By ROY ROBERTSON
Two large oil spill drills were conducted in Prince William Sound this past September and October. Both exercises proved challenging for the organizations participating in them.
SeaRiver Maritime held a three-day exercise in the middle of September. For this annual drill, the role of the “spiller” alternates among the shipping companies that move oil through Prince William Sound.
This year, the oil spill scenario was a collision between a SeaRiver Maritime tanker and a fish-processing vessel in the middle of Prince William Sound near Naked Island, about 40 miles from the Valdez Marine Terminal.
Unlike last year’s drill, this exercise did not include any field equipment deployments. However, several other challenges were included to add realism:
- The first 36 hours of the exercise was conducted continuously requiring all of the organizations involved to identify and use shifts for their personnel, even overnight.
- While the drill date was known in advance, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Coast Guard did not reveal the scenario details or location of the simulated oil spill until the start of the exercise.
- This exercise also included a middle of the night transition from the Valdez Emergency Operations Center to the Valdez Civic Center to provide more room for the command post.
Alyeska conducted another large oil spill drill for the Valdez Marine Terminal in October. The scenario for this exercise was the worst-case spill as described in their oil spill prevention and response contingency plan. The plan was recently approved by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. In this scenario, Alyeska had to respond to a simulated spill of 155,000 barrels, or approximately 6.5 million gallons, of crude oil reaching the Port of Valdez after a failure in one of the oil storage tanks. Alyeska’s full incident management team participated and significant field equipment was deployed.
To enable a focus on field activities, the drill scenario began 11 hours after the spill “occurred” and continued for approximately twelve hours. The field deployments included tactics for recovering oil in open water, nearshore, and on-land; and sensitive area protection. The exercise also involved construction of a temporary on-shore pipeline that would be used to transport recovered oil to a barge positioned at the terminal’s loading berth 3. This exercise also used actual oil spill tracking buoys to indicate the location of the oil slick’s leading edge. The buoys provided real-time data for the responders working in the command post at the Valdez Emergency Operations Center.
Both of these exercises stretched the number of required personnel from all of the participating organizations because of the extended hours of drill play and the variety of activities associated with them. The council’s own staff was stretched trying to cover these exercises that were still significantly less demanding than a similar real incident.
While drills such as these provide practice for responding to an actual oil spill, one of the lessons learned from every major spill drill is that the primary focus should be on preventing an actual spill in the first place.