What’s in an oil spill contingency plan? Prevention and response and the essence of preparedness

From the executive director:

Mark Swanson
Mark Swanson

It’s fall now in Alaska. You can feel it in the air. You can see it in the new snow deposited on the mountain peaks after the rain clouds clear away. Commercial and recreational salmon fisheries are over for the year and in Valdez, the RV parks, hotels, and restaurants are emptying out. Suddenly, there is ample parking at the harbor. With the visible end of summer and the beginning of fall, there is a certain seriousness and palpable urgency to preparations for winter. In Valdez, we receive an average of 27 feet of snow per year, and wind speeds can run into the triple digits during storms. Only the foolhardy go into the winter season unprepared.

Read moreWhat’s in an oil spill contingency plan? Prevention and response and the essence of preparedness

Let’s not write off mechanical oil recovery in Prince William Sound spill response

Mark Swanson
Mark Swanson

From the Executive Director:

The council has often written and commented about the significant difficulty of responding to an oil spill in the frequently challenging Alaskan environment. Typically, these observations drive home the point that, given this difficulty of response, extra spill prevention measures are merited and frankly cost effective. All this remains accurate and true.

What is not accurate is that if mechanical, or physical, recovery of spilled oil is anticipated to be difficult, protracted, and ultimately result in only a minimal recovery of the percentage spilled, then we might be better writing off mechanical recovery in advance. This would require us to shift our priorities to more controversial and definitely more environmentally murky options like burning or chemically dispersing the spilled oil.

Before you agree or disagree, here are a few oil spill response facts to consider. The sooner you respond to an oil spill, the easier the oil is to pick up. Getting to the spill before it spreads, emulsifies, and ends up in the water column and beaches is paramount. Alyeska’s Ship Escort/Response Vessel System, or SERVS, and the entire 400 plus vessel Tier I and II fishing vessel spill response fleet combined with tremendous amount of recovery equipment and oil storage capacity comprise the most comprehensive, fast acting oil spill response and recovery capability in America and most likely anywhere in the world. With the range of oil collection systems such as the NOFI Current Busters, Harbor Busters and Ocean Busters and the new Crucial Disk skimmers in the SERVS inventory the spill response oil skimming capability in Prince William Sound is not theoretical. It is real. It is also proven. If you can get to the spill in time and deploy equipment where the oil is, these collection systems will pick up oil. In 2002, Ocean Busters from the SERVS inventory were deployed to respond to a fishing vessel sinking and a resulting diesel spill. This incident in Windy Bay was a resounding success, recovering the vast majority of the spilled diesel.

Having the right equipment close by is no guarantor of success. On Christmas Eve 2009, the Pathfinder, one of the tugs associated with tanker transits, was out scouting for Columbia glacier ice in the tanker lanes. The tug hit Bligh Reef and ruptured one of her fuel tanks releasing a significant volume of diesel. Initial efforts to corral and recover the spilled diesel were abandoned and no significant volume was ever recovered.

Recovering oil is the only response tactic that removes the oil from the environment. Burning oil puts pollutants in the air, and eventually many of the also–toxic products of combustion eventually fall out of the air and return to the sea and land surfaces that lie downwind. In addition, environmental conditions that allow for burning oil are ideal conditions for mechanical recovery. If you can corral the oil enough to burn it, why not remove it from the environment completely?

Dispersants drive the oil and the chemicals that break it up into the water column and eco-system where they are least visible and least likely to impact beaches, but also where they have the most potential to cause invisible harm to the marine environment. Accordingly, National Oil Spill Response Policy gives priority to mechanical recovery. In practice, it appears that many response officials have been successfully dissuaded from following this sound policy and have opted for giving priority to burning or dispersing the oil.

In Alaska, there is absolutely no reason to deviate from sound national policy. In Prince William Sound, we have the best skimming tools, the best training, the most vessels, the greatest recovered-oil storage capacity, the most frequently tested response speed and proven capability to recover far more than the pitiful 1-2% of the volume that was estimated as mechanically recovered in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

As good as any capability to mechanically recover spilled-oil is however, it has to be used and prioritized. Increased proficiency can improve capability. This can be accomplished through the use of environmentally benign oil simulants or oil surrogates to practice recovery techniques. What we need is an understanding of what can be done and a firm commitment to use mechanical recovery to the maximum extent possible and to continue to sustain and improve oil recovery proficiency at every opportunity.

It is always better to prevent a spill than to try to respond to one. But, if we need to respond, let’s not write off mechanical recovery. It’s not perfect, and can surely be improved upon, but if there is another response system out there that has a better probability of success with mechanical recovery than our own Prince William Sound responders, the council is unaware of it. Mechanical recovery should always be given priority, with burning and dispersing spilled oil only being used after mechanical recovery has been given its fullest possible effort. The time for these is not before, and certain not in lieu of, mechanical recovery.

What have we learned in the last 25 years?

From the Executive Director

Mark Swanson
Mark Swanson

• Mark Swanson is the executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

This past spring, with the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, virtually everyone associated with that spill or connected to current spill prevention and response activities encountered media representatives asking some variation of: What happened 25 years ago? What have we learned since that environmental disaster? Those are tough but natural questions that defy a ready or pat answer.

In our last Observer newsletter we partially answered that first question by highlighting many of the highly visible improvements in oil spill prevention and response. These changes were hammered out and put into place by industry, government regulators, and activist citizens. The second question calls for a bit more thought.

Because of the unprecedented magnitude of the impacts of the 1989 spill, many folks from all walks of life were profoundly shaken up and sufficiently motivated to introspectively analyze what had gone wrong and how such a disaster might be avoided in the future. Causes of the accident and deficiencies in the response were examined. Solutions were proposed, debated, advocated and in large measure adopted. The federal government passed perhaps the most significant and sweeping environmental regulations ever in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The Act contained many new and innovative ideas like tug escorts for tankers, double hulls, citizen oversight, comprehensive spill response plans, and even increased regulatory and navigational oversight by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The State of Alaska similarly implemented improvements such as the incorporation of best available technologies and a requirement for extraordinarily robust oil spill response capabilities. State spill response requirements far exceeded federal requirements, and were based on the size of the real spill that folks had just experienced, rather than more optimistic smaller spill volumes. The oil industry, citizens, and local fisherman joined forces to expand on an innovative spill response tactic involving the use of fishing vessels to create a standing and permanent spill response capability. These fishing vessel crews are now trained and prepared to quickly lend a hand in case of a spill.

Twenty-five years ago, folks took a hard look at the terrible consequences of being unprepared for an oil spill of this magnitude. They did something about it to the benefit of Alaska and the entire crude oil transportation industry.

In 2010, 21 years after the Exxon spill, an even larger oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The spill was offshore this time, involving a significantly larger volume of oil and arguably doing even greater environmental damage. Commissions were formed and reports were written that investigated and examined that incident’s causes and the response that followed. As after the 1989 spill, solutions and improvements have been proposed, debated, and advocated.

The difference today is that the majority of the proposed improvements coming out of the 2010 spill have not been, and may never be, implemented. Time has passed and other issues have captured our collective attention.

This is unfortunate and should be of great concern to all of us.

Many of those proposals are national in scope and would improve our preparedness and response policies and capabilities here in Alaska. The silver lining to the disaster of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is that everyone, oil industry, state and federal government, citizens, and stakeholders, accepted the need to change and learn from our litany of mistakes. Everyone committed to a sustained focus on preventing disasters and combating complacency. The tragedy of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is that it demonstrates that we as a country have not continued to acknowledge the necessity of learning from our mistakes. Until we do, we are likely to repeat them.

So what have we learned? In this region and with this Trans-Alaska Pipeline oil trade route, we have collectively learned and accomplished quite a lot including a focus on prevention and avoiding complacency while advancing both prevention and response measures, but maybe we haven’t quite learned the most important public policy lesson: We need to continue to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes and accidents and implement the changes needed in order to prevent the next one.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Kulluk incident report came out in early April with a lot of hard lessons about the value of good weather information and the challenges of towing in rough Alaskan waters. We have yet another opportunity to learn and improve. Let’s make sure we take it.


From the Executive Director: Value of regional stakeholder input process deserves to be preserved

Potential changes to the Regional Stakeholders Committee, a lesson learned during Exxon Valdez, on the horizon

Mark Swanson
Mark Swanson

Executive Director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council

It’s time to publicly speak out about the importance of the Regional Stakeholders Committee process and its value in oil spill response.

The Regional Stakeholders Committee concept is a structured way to involve and engage those who may be affected in a spill response. The concept is a best practice for Alaska and for the entire United States.

The practice of engaging with stakeholders was one of the fundamental lessons learned during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It is quite simply good public response policy.

That could change if revisions proposed to the state wide oil spill response plan are adopted. Those proposed changes abolish the current stakeholder committee structure and replace it with two newly named groups; one comprised of tribal and local governments and other affected stakeholders. The new process would mean marginally less access to, and significantly less information from, the federal response coordinators to both groups than is currently provided to the stakeholder committee.

Why would such changes be proposed?

According to the lead state and federal responders for the Kulluk grounding incident on Kodiak in January 2013, there were some significant frustrations with the committee process in that incident. National and international public and media interest in the incident was immediate and substantial. Senior state and federal responders have explained that this intense interest meant this daily access to the response leaders was problematic. As a result, there has been a call to re-think what the value of a regional stakeholders committee is and perhaps how it is managed.

Before changing a process that has historically worked well for Alaskans, it is important to re-visit what the committee is and perhaps also what it is not.

The stakeholder committee is not part of the Unified Command, which is the group that collectively directs spill response activities and is comprised of the person or company responsible for the incident, together with the lead federal and state spill responders. The committee does not get a vote in deciding operational objectives or managing the incident. Under current policy, regional stakeholders are simply afforded daily access to the Unified Command to voice their concerns, offer advice, local expertise, assistance, and to periodically get updated on the key concerns and incident response objectives.

The committee was not designed to be a back-door route to the Unified Command for the media, for incident response vendors, or for national or international organizations who might be inclined to use a particular Alaska incident to advance their own agenda.

The committee meets a unique need and a long standing commitment from our state officials by connecting local stakeholder communities to the incident managers. As such, it needs to be managed and supported jointly by the federal, state, and local response coordinators. These people all have ties to the local region and can most appropriately determine which stakeholder groups should be included in the committee for a given incident. They can manage and make any tough calls needed to exclude inappropriate participation.

Sometimes which entities need to be involved in the regional stakeholder’s committee process is obvious. For example, under current state and regional response policy, the council is named as a participant for incidents involving tankers and the Alyeska oil terminal. Other times, committee participation is not so cut and dried.

Following the frustrations of the regional stakeholder’s committee process in the Kulluk response, perhaps the management of that committee process simply needs to be refined and its purpose and participation better defined.

Another issue, closely related to these proposed changes is a mandate for state and federal responders to conduct outreach and consult with federally recognized tribes in a real and meaningful way. This mandate led to the creation of the tribal and local government sub group within the proposal. It is not understood how pulling these groups out of the stakeholder committee will enhance this consultation.

To avoid confusion, it is important to note the stakeholder committee process is neither the same as the tribal consultation process, nor does the committee process exactly match the response coordinators objective of keeping the general public informed about the incident response. The committee connects all affected stakeholder communities to the incident management team, in real time, during the response, with a two way communication process for the benefit of both parties.

The committee process is a best practice

As we go forward with updates to the state wide and regional oil spill contingency plans, it is important to remember that engaging the regional stakeholders in a spill response in an organized and well defined way is a best practice for Alaska and for the entire United States.

In the 2010 Gulf spill, without a comparable regional stakeholder engagement process, frustrations over local concerns not being addressed, or being under-acknowledged occasionally boiled over and resulted in accusations aimed at the Unified Command getting aired on national television.

In Alaska, many of the oil tanker operating companies have made significant investments and highly commendable commitments to constructively engage regional stakeholders in their preparatory spill response exercises over the past decades since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. We at the council appreciate that commitment and would like to ensure there is no reduction in stakeholder involvement or elimination of the Regional Stakeholders Committee role in the incident response plans for Alaska.