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.

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