Plan for applying dispersants to crude oil spills in Alaska waters updated

Stricter rules applicable in certain areas

This map from the ARRT (larger image at the link) shows the “preauthorized area” between 24 and 200 nautical miles from shore (within the green boundaries). Within the preauthorized areas, some “avoidance areas” have been reclassified (striped areas) and will require the case-by-case approval.

The Alaska Regional Response Team, or ARRT, recently updated a list of areas that would receive extra scrutiny before dispersants are applied to a crude oil spill. The update completes the planned changes to the Dispersant Use Plan for Alaska. The plan is a guide for spill responders, and it spells out how oil spill dispersants would be used during a crude oil spill. The previous dispersant use plan had not been updated since 1989.

The first changes went into effect in 2016. Two different processes for deciding whether to use dispersants, depending on the location of the spill, were developed at that time. The application of dispersants is now considered “preauthorized” except for “avoidance” areas. In an avoidance area, a decision to use dispersants must undergo more extensive scrutiny on a case-by-case basis.

By pre-authorizing use of dispersants in certain areas, the ARRT can speed up the decision-making time on whether or not to use dispersants. Consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries Services is still required before dispersants would be used in a preauthorization area. For avoidance areas, additional consultation and a consensus between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Department of Commerce, and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is required prior to use.

There is a short window of time after a spill when dispersants should be applied. Dispersants work best on freshly spilled oil.

Environmental tradeoffs

To decide whether to use dispersants under the new plan, responders must weigh the consequences of two or more outcomes. The typical choice responders must make is whether damage to shorelines would be worse than damage to organisms in the water column, or the reverse.

Dispersants do not remove oil from the water. They are intended to work by breaking up floating oil slicks into tiny droplets which in theory disperse throughout the water column.

Because there is little evidence that dispersants are effective on Alaska North Slope crude oil in the temperatures and low salinity waters of Prince William Sound, the Council does not support dispersants as an oil spill response option in our region.

Citizen input influenced decisions

Starting in 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard began to gather public input about which areas should be designated as avoidance areas.

The Council, along with the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, submitted comments. The ARRT considered these recommendations, which included essential fish habitats and congregation areas for seabirds, whales, rockfish, and other species.

A step in the right direction

Spill responders still focus on mechanical cleanup first, as required by state and federal law. This includes equipment such as oil-collecting boom and skimmers that actually remove oil from the water. The Council agrees with this priority.

“The Council does not support the use of dispersants in our region, but with this new plan, responders are required to give more consideration before deciding to use dispersants,” said Donna Schantz, Executive Director for the Council. “Many years of research have failed to confirm dispersant effectiveness in our waters, and new research has revealed concerns about increased toxic effects of oil mixed with dispersants. Any changes that reduce the potential use of dispersants are a definite improvement.”

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