New plan for using dispersants in Alaska is in effect

The Alaska Regional Response Team, or ARRT, established a new plan earlier this year for how oil spill dispersants, an alternative oil spill response option, would be used during an oil spill. The ARRT is a group of federal and state agencies that share responsibilities for managing oil and chemical spill responses in Alaska.

Mechanical response, such as booms and skimmers that actually remove oil from the water, is the priority response option by state and federal law.

The new plan was effective January 27, 2016, although parts of the plan will not go into effect until 2018.

Details of new plan

The new plan describes two different processes for dispersant use. Dispersants will be “preauthorized” in certain areas, and all other areas are “undesignated.”

A new “preauthorization area” will go into effect in 2018. This area extends from 24 nautical miles offshore out to 200 nautical miles offshore (approximately 27.6 to 230 miles), south of Alaska’s mainland through the Aleutian chain. The ARRT’s rationale is that preauthorizing, or deciding before an oil spill occurs where chemical dispersants are allowed, could speed up response time. In the preauthorized area, dispersants are considered to be approved by government agencies before an oil spill happens. Therefore, the U.S. Coast Guard, as federal on scene coordinator, can decide to apply dispersants to a crude oil spill. Areas farther than 200 nautical miles from shore are international waters, and are not part of this plan.

All areas within 24 nautical miles of shore are considered “undesignated.” In undesignated areas, dispersants will be authorized on a case-by-case basis. The federal on scene coordinator must get a “consensus recommendation” from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Department of Commerce, and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. A list of trade-offs must be considered for each location where dispersants are being considered, which includes sea depth, distance from shore, salinity, temperature, sensitive species and habitat. All must agree before dispersants can be used in undesignated areas.

Details of the old plan

The previous guidelines for using dispersants in Alaska designated three “zones,” which were defined by physical features such as the ocean depth, sea floor, currents, and sensitive habitats or human use activities:

  • Zone 1: Dispersants were acceptable after consideration of mechanical removal. Response coordinators were not required to get approval from agencies.
  • Zone 2: Use of dispersants was conditional. Approval from the EPA and the State of Alaska was required.
  • Zone 3: The use of dispersants was “not recommended.”

Review of the new preauthorized area

Over the next two years, government agencies will be reviewing the new preauthorized area to recategorize where the use of dispersants should be avoided due to sensitivity. Examples of such areas that may be recategorized are offshore spawning habitat for pollock or a seasonal gathering of seabirds.

These “avoidance areas,” once approved, will automatically be reclassified as undesignated, meaning dispersant application will need to go through the case-by-case approval process, even if they are currently in the preauthorized area between 24 and 200 nautical miles from shore.

The Coast Guard intends to hold meetings in a number of affected communities by September 30, 2016. At these meetings, the Coast Guard will gather public input on subareas within the preauthorization area that should be recategorized. They will also accept written comments.

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