Groups unite over Drift River: Unified Command ensures decisions about the terminal are made as one

Posted: Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Concern over the potential for a spill of 6 million gallons worth of Cook Inlet crude oil stored in tanks at the foot of Mount Redoubt has prompted the formation of a Unified Command between the Coast Guard, Department of Environmental Conservation and Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co. (CIPL).

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Photo by M. Scott Moon
Photo by M. Scott Moon
A new channel of the now mile-wide Drift River pushes on the Drift River Terminal Facility, 22 miles from the summit of Mount Redoubt volcano,on March 24, 2009. The facility collects oil from offshore platforms. Now, with Redoubt melting ice and snow on its flanks, the river is a mile-wide zone of broken trees, ice, mud, ash and water.

CIPL operates the Drift River Oil Terminal, a crude oil storage facility at the mouth of the Drift River.

Rod Ficken, a spokesman for CIPL, said the three entities previously were in communication, however, the voluntary agreement will now ensure that future decisions about the terminal are made as a group.

"We feel it is appropriate to join as a team of one as opposed to a team of three. By uniting forces and bringing to bear all the various aspects from the state, federal and private party, it will be far better than us working independently," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Jim Robertson.

On March 23, floods caused by the melting of glacial ice from Redoubt's first five eruptions surged down the Drift River Valley, just sparing the fortified tanks.

Two tanks split the oil being stored at the site. The other five tanks at the terminal have either been decommissioned or cleaned of oil residue and are not considered a risk if the levees surrounding them fail and inundate the area.

Spokespersons for CIPL and the Coast Guard said throughout last week that the oil was being stored in the two selected tanks to keep them stabilized in the event of a disaster.

Concerns have been raised that future floods could overtake the compound and result in an oil spill.

At a press conference held Monday in Anchorage, the unified command group suggested they may change their course as to whether the oil will continue to be stored at the terminal or be removed via tanker.

"The DEC and the state are very concerned for the safety of the 6 million gallons of crude oil situated in the Drift River flood plain and the threat that poses to Cook Inlet if nature does get the best of the situation," said

Gary Folley, the state on-scene coordinator for DEC.

"We would like see quick action to eliminate that threat, and the quickest way is to remove the oil from the tanks, providing that can be done in a safe manner," he said.

Robertson reported that last week the Coast Guard completed sounding under the terminals docking facility to ensure that no debris was deposited there following the floods.

A tanker presently is en route and scheduled to be on scene Saturday through Monday to pick up oil from the two tanks.

Little seems to be known right now as to whether equipment at the facility is still operable and capable of unloading the oil, and how much of the oil will be removed.

Additionally, should it be decided to evacuate as much oil from the tanks as possible, several feet will remain in the bottom of each tank because of their design.

"The situation is a little bit more complicated, it's not analogous to draining water from bath tub," Folley said.

As though oil loading operations in the inlet weren't already complicated enough by swift tidal currents, variable weather and dangerous floes of sea ice that already sent one boat to the bottom of the inlet this winter, the tanker and terminal crews also will have to work in extremely close proximity to an erupting volcano if they decide to remove the oil.

Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper in Homer, has been calling on the state and CIPL to draw down the oil at the terminal

"It's mind-boggling that on the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill we're seeing the same type of complacency and indifference that unfolded in

Prince William Sound," Shavelson said.

Larry Smith, director of the Kachemak Resources Institute in Homer also wants to see the oil removed from the tanks and said he was surprised its taken so long for a unified command to be set up.

"We failed to rewrite the Coast Guard's dictionary to classify something like this as an incident that would trigger their response. It's a bureaucratic mess if you can't have a unified command in a situation like this," he said.

Shavelson and Smith are not only concerned about the slow response to drawing down oil levels at the terminal, but also how well equipped the area is to handle a spill, should one occur.

According to Doug Lentsch, general manager for Cook Inlet Spill Prevention and Response Inc., his organization is prepared to respond to a spill in the range of 80,000 barrels, or 3.6 million gallons, given ideal conditions.

Additional assistance could be provided by other spill clean-up operations from outside the Cook Inlet region. That number bothers Shavelson.

"You have 3 million gallons of oil that's unaccounted for in spill response," he said.

Dante Petri can be reached at

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