Prince William Sound spill contingency plans under review

Council Project Manager

The council participates in various workgroups tasked with updating the Prince William Sound Subarea Plan, and recently submitted comments on proposed changes to the plan. The last update to the subarea plan was completed in 2005.

Access to current information is critical in the early hours of spill response. The council recommended that the revised plan contain the most current information on web links; resources such as communications, equipment, facilities and support personnel; sensitive areas; community information; and wildlife impacted.

Formal adoption of the changes to the Prince William Sound Subarea Plan is expected by the end of 2014.

Modern oil spill contingency plans are long, complicated documents that contain detailed information about how an oil spill can be contained and cleaned up, or prevented in the first place. These plans are required by law and created by the owners of facilities and vessels that store or transport oil. The plans must be reviewed and approved before a facility or vessel can operate.

Federal contingency plans changed after 1989

Before the Exxon Valdez oil spill, prevention and response plans were not as robust as they are today. With the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, commonly referred to as “OPA90,” Congress required oil storage facilities and vessels to submit extensive spill plans describing how oil spills are to be prevented and cleaned up if they do occur.

National spill response public policy is outlined in the “National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan.” This plan describes the structure and procedures for preparing for and responding to spills of crude oil and other hazardous substances throughout the United States.

State of Alaska’s plans

Within Alaska, OPA90 established “Regional Response Teams,” which oversee spill response planning and “Regional Citizens Advisory Councils” (our council is one of these) to monitor the oil industry. OPA90 also requires the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prepare oil spill response plans specific to the State of Alaska, designated as a planning “region.”

Alaska also passed a law as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill that requires a state-wide plan be in place to prevent and respond to crude oil and hazardous substance spills.

Combining the state and federal plans

In 1993, a plan was developed to combine state and federal contingency plans into one joint plan. The Alaska Federal/State Preparedness Plan for Response to Oil and Hazardous Substance Discharges/Releases, more commonly known as the “Unified Plan,” was the result of that effort. The Unified Plan was written cooperatively by the U.S. Coast Guard, the EPA and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. This plan contains broad spill response information and guidance and is applicable throughout the state of Alaska.

Developing specific plans for Alaska’s various environments

Alaska is a huge state with varied and distinct climates and geography. To accommodate specialized response considerations across such a large area, the state has been split into 10 “subareas.” The use of the term “subarea” helps to reduce confusion when using terms such as “planning regions” or “area contingency plans.”

While the Unified Plan is broader and applicable anywhere in Alaska, “subarea contingency plans” focus on issues specific to each area. Information in the subarea plans includes local emergency contact information, numbers and types of equipment stationed and ready to respond, and plans for sensitive areas including hatcheries, wildlife, and cultural resources.

Who makes sure the plans are adequate to clean up a spill?

The responsibility lies with all of us.

Industry and Alaska government agencies create and manage the plans, but Alaska law requires the public have an opportunity to periodically review the plans. Though the federal government does not require public review of its plans, the U.S. Coast Guard and the EPA do participate in the state’s public review process. The council follows these review periods closely, provides feedback and submits comments each time the documents are updated and renewed, in an effort to help improve these plans.

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