HOMER -- For the first time in its 12-year history, the Seldovia Oil Spill Response Team no longer has the contract with Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. to help coordinate efforts by its Spill Emergency Response Vessels in the event on an offshore oil spill.
As the calendar turned over to 2002, a new contract is taking effect with Cook Inlet Spill Prevention and Response Inc. That means the office maintaining a computerized database for the SERV program will shift from Seldovia to Homer, according to Alyeska and CISPRI officials.
Karl Pulliam, manager of the Seldovia response team popularly known as SOS, and Seldovia officials say they were stunned and surprised by the unexpected shift to Homer.
Alyeska and CISPRI representatives, however, see the move as a practical business decision aimed at improving their efficiency in contacting contracted spill responders.
Pulliam, who said he's fished Cook Inlet for 35 years, worries the loss of the Seldovia contract means a close-knit reservoir of experience may be lost, and the spill response efforts weakened. But Alyeska and CISPRI officials expressed confidence that won't happen.
"What they provide for us is administrative duties," said Dave Lawrence, the contract steward for Alyeska in Valdez.
Since the boats and response teams themselves are paid by separate contracts handled through local groups like SOS, "If we needed a response, we would call the local contractor," Lawrence said. Using computer data and contact lists, Lawrence said he could even make the calls himself, directly from Valdez.
Alyeska put the contract renewal up for bid for the first time after SOS' $39,600 per year, three-year contract expired in August. Bids were due by Sept. 20. SOS has been operating month to month while awaiting the results of its bid at the same amount, Pulliam said.
"On Dec. 15, I called and was told it was awarded to CISPRI," he said.
Pulliam said he was surprised by the bid request because the contracts had been routinely renewed less formally every three years since 1990.
Doug Lentsch, general manager of the Nikiski-based CISPRI, said Alyeska had initially sought their participation in the bid process.
"SERVS called us and asked us if we were interested in the contract," Lentsch said. "We did not go seek it."
The group did bid and the tentative contract was received in the mail Dec. 27, to take effect Jan. 1.
Both Lentsch and Alyeska contract steward Dave Lawrence expected the contract to be effective last week.
Lawrence refused to reveal the amount of the new CISPRI contract, saying the money was private, corporate funds. Lentsch also declined to specify the amount negotiated, other than to say is was "less" than the $39,600 contract SOS held.
SOS is one of eight similar response groups in the Gulf of Alaska region formed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
"Seldovia is the only one that has a citizens group running it," said Pulliam.
He and Seldovia city officials see the loss of the $39,600 per year, three-year contract as a major blow to the tiny city of about 260 full-time residents and the 45 regional fishers and other volunteers who Pulliam said work on spill response efforts.
Noting SOS group has held the contract for the area since 1990, Pulliam argued that SOS is a "grass-roots team" with long experience in local waters.
In a resolution approved 5-1 Dec. 27, the Seldovia City Council is asking Alyeska to reconsider awarding the contract to the Nikiski-based CISPRI group. But it seems unlikely the company, which operates the oil pipeline to Valdez, will reconsider.
"Public confidence, a basic aspect of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and consistency and quality service to local fishermen will not be served by discontinuing this database service with SOS," the Seldovia council resolution states.
"The community of Seldovia will suffer another emotional setback related to the 1989 Exxon spill, economic loss through the five part-time jobs involved in this program and lose ties to active participation with (the) industry's top oil-spill response organization," the council resolution said.
Seldovia Mayor Sue Hecks told the Homer News the contract action puts forth a poor public image for Alyeska and will mean a negative impact to the area and community.
"We're aware of the business decision ... but SOS is about the only nonindustry linked response agency, and it definitely will have an impact," said the mayor.
Although City Manager Ken Weaver said the council was unanimous in its support of SOS, he said the sole vote by Susan Springer against the resolution was based on a technical objection to wording that essentially called for a permanent contract that precluded most future review.
Currently, the SOS group staffs a one-person office in Seldovia eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, Pulliam said. That staffer maintains computer records and contacts boats in the SERVS system if needed.
"The position is gone," Pulliam said.
In addition to the Kachemak Bay area, SOS contracted with boats in Ninilchik, Nikiski and Port Graham.
With various funds from state and federal sources for training and related efforts, SOS has monies to probably keep the office open for a year, Pulliam said.
"I certainly support SERVS and CISPRI working together," Pulliam said, "but they lose the link to citizen involvement that they can't replace."
The local continuity of the Seldovia contract was a consideration, Lawrence said, but not critical.
"It's just a business decision," he said. "We take a look at what's going on in the port and see if there are any opportunities to do things differently. ... This year we decided to go out to bid."
CISPRI's Lentsch said he expects to increase the number of Cook Inlet fishing vessels that get training, while reducing duplication he said sometimes results from different spill-related programs overlapping their efforts. He expects the new Alyeska database duties will be handled through CISPRI' part-time Homer office.
More than 100 vessels are under contract with CISPRI in the event they are needed. Funding comes from participating corporations. No new staff is initially expected, Lentsch said.
Regarding Pulliam's concerns that the Seldovia team included longtime commercial fishing expertise and local experience, Lentsch said CISPRI subcontractors and participants had similar experience.
R.J. Kelly is the managing editor of the Homer News.
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