By Susan Sommer
Drills and exercises are a vital part of making sure that companies transporting oil through Prince William Sound are meeting state laws and are capable of performing an effective spill response.
In early February, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response, known as SPAR, published a draft white paper titled “Response Exercise Program Improvements.” Although the document pertains to the entire state, the council contends that some of the proposed changes might inadvertently reduce vigilance and preparation among plan holders and responders in Prince William Sound.
The council, in collaboration with the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, provided feedback during the public review stage and encouraged the agency to consider the process used in Prince William Sound as a model for the rest of the state. It also noted that some aspects of the draft document need further study to determine long-range implications.
The agency’s proposed changes, spurred by department reorganization and budget cuts, include five goals:
- Strengthen area committees’ roles in response exercises
- Develop a response exercise guidance document
- Establish multi-year exercise scheduling for use by the response community
- Maximize preparedness value of response exercises while reducing the cost to the state and industry
- Prepare regulation revisions as necessary to accomplish the improvements to the response exercise program.
While the council agrees that every process can be improved and strengthened, and that establishing drill plans benefits everyone, it’s concerned that some of the agency’s proposed changes would undermine the robust process in place in the Sound today, especially if based only on economics.
This year, for example, the Prince William Sound shippers and the Valdez Marine Terminal are planning only one large exercise rather than the usual two.
“While we agree that strategically reducing the number of agency staff members participating in drills and exercises would help save on costs, we think reducing the required number of exercises is not prudent and sets a dangerous precedent,” said Donna Schantz, executive director of the council “There would be fewer opportunities for responders to train, fewer opportunities to test individual plans, and fewer opportunities for oversight of equipment condition.”
The council also recently learned that Crowley Marine, who for more than 20 years has owned, staffed, and operated the tugs, oil spill barges, and other vessels used by the Ship Escort/Response Vessel System in Prince William Sound, is being replaced by another company. “During this transition, a vigorous drill and exercise program will be even more critical as an oversight tool for the agency to ensure that oil spill prevention and response capabilities in the region are not diminished by this change,” added Schantz.