Exercises sharpen spill skills

Posted: Monday, April 30, 2001

Twelve years ago this month, the tension was palpable around Kachemak Bay, as residents prepared to fight a wave of crude oil spilled out of the Exxon Valdez.

People were frantically building oil boom out of spruce logs and construction fabric, communication was erratic, and anger and frustration were the emotions of the day.

An oil spill exercise on Kachemak Bay last week showed how much has changed. Skimming vessels are available in a matter of hours, stockpiles of boom material are standing by, state and federal agencies are staffed and ready to respond at a moment's notice.

"Compared to 12 years ago, we're light years ahead," said Joe Gallagher of Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council.

The Oil Spill Prevention Act of 1990, better known as OPA 90, requires spill response agencies to drill at least once a year. Gary Stock, base manager for the Navy's oil spill response team in Anchorage, said the various Alaska groups long ago agreed to exercise together.

"Rather than do it on your own, we decided to do it as a team, because in a real spill you don't work alone," he said.

The Navy contracts with a private company, GPC Joint Ventures, to provide its oil spill response, Stock said. He went to Homer on Tuesday with a dozen crewmen and several truckloads of equipment, the centerpiece of which is a 36-foot-long oil skimmer.

The stubby aluminum craft has its own engine and propulsion unit, but is designed to be towed backward by two larger vessels. Oil booms are used as the tow lines, forming a V with the skimmer at the apex. It tows a separate bladder, into which the skimmer empties.

The entire operation fits on flat-bed trailers, but also can be loaded into C-130 aircraft, Stock said. If an oil spill did occur in Kachemak Bay, he said, it would take just six hours from the initial call until the skimmer was in the water, he said.

The Navy has three skimmers available in Anchorage and two dozen more elsewhere around Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

The Navy's spill response team comes prepared, Stock added, bringing three trailers that provide a communications station, lodging for the crew, plus shop space and all the necessary tools and spare parts to keep the equipment operating.

"We're totally self-sufficient," Stock said.

If the call came next week, his crew could load up six C-130s and be quickly on the way.

"It's just a matter of someone giving us a Visa number," he said.

Communication is always a key element in oil spills, and last week in Homer, the Department of Environmental Conservation unveiled a new, mobile communications center. It's essentially a race car trailer modified to meet the state's needs, said Arthur Pilot, an environmental specialist with the agency in Juneau.

Like the Navy's skimmer, the new trailer can fit into a C-130, on a railroad car or be towed down the highway behind a large pickup. It doesn't provide space for the crew to sleep, Pilot said, but that's about all it doesn't do.

Installed inside are half a dozen radios of various types and powers, miscellaneous batteries and relays, and hook-ups for cell and satellite phones. The truck carries a generator to power the whole affair.

"We can pull up someplace, put our antennae up in case there's not a nice building to set up in," and start communicating, Pilot said. "We tried to make it as self-sufficient as possible to get into remote areas."

Inside, desks line several walls, and there are bench seats and a table for field conferences, along with such amenities as whiteboards for drawing.

The idea, Pilot said, is to get communications up and running quickly, which should help make the entire spill response go better.

During the exercise, groups ranging from Seldovia Oil Spill team to Cook Inlet Spill Prevention Response Inc., the Coast Guard and the Navy practiced around the mouth of Jakolof Bay. A group from Taiwan observed.

In years past, the groups have exercised around the Homer Harbor and the salmon hatchery in Tutka Bay; this will give them experience near mussel and oyster farms, Pilot said.

Gallagher said the exercises point up the changes in the business of spill response.

"Ten years ago these groups either didn't exist or didn't know the others existed. Now they all know each other and work together, not just on the oil drill but a lot of other incidents."

Joel Gay is the managing editor of the Homer News.

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