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.
On March 15 and 16, Alyeska’s Ship Escort Response Vessel System, known as SERVS, conducted an oil spill response training in Cordova.
A total of 27 vessels were involved, including Cordova-based vessels, three Valdez fishing vessels, the nearshore support barge known as the “500-2,” and its accompanying tug. Many of the vessels spent the night on scene as part of the training, with exercise activities taking place during daylight hours in Nelson Bay, a small, protected bay approximately five miles from Cordova.
On June 12 and 13, an oil spill drill conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard and hosted by Alyeska tested oil spill contingency plans for the Valdez Marine Terminal. During the drill, the council put aspects of its own internal spill readiness plan to the test.
The fictional drill scenario involved a power outage at the Valdez Marine Terminal, a ruptured line leading to one of the loading berths, and a spill of 90,000 barrels of Alaska North Slope crude oil from the rupture into the Port of Valdez. The spill’s trajectory, or the direction of movement of the oil, was deliberately routed towards the city of Valdez so that the city could participate. This allowed drill participants to exercise aspects of the contingency plans related to crude oil vapors and air monitoring, staffing of the city emergency operation center, and a simulated evacuation of the city.
The first day’s activities were centered in the command post in Valdez and were entirely tabletop, meaning no equipment was deployed. The second day of the exercise consisted of field deployments with open water and nearshore oil recovery efforts, as well as protection of two nearby “sensitive areas”; the Solomon Gulch Hatchery and Duck Flats area in Valdez. Sensitive areas are locations that have been pre-identified as particularly sensitive to an oil spill due to their biological or cultural importance, or areas that would be difficult to clean up or remediate.
In addition to observing the drill, the council took the opportunity to conduct an internal exercise to test communications between the staff, the board of directors and committee volunteers. Along with spill response monitoring, communication with local stakeholders and parties of interest would be a key duty for the council during a real event.
Through the years, council has developed an internal response plan which gives staff guidance on what to do in case of a large spill or incident. This plan includes detailed job descriptions and task checklists. By working aspects of this plan, staff was able to practice, document lessons learned, note necessary updates and make changes. The last time the plan was revised was 2010.
The council also simulated launching its science response plan. This science plan, developed by the council’s science committee, is a pre-established guide for quickly increasing environmental monitoring after a large oil spill.
Council staff contacted volunteers and science contractors by phone and used a blog and email to disseminate information during the drill. Costs for travel, contractor service fees, and other expenses were estimated to help validate how much funding the council needs in reserve to cover initial expenses during a spill.
The council plans to practice this internal response plan on a yearly basis as a training opportunity, and also to further fine tune the plan.