What is an oil spill contingency plan?

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An oil spill contingency plan is a document which contains both:

  • Detailed information on steps to be taken before an oil spill to prevent a spill from happening
  • Detailed instructions describing activities that will be done during and after an accident to clean up an oil spill.

What is the Prince William Sound Tanker Oil Spill Contingency Plan?

This contingency plan describes the measures Prince William Sound shippers take to try to prevent, or clean up, an oil spill from a tanker.

Planning for prevention

Preventing an oil spill is the most effective strategy to protect human health and the environment. The tanker contingency plan contains detailed descriptions of the steps and equipment shippers are using to keep oil out of the water. Examples include:

  • A tanker escort system to help rescue a tanker in distress
  • The U.S. Coast Guard’s vessel traffic system that helps guide tankers safely in and out of Prince William Sound
  • Equipment that is in place to prevent oil or other chemicals from discharging into the water
  • Alcohol and drug testing which are required for mariners
  • Maintaining equipment to keep proper function
  • Tankers following speed limits and staying in designated lanes
  • The system may be restricted or closed completely during dangerous weather or when ice is present
  • Thorough training for mariners in the safe use of all equipment.

Planning for response

If an oil spill occurs, it is necessary that a systematic and well-organized plan is already in place with trained personnel on hand to quickly contain and control the spill. An efficient and effective spill response requires that planning be done ahead of time.

The tanker contingency plan:

  • Defines immediate response actions, including emergency action checklists.
  • Describes how to report that an incident has occurred.
  • Identifies resources available for response.
  • Contains supporting information such as sensitive resources to protect.
  • Describes specific response scenarios and strategies.
  • Assigns specific radio channels for communications during a spill.
  • Describes how the response is organized and coordinated between the spiller, the state and federal agencies, and the region’s stakeholders.
  • Describes how drills and training exercises will be conducted.
  • Outlines a plan for managing the collected oil and associated waste.

Updating and improving contingency plans

All Prince William Sound contingency plans are reviewed and updated every five years. This planning cycle is as important as the plan itself. Improvements such as updated prevention and response methods or new technologies are sometimes added. Incorporating lessons learned from spills, drills, and training exercises can improve future plans.

One such improvement, put in place after the Exxon Valdez spill, is the world class oil spill response program to train fishermen and crews of other local vessels to help clean up spills. Alyeska’s Ship Escort Vessel Response System, known as SERVS, annually contracts with many vessels within Prince William Sound, Seward, Kodiak and Cook Inlet. The mariners receive training every year to learn how to use technical response equipment such as skimmers and oil spill containment boom. The contingency plan describes how many and what kinds of vessels are needed to respond, the level of training for the crew, and how fast those vessels can be ready to leave the harbor.

The plan ensures better spill prevention and response

The tanker contingency plan helps ensure that shippers have trained personnel and resources available to prevent and respond to a spill. It contains lists of specific equipment and vessels that shippers have committed to be ready in case of an emergency, such as:

  • Pre-positioned barges with response equipment
  • Proper number and types of vessels and skimmers
  • Local fishing vessels and trained crews

In the tanker plan, shippers explain how the resources come together in a response in order to be as effective as possible, and meet state and federal requirements. Shippers explain, in detail, what they are doing to prevent oil spills and what they plan to do to protect resources and livelihoods if a major spill occurs. Through these plans, the shippers publicly commit to have enough spill response resources always ready.

The council’s role

When Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 they noted that complacency on the part of the industry and government was one of the contributing factors to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and that only when local citizens are involved in the process will the trust develop that is necessary to change the present system from confrontation to cooperation.

As part of the council’s work to fight that complacency, volunteers and staff spend a great deal of time reviewing the hundreds of pages in the detailed contingency plans. Tasks include:

  • Making sure the assumptions and information the planners used to create the document are realistic by comparing the plan to previous accidents, the results of many drills and exercises observed by the council, and council studies.
    Comparing new plans to previous plans to ensure there is nothing lost between versions.
  • Ensuring there are no inconsistencies within the plan. For example, do resources listed match throughout the plan? Are there enough vessels, equipment, and people?
  • Identifying areas of concern based on previous plan concerns or new issues that have arisen.
  • Advocating for improvements in new technologies in prevention and response equipment.
  • Once the council has reviewed the plans, comments are submitted to the government agencies that review and approve the plan. The agencies review comments received from the public and decide whether to approve the plan, request additional information, or require changes.
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