The Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU), ILWU’s Marine Division, is blowing the whistle on a dangerous plan to replace experienced union mariners who have successfully protected Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound for almost three decades – with a cut-rate, nonunion company that has a poor safety record.
The shocking decision was made by oil company executives who own the Alyeska pipeline that carries oil from Alaska’s North Slope oilfield – which is the size of Indiana – across mountains and tundra to Prince William Sound, where it is pumped into giant tankers that carry the crude south to refineries in the lower 48. Low oil prices and falling production have left the Alyeska pipeline operating at only 25% of capacity, and may have been a factor in the oil companies’ decision to take a chance on a low-cost, cut-rate contractor with a dismal safety record.
It was 27 years ago that the Exxon Valdez, filled with North Slope crude, ran aground and dumped millions of gallons into the Prince William Sound, an event that shocked the nation and resulted in massive fines, staggering clean-up costs, and damage to the environment that required a lengthy recovery.
It also demonstrated the need for highly-trained and experienced cleanup crews and safety personnel, including tug operators. Instead of learning from that disaster and the importance of maintaining the highest quality emergency response teams, Exxon and other oil companies have decided to roll the dice by hiring a non-union outfit with a history of mistakes and near-disasters.
Speaking at a press conference in August of last year, IBU President Alan Coté said that the Inlandboatmen’s Union along with the Masters, Mates and Pilot’s union were launching a campaign to warn the public and elected officials about the dangerous decision by oil companies to cut corners on contractors responsible for emergency spill and other services in Prince William Sound.
Both unions represent a total of roughly 230 workers in the region, ranging from cooks to captains on the tugboats that escort tankers in and out of the Sound, to the mariners who staff a fleet of emergency clean-up barges available 24-7 in case of a spill.
The skilled workers are employed by Crowley Marine Services, which has held part of the contract since the emergency response system was put in place after the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in 1989.
Earlier this spring, Crowley announced that the oil companies had eliminated their firm from renewing the contract, immediately raising concern from workers and unions about the future. Everyone’s worst fears were confirmed when the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company announced that they had decided to dump Crowley and to do business with a company called Edison Chouest Offshore. The Louisiana-based outfit is nonunion, and they’re expected to bring many of their own non-union workers from the Gulf of Mexico up to Alaska in order to avoid hiring local residents and longtime union members with good jobs at Crowley Maritime.
Coté says the IBU warned residents about big oil’s plan to hurt local jobs by launching a public education campaign featuring radio advertisements in Anchorage and Juneau.
“Saving these jobs is critically important to the families and local communities in Alaska,” said Coté, but added that the issue involves more than protecting good jobs. Coté emphasizes that an Edison Chouest tugboat was involved in an infamous fiasco in 2012, when the firm was hired to move Shell’s massive drilling rig, the Kulluk, from frozen artic waters to warmer waters further south.
A series of bad decisions involving Edison Chouest and others resulted in Edison Chouest allowing Shell’s massive rig to crash into Kodiak Island where it was grounded and required a major Coast Guard rescue effort that endangered the lives of the crewmembers and Coast Guard responders.
“I was there in 1989 and saw what the Valdez oil spill did to Prince William Sound,” said Coté. “It was devastating and we never want to see anything like that happen again. No one would hire any person or company for a major project without a thorough criminal and performance background check. If one would have been done in this case, serious questions would have been raised about Edison Chouest’s dumping oil in the Antarctic. We have been demanding that hearings be held to determine the truth.”
Carl Jones is an IBU member who worked as an engineer on Crowley tugboats for 15 years. He said there’s no good reason to replace a system that’s working well with newcomers who are unfamiliar with the weather, tides, and geography of a notoriously difficult place to operate.
“Everyone up there has years of training and experience,” he said. “To think that a company from outside could come in and replace 25 years of experience in one day, or ten days or even a hundred days — happen.”
Edison Chouest refused to answer questions from reporters who called the company to account for its poor safety record, training and staffing plans. A spokesperson for the oil companies that own Alyeska, did issue a predictable statement claiming that their Louisiana contractor would meet safety and environmental standards – but her comment also included an admission that Edison Chouest may need more training before being ready for prime time in Prince William Sound.
“Any company that works with us has to meet the expectations of the response plan in Prince William Sound, which are very rigorous, and they have to be demonstrated repeatedly through drills and exercises,” said the spokesperson.
“So there are many opportunities for us to identify if there are gaps and then help bridge those gaps. But we expect them to be an outstanding contractor.”
The spokesperson also admitted that their contract with Edison Chouest includes no requirement for local Alaskans to be hired. She noted Alyeska has a separate policy requiring contractors to hire 20 percent Native Alaskans, but even meeting that goal provides no assurance that existing Native and other workers will be able to keep their jobs.
If Edison Chouest remains the choice of Alyeska to replace Crowley, the new company would take over operations in July of 2018, while hundreds of workers face the prospect of losing their jobs as Crowley is replaced.
“The oil companies are making a terrible decision that’s bad for Alaskan workers and the environment, said Coté. “Picking a cut-rate, nonunion outfit to bolster their bottom line is a penny-wise and pound-foolish proposition. The IBU is committed to helping these workers fight for their jobs, and that fight will continue.”