Unit Spotlight: Marine Safety Unit Valdez

Story by Petty Officer 1st Class Bill Colclough

Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Valdez, Alaska, is located about 26 miles northeast of Bligh Reef, which is where the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound in 1989. Thirty-two active duty crew members, civilians and one Auxiliarist conduct marine safety, marine environmental protection, other law enforcement, and Ports, Waterways & Coastal Security missions.

VALDEZ, Alaska – Personnel stand the vessel traffic center watch at Marine Safety Unit Valdez. (Coast Guard photo/MSU Valdez)

The commanding officer of MSU Valdez has a Captain of the Port Zone that encompasses all of Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska up to the Exclusive Economic Zone. At the heart of MSU Valdez’ area of responsibility is the Port of Valdez, the United States’ northernmost ice free deep-water port. Though the port doesn’t freeze over, the presence of ice from the Columbia Glacier calves regularly into the Valdez Arm and shipping lanes used by large vessels transiting in and out of Valdez.

To keep a close watch on floating ice, a crew of 12 watchstanders rotate to cover a 24-hour watch in the Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service Prince William Sound. The VTS area encompasses all navigable waters of Prince William Sound north from Cape Hinchinbrook Entrance, including the waters of Valdez Arm, Valdez Narrows and Port Valdez. In addition to monitoring vessel traffic, the VTS watchstanders track local tides and weather and open and close the shipping lanes as needed to ensure tankers and other large vessels can transit the area safely.

“Our mission at the VTS Prince William Sound is to instill good order and predictability in the VTS area through 24/7 monitoring of the waterway, as well as providing information and assistance to mariners to ensure compliance with regulations,” said Lt j.g. Carlos Quintero, VTS director at MSU Valdez. “We are focused on active traffic management to prevent accidents, loss of life and damage to the environment.”

In an average year, MSU Valdez crew members inspect 30-plus uninspected passenger vessels, 1,200-plus commercial fishing vessels, ensure safe transit for 465 tankers, 765 ferries and 3,825 tugs, and oversee 12 regulated facilities. The crews also conduct inspections of waterfront facilities regulated under the Maritime Transportation Safety Act for compliance of federal guidelines. Valdez is the terminus of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline that transports crude oil from the North Slope of the state to Valdez, where it is loaded onto tankers and shipped to the contiguous United States.

“Each year there are about 7.7 billion gallons of North Slope crude oil transported through 75 pristine miles of Prince William Sound,” said Quintero. “The economic impact of keeping these vessels safe is estimated by how much the Exxon Valdez incident cost, and that was $3.8 billion.”

In February, 28 members of MSU Valdez took part in the Arctic Eagle 2018 exercise with the Alaska National Guard. The exercise simulated the release of radioactive debris from a satellite that crashed into the Port of Valdez. The scenarios included a hazardous materials release from a shipping container, detection and response, security and protection of critical infrastructure, to name a few. MSU Valdez and its crew hosted a tabletop exercise and Unified Command meetings with representatives from the City of Valdez, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Department of Energy.

Coast Guard members assigned to the Pacific Task Force, California, watch as Civil Support Team service members perform decontamination procedures after coming into contact with notional radiological hazards during exercise Arctic Eagle 2018 in Valdez, Alaska, Feb. 23, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by 2nd Lt. Marisa Lindsay)

“The exercise helped illustrate the gaps and challenges of providing Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear support in remote and Arctic conditions, as well as exercising portions of the Area Maritime Security Plan and the Prince William Sound Subarea Contingency Plan,” said Quintero. “Working closely with the Alaska National Guard and our other federal and state partners on a complex incident demonstrated our commitment to staying ready for all threats and all hazards.”

Nearly 30 years after Exxon Valdez, MSU Valdez and its crew continue a legacy of safeguarding the flow of the nation’s energy supply while keeping Alaska’s waterways safe, clean and sound.

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