The company that operates the trans-Alaska pipeline has called in backup crews to contend with massive amounts of snow piled on top of its oil storage tanks in Valdez, which has damaged infrastructure and vented petroleum vapors to the environment in what state regulators say are violations of the Clean Air Act.
The incident has forced the Valdez Marine Terminal’s operator, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., to take multiple tanks out of service, though it says there have been no impacts to oil shipments so far.
To try to prevent further damage, Alyeska is now sending up dozens of respirator-equipped contractors for the painstaking work of removing the snow.
Those crews are working nearly around the clock, according to Michelle Egan, an Alyeska spokeswoman. The contractors, who are roped to the top of the tanks, cannot use plows or power tools, so they’re cutting off blocks of snow with saws and sliding them off the edge.
It takes up to two weeks for a crew of 10 or 11 people to remove all the snow from each tank, though it’s not necessarily the company’s goal to completely clear all the tanks, Egan said.
“That is taking tremendous focus,” she said. “We do things very methodically, very safely — it takes as long as it takes.”
Meanwhile, a watchdog group is asking questions about Alyeska’s preparedness and whether the problems at the terminal stem from cost-cutting under new ownership. Others have concerns about worker safety.
Alyeska said its workforce is protected, adding that its snow removal workforce has been stable over the past few years.
Alyeska is co-owned by affiliates of oil companies ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Hilcorp, Alaska’s major North Slope producers, and it’s responsible for moving roughly 500,000 barrels of crude a day down the pipeline.
In Valdez, there are 14 storage tanks that hold the oil until it’s loaded onto tankers for shipment.
Removing the snow from the tanks is a gargantuan task: Each is an acre in size and holds up to a half-million barrels of crude — about 2.5% of America’s daily oil demand.
In an email sent to employees about the situation and shared with the Daily News, Alyeska said multiple departments are “fully engaged” in the snow removal effort, which intensified later in the winter.
Employees “are asked to limit distractions to these teams as they focus on this important work,” the email said.
‘It caught people a little bit off guard’
Alyeska says that tanker loading has not been disrupted.
But the snow pileup has taken at least four of the company’s storage tanks out of service at different points in the response by shearing off valves installed along the upper edges of their roofs.
Those valves are a part of a system used to manage vapors that come off the oil, which helps prevent too much or too little pressure from building up in the tanks. The snow that accumulated on the tanks this winter created enough downward and outward force to knock off 10 valves, Alyeska said.
The company is largely blaming the situation on heavy snowfall, though Egan also said Alyeska is investigating and will be reviewing its response.
“There was just unbelievable snowfall, and it impacted us for quite a long time,” Egan said.
Valdez this winter has recorded its highest amount of snowfall, and its highest snow depth, in a decade. But over the lifetime of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the marine terminal, the area has recorded more snow both over the course of the full winter and over peak 10-day time frames, according to federal weather data.
Valdez recorded 4 feet of snow during its peak 10-day window between Feb. 15 and March 15 of this year, with a 21-inch increase in snow depth. Since 1985, the town has recorded 10-day snowfall of at least 68 inches three separate times, with a maximum depth increase of 27 inches.
The quality of Valdez’s late winter snowfall this year — wet, then freezing — worsened its impacts, including on buildings across the water from the terminal in town, said Donna Schantz, who leads the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, a group that monitors Alyeska’s operations.
But while the amount of snow was unusual, particularly for the past few years, it’s also not unprecedented, Schantz said — particularly in Valdez, which has the highest average snowfall for any Alaska town near sea level.
“I think it caught people a little bit off guard. But it really shouldn’t have, knowing that we live in Valdez, which is the snow capital of Alaska,” Schantz said.
Managing benzene exposure
To address the problems at the terminal, workers are putting temporary caps in place of the damaged valves.
In the meantime, at least seven tanks have released petroleum vapors into the atmosphere, in violation of Alyeska’s Clean Air Act permit, said Moses Coss, an official with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Potential penalties or enforcement actions that DEC could bring against Alyeska haven’t been decided, Coss said. Department officials have not yet traveled to Valdez to see the tanks but are planning to within a few days, he said.
“We have been in contact with our regulators since the beginning,” Egan said in an email. “We followed our permit and reported emissions appropriately.”
The tanks were originally designed when more and warmer oil was flowing down the pipeline, which used to thaw more of the snow on top of the roofs. But that’s changed as the volume of crude produced on the North Slope has diminished.
Before the late winter spike in snowfall, Alyeska had a crew of about 40 core workers for snow removal.
Now, more than 80 contractors are involved, working both day and night shifts, with “additional resources coming on board,” according to Egan.
The work comes with risks, which Alyeska said it’s managing.
The contractors shoveling snow are equipped with respirators because the broken valves are allowing the release of hydrocarbons like benzene — a carcinogenic chemical that is dangerous at high levels of exposure.
“OSHA sets the limit for benzene exposure; our limits are more conservative,” Egan said in an email. “We do not permit workers to work in areas with detectable levels of hydrocarbon without respirators.”
Workers also wear traction devices and are roped to the tanks to protect from falls. Four “first aid injuries” have happened after workers slipped while removing snow, Alyeska said in its email to employees.
Multiple workers, who did not want to be named in this story for fear of retaliation, said they were concerned about the safety of the contractors clearing snow off the tanks — because of the risks of both injury and benzene inhalation.
Joey Merrick, whose Laborers’ Local 341 union represents the snow removal workers, praised the safety measures taken by Alyeska. He said gas meters and other equipment are used to ensure that benzene exposure doesn’t reach dangerous levels.
Alyeska, Merrick said in a phone interview, goes “to every extent to make sure that people are not in harm’s way.”
A decade ago, during another especially snowy winter in Valdez, two workers fell off the roof of one of the tanks, though without serious injuries, said Schantz.
Since then, Alyeska has made safety-driven changes to its snow removal procedure. Workers start by cutting blocks of snow from the top of the tank, then slide them down chutes, rather than starting from the edge and working upward.
Lessons learned, or ‘were they forgotten?’
Schantz said her watchdog group, the citizens advisory council, will be looking into Alyeska’s preparedness once the snow removal is finished.
Given that similar problems cropped up at the terminal a decade ago, Schantz said she wants to know “what happened to all those lessons learned.”
“Were they forgotten? Or was this a different scenario?” she said.
Schantz’s group was founded after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which had its the 33rd anniversary Thursday. The group is funded by Alyeska, though the council’s contract with the company guarantees “absolute independence.”
One essential question, Schantz said, is whether any cost-cutting or efficiency measures from Alyeska affected the company’s readiness.
That’s especially relevant after the Hilcorp affiliate acquired its 49% stake in Alyeska in 2020, she said, because of the company’s reputation for efficiency and reducing expenses.
“There’s a higher level of concern with Hilcorp, and really it’s because they’ve been open that that’s their business model,” Schantz said. “They have a different way of managing things to cut costs.”
In a report filed with federal responders last week, provided to the Daily News by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an unnamed caller reported a release of an “unknown amount of benzene and hydrocarbon from a tank farm” at the Valdez Marine Terminal.
“The cause of the release is due to negligence to maintenance of the tanks at the tank farm,” the caller said, according to the report.
An EPA spokeswoman said that federal regulators have not confirmed the report’s details. The state is now the lead investigator on the incident, she said.
Egan, from Alyeska, said there hasn’t been a “big change” in the way the company staffs its snow removal crews. The number of available core crews and backup contractors has been stable since 2019, she said, which is before the Hilcorp transaction closed.
While this year came with an “unusual” amount of snow and unprecedented impacts to infrastructure, Egan said, the company is also reviewing its response.
“As we always do, we will identify and apply any lessons from this experience and build them into our processes,” she said. “An investigation is underway so that we can do just that.”