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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

At the End of the Trans Alaska Pipeline

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Southern end of Trans Alaska Pipeline.

The southern terminus of the Trans Alaska Pipeline ends somewhat anticlimactically here at mile 800. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

The southern end of the 800 mile-long Trans Alaska Pipeline sits in the stunning natural background of Valdez, Alaska. The Valdez Marine Terminal is where crude oil from the North Slope is loaded on tankers destined for refineries on the west coast of the U.S.

Last week I arrived in Valdez for a meeting with the Alaska Regional Response Team. Working for NOAA, I represent the Department of Commerce in the multi-agency team that coordinates planning and preparedness activities for oil spills in Alaskan waters. The flight here from Anchorage crosses the heavily glaciated Chugach Mountains before descending into Prince William Sound. Icebergs from the calving glaciers dot the waters of the sound, and dozens of small fishing boats were chasing the late salmon runs into Port Valdez.

Glacier in Chugach Mountains, Alaska.

Chunks of ice fall off of a glacier in the Chugach Mountains en route to Valdez, Alaska. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

I had a chance to tour the pipeline terminal during my visit to Valdez, and the first thing I noticed was the smell — not the smell of oil, but the smell of spawned-out salmon that cover the tide flats near the terminal. And the sounds of thousands of gulls feeding on the dead salmon. Two black bears chased a few late spawners in the creek near the terminal.

Black bear and gulls feed on salmon.

A black bear and gulls feed on recently spawned salmon near Valdez, Alaska. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

But the natural beauty of Valdez is often overshadowed in the public’s mind because of the town’s most famous namesake. The tanker Exxon Valdez left the marine terminal on the evening of March 23, 1989, and a few minutes after midnight on March 24, it ran aground and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the clear, cold waters of Prince William Sound.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill [leaves this blog] became a poster child for technological disasters and set in motion laws and regulations that fundamentally changed how we handle oil pollution in the United States. Valdez (or Prince William Sound) is really the cradle of modern spill response in the U.S., and  22 years later, my visit to Valdez helped continue that effort to improve how we respond to spills.

While the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline has diminished over the years, and tanker calls are less frequent, the pipeline still transports about 500,000 barrels (21 million gallons) a day into the big storage tanks that overlook the harbor. The Valdez Marine Terminal is still very much on the front lines in both oil spill prevention and response.

Author: doughelton

Doug Helton is the Incident Operations Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Emergency Response Division. The Division provides scientific and technical support to the Coast Guard during oil and chemical spill responses. The Division is based in Seattle, WA, but manages NOAA response efforts nationally.

3 thoughts on “At the End of the Trans Alaska Pipeline

  1. What a stunning picture of the ice tail.. an 800 mile pipeline that runs through a nation is a magestic operation to create .. great post!

  2. Thank you for this post. We must take heed of the environmental concerns of oil pollution. This is specifically relevant with the recent issuance by the State Department of the final environmental impact statement concerning the Tar Sands Pipeline, which still fails to address the key concerns for landowners and wildlife.

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