance. The order also called for Alyeska to revise the oil spill contingency plan for Prince William Sound.

As the plan evolved, SERVS became the cornerstone of oil spill prevention and response in the Sound. Every year since 1989, Alyeska has added materials, equipment and personnel dedicated solely to oil spill prevention and response in the Sound. More than 250 men and women are employed by SERVS at its base in Valdez and the Marine Terminal.

Prince William Sound includes 11,000 square miles of shoreline, islands, and open water, an area larger than Vermont, supporting a wide variety of marine life.

Since the Valdez Marine Terminal began operation in 1977, more than 16,000 tankers have traveled through the Sound, carrying approximately 25 percent of the oil produced in the United States.

Every laden tanker is escorted by an ocean-going tug and a 210-foot Escort Response Vessel (ERV) from the Terminal to Hinchinbrook Entrance. ERVs are equiped to tow or assist tankers with power or maneuvering problems, to carry spill response equipment and contain, recover and store oil.

Prevention of oil spills is the primary goal of SERVS
That duty begins the moment a tanker enters Prince William Sound. Tankers are tracked on the U.S. Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic System (VTS) and are alerted by the SERVS duty officer if ice is spotted in the designated tanker traffic lanes. Ice travels into the shipping lanes from Columbia Glacier, which can calve several tons of ice a day.

During times of low visibility, when ice is spotted, or if no ice report has been received in six hours, SERVS dispatches an escort vessel to act as an ice scout for empty inbound tankers. Using searchlights, lookouts and radar, the scout vessel keeps about one-half mile ahead of the tanker to access ice hazards.

The ice scout vessel maintains a position between the tanker and the glacier on the trip into the Terminal, and after the tanker has taken on its cargo of North Slope crude oil, one of the escort vessels acts as the scout for the outbound voyage.

As soon as each tanker is securely moored at one of the Terminal’s loading berths, it is immediately surrounded by containment boom. The ship is inspected hourly for any sign of a spill or leak.

Five self-propelled skimmers, workboats and more than 20,000 feet of containment boom are available for immediate use at the Terminal, where an 11-person oil spill response team is on duty at all times.

After an average loading time of 18 hours, the tanker prepares for departure. Tanker captains are tested for alcohol use and crew members are also subject to alcohol testing if there is cause.

A briefing to discuss navigation conditions is held via radios by the escort tug captain, ERV captain, State of Alaska Harbor Pilot and tanker master. Once the briefing ends, the tanker leaves the Terminal accompanied by an ERV and escort tug. The state harbor pilot disembarks the tanker at a pilot station located near Bligh Island.

The Coast Guard again tracks the tanker’s departure through the Sound on the VTS. The tanker crew must notify the Coast Guard of any operational changes or emergencies that occur while in transit.

The maximum speed for laden tankers transiting the Sound is 10 knots, except through the Valdez Narrows, where a maximum speed of six knots is allowed. Lower speeds may be requested by the tanker or escort vessels, for instance, when ice is detected in the traffic lanes.

SERVS personnel and many other Alyeska employees receive advanced spill response training and participate in drills and exercises. SERVS executes a weekly deployment exercise, rotating equipment and personnel, to hone its employees’ skills. Large-scale scheduled drills, involving several hundred people, are held throughout the year.

A typical drill lasts for at least 12 hours and may be designed to last for several days. After the drill is completed, a group meeting is held with regulatory agencies and RCAC to assess the effectiveness of the response.

Information and pictures courtesy of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company