KODIAK, Alaska – On the east side of the Kenai Peninsula sits Alaska’s Prince William Sound (PWS), which encompasses 10,000 square miles of protected waterways, fjords, and glaciers. Known to be commercially important to the fishing and oil industries, the sound has an abundance of marine and coastal life.
The U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Center (VTC), a department of Marine Safety Unit (MSU) Valdez, is staffed by personnel 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These individuals stand 12-hour watches and work to prevent accidents, loss of life, and damage to property and environment throughout the sound.
The VTC’s primary function is to instill good order and predictability throughout PWS. The center’s personnel coordinate vessel movements through the collection, organization, and dissemination of information to mariners.
“I liken a VTC to an air traffic control tower,” said Lt. j.g. Abigail Ferarra, director, MSU Valdez VTC. “We oversee the movements of certain vessels in Prince William Sound and communicate with them about traffic and weather, among other things. One example of this could be ice operations. If there is ice reported in certain areas, usually due to the Columbia Glacier, we will regulate traffic by imposing zones, or only allowing certain vessels to pass through checkpoints at a time.”
Valdez is the largest port in PWS, located at the southernmost tip of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), and is accessible by road and is also along the route of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. The VTC came into existence due to the development of that pipeline system.
The TAPS continues to supply oil to many of the ports in the U.S. and is important to national security. For four decades, since TAPS’ startup in 1977, tankers have loaded Alaska North Slope Crude cargo at the Valdez Marine Terminal. Today, the terminal has a working inventory capacity of 6.6 million barrels of crude oil, with 14 storage tanks in service.
“The port of Valdez is the most northern ice-free port in the U.S., allowing for the transport of oil from the north slope through the pipeline and onto tank vessels bound for refineries in the lower 48,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Timothy Mason, operations specialist, MSU Valdez VTC. “The VTS has a unique and important mission to ensure the safe transit of these tank vessels in and out of PWS to prevent another Exxon Valdez type of spill.”
Prince William Sound is an environmentally sensitive area that has a historic significance to Alaska, whose communities have experienced devastating man-made and natural disasters in the past.
The Great Alaska earthquake that occurred in 1964 was the most powerful earthquake recorded in U.S. history and ultimately demonstrated the resilience of the Alaskan people, who had to move entire towns to rebuild after experiencing incredible loss in life and property.
On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in the sound, spilling 11 million gallons of oil. The spill ultimately resulted in a close examination of oil spill prevention, response, and cleanup in the United States.
While monitoring the economically sensitive area, the VTC personnel do not encounter many intentional violations from mariners compared to the vast number of vessels transiting through the port and the sound. Occasional violations will occur within the VMT security zone by recreational boaters during the busy summer salmon season, but most are not malicious in nature. Commercial salmon fishing openers often bring over 100 small to medium seine boats into the Valdez Arm and Narrows, resulting in security zone violations when the fishing vessels cross into the tank vessel’s 200-yard security zone.
Title 33 is the portion of the Code of Federal Regulations that governs navigation and navigable waters within the United States. Four security zones have been established within Prince William Sound.
“These include a designated zone around the Valdez Marine Terminal (pipeline terminus) as well as zones surrounding transiting tank vessels, the Valdez Narrows tanker optimum track line, and escorted high-capacity passenger vessels,” said Chief Petty Officer Melanie Sinclair, operations specialist, MSU Valdez VTC.
While the VTC is incredibly beneficial to the maritime community, a stigma still surrounds the job, with indications that personnel work to control vessel operations. Ferarra instead describes possessing the ability to “look out for the maritime community and speak up when we see safety issues.” Valdez has the advantage of being a small community in comparison with other VTCs in big ports like San Francisco or New York, so the VTC personnel tend to know the pilots they are working with.
For Coast Guard members stationed in Valdez, it’s not all work and no play. Many state that being in a remote community offers a unique experience to military members and their families. While winters in Alaska can generally feel a bit isolating and difficult, people can take advantage of and enjoy the outdoors all year long.
“There is a lot to do with winter activities and the local community here supports getting people outside and enjoying the snow,” said Ferarra. “During the summertime, it is touristy with food trucks, lots of RVs, and opportunities for fishing, hiking, and hunting.”
Many of the personnel currently stationed at the VTC plan to extend their tours and stay in the community longer or retire back to Valdez once their military time has concluded.
“I have been stationed in the Vessel Traffic Center since July of 2016 with intentions to stay as long as I can,” said Chief Petty Officer Brad Terrell, watch supervisor, MSU Valdez VTC. “I really enjoy being stationed in a small town but close enough to a large city to enjoy big city life here and there.”
The VTC personnel work hard to ensure the safety of community’s members and visitors throughout Prince William Sound and welcome any questions or concerns from the maritime community. If any mariners are ever unsure of a regulation or requirement, the VTC watch supervisor can be reached day or night at (907) 835-7205.