Real storm plays role in October spill drill

Council Project Manager

Response personnel gather to hear an update on the drill's progress. Photo by Amanda Johnson.
Response personnel gather to hear an update on the drill’s progress.

Polar Tankers, Inc. conducted the annual Prince William Sound shipper’s drill for 2013 on October 7-9. Polar Tankers is the shipping company owned by ConocoPhillips.

This large drill involved more than 700 participants and included command posts in both Valdez and Anchorage as well as field activities in Prince William Sound.

The scenario had a Polar Tankers ship colliding with two barges being towed in tandem close to Montague Point on Montague Island in Prince William Sound.

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Industry and council test spill response plans during drill

A fishing vessel pulls oil spill boom during a recent drill.
A fishing vessel pulls oil spill boom during a recent drill.

On June 12 and 13, an oil spill drill conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard and hosted by Alyeska tested oil spill contingency plans for the Valdez Marine Terminal. During the drill, the council put aspects of its own internal spill readiness plan to the test.

The fictional drill scenario involved a power outage at the Valdez Marine Terminal, a ruptured line leading to one of the loading berths, and a spill of 90,000 barrels of Alaska North Slope crude oil from the rupture into the Port of Valdez. The spill’s trajectory, or the direction of movement of the oil, was deliberately routed towards the city of Valdez so that the city could participate. This allowed drill participants to exercise aspects of the contingency plans related to crude oil vapors and air monitoring, staffing of the city emergency operation center, and a simulated evacuation of the city.

The first day’s activities were centered in the command post in Valdez and were entirely tabletop, meaning no equipment was deployed. The second day of the exercise consisted of field deployments with open water and nearshore oil recovery efforts, as well as protection of two nearby “sensitive areas”; the Solomon Gulch Hatchery and Duck Flats area in Valdez. Sensitive areas are locations that have been pre-identified as particularly sensitive to an oil spill due to their biological or cultural importance, or areas that would be difficult to clean up or remediate.

In addition to observing the drill, the council took the opportunity to conduct an internal exercise to test communications between the staff, the board of directors and committee volunteers. Along with spill response monitoring, communication with local stakeholders and parties of interest would be a key duty for the council during a real event.

Through the years, council has developed an internal response plan which gives staff guidance on what to do in case of a large spill or incident. This plan includes detailed job descriptions and task checklists. By working aspects of this plan, staff was able to practice, document lessons learned, note necessary updates and make changes. The last time the plan was revised was 2010.

The council also simulated launching its science response plan. This science plan, developed by the council’s science committee, is a pre-established guide for quickly increasing environmental monitoring after a large oil spill.

Council staff contacted volunteers and science contractors by phone and used a blog and email to disseminate information during the drill. Costs for travel, contractor service fees, and other expenses were estimated to help validate how much funding the council needs in reserve to cover initial expenses during a spill.

The council plans to practice this internal response plan on a yearly basis as a training opportunity, and also to further fine tune the plan.

Fall drills and exercises test industry spill response plans

Council Project Manager

This past October 3 and 4, Tesoro conducted the annual large-scale oil spill response exercise to test the Prince William Sound Tanker Oil Discharge Prevention and Contingency Plan.

The scenario imagined that, during inclement weather, an outbound partially loaded tanker struck an unknown object near Glacier Island and suffered a breached hull. The tanker instantaneously released a simulated 20,000 barrels of North Slope crude oil. The vessel sustained no further damage and the bad weather eased as the response continued with no further release of oil.

The first 12 hours of the exercise was led by Alyeska’s Ship Escort/Response Vessel System, or SERVS, as would happen in the case of a real spill.

After 12 hours, Tesoro’s response team took command of the response efforts, with continued help from SERVS.

The main focus of this year’s exercise was to test the following objectives:
• Communications between the command center in Valdez and the field regarding equipment staging and protection of shorelines, nearshore areas, and wildlife
• Logistical support for tracking the operation and resources
• Use of the fishing vessel oil spill response fleet
• Management, staffing, and set-up of equipment staging areas

The drill was a table-top exercise. No equipment or vessels were deployed except for equipment staging areas in Cordova and Whittier.

Council staff participated in various roles and helped evaluate the responders.

Some lessons were noted by the council evaluators:
• Communications between the equipment staging areas and the command post could be improved.
• An actual incident would require more Internet connections and phone lines at the command center.
• The coordination of the wildlife efforts could be improved to insure a more efficient response to the oiled wildlife.

This exercise provided a very good interaction between the industry and agencies’ response teams.

Terminal exercise conducted in November

On November 8, Alyeska conducted an exercise at the Valdez Marine Terminal.

This exercise imagined a 90,000-barrel crude oil spill into the Port of Valdez due to ruptured piping at one of the terminal’s loading berths. The spilled oil moved toward the city of Valdez, so city officials participated as part of the spill response leadership team, known as the Unified Command. Council staff members served as evaluators or as part of the drill team.

This exercise was a precursor to next summer’s National Preparedness for Response Exercise Program, which will be led by the Coast Guard. There was good participation by the Coast Guard and the state agencies in November’s exercise. One of the high points of this exercise was a change in the trajectory from the scenario in the plan that pushed oil toward the city of Valdez.

This caused response actions that focused on protecting the public. Lessons noted by council evaluators included:
• Notifications need to be improved.
• Reorganization of the Valdez Emergency Operations Center made the space more efficient.
• This drill used real time as opposed to the artificial timeframes used in other drills. This made the activities more realistic.

Whittier spill response exercise

On December 7, SERVS conducted an oil spill response exercise in Whittier.

Local fishing vessels, part of the industry’s oil spill fishing vessel response program, participated in the exercise. All the fishing vessels were Tier 1. Tier 1 boats are the earliest responders in case of a spill.

Participants were able to practice tactics such as exclusion and deflection booming. These tactics would be used in case of a real spill, to direct oil away from environmentally sensitive areas.

Council staff was on hand to observe the drill activities.

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