HOMER -- From the air it must have looked like an avant-garde installation by the artist Christo, as nearly two dozen boats last week lazily crisscrossed a small corner of Kachemak Bay trailing long strings of floats like orange necklaces on turquoise water.
It was more science than art, however, and much more serious -- the boats and their crews were preparing for the next big oil spill.
Spill drills have become regular events throughout Southcentral Alaska since the Exxon Valdez went aground in 1989. Back then, confusion reigned because no one knew how to stop or sop up 11 million gallons of crude oil. Native villages, fishers, coastal residents and larger communities along the oil's path were caught unprepared, and couldn't protect the rich coastal resources on which they all depend.
The drill was aimed at giving the coastline a fighting chance. Steve Russell said he realized that when he looked out at the end of the daylong drill and saw an amazing sight.
"The Coast Guard, citizens groups, members of the oil industry -- they were all dragging this boom back onto the boat."
That cooperative effort is at the heart of spill response, said Russell, the operations supervisor for the industry-funded Cook Inlet Spill Prevention Response Inc., or CISPRI. Last week's exercise was put on by the Coast Guard and CISPRI but drew participation from several agencies whose duties include oil spill response, such as the U.S. Navy spill contractor and the Alaska Department of En-vironmental Conservation.
Also there, however, were the volunteer members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and Seldovia's citizen-based oil spill response team and watchdog groups from Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound.
"I think that just getting the players together has a value in itself," said Lt. Cmdr. Charles Cashin, skipper of the buoy tender Sedge.
More than 10 years ago, Congress told the oil industry and Coast Guard to be ready for the next big oil spill. That broad directive translates into roughly a drill a month for CISPRI, said Russell, and one to two larger, cooperative drills a year in sensitive areas like Kachemak Bay.
Planners had several goals, Russell said, including to pull boom completely across the mouth of Jakolof Bay. The bay, with its rich ecosystem and valuable oyster farms, is one of several dozen sites identified by Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Committee under its geographic response strategy program. Each area is described in detail, then put into a book so spill responders know what to expect when they arrive on scene at 3 a.m. in the dark of night.
"It's essentially just a plan until it's tested, and that was what we were trying to do last week," Russell said.
Crews set a heavy anchor outside the mouth of Jakolof Bay, then attached two different types of boom to it, using a fishing boat and then a skiff to pull one boom to the westernmost shore and the other to the easternmost.
Each of the geographic response plans spells out the equipment needed to protect that area, Russell said, such as length and type of boom and the boats needed to set the gear in place.
When the drill occurs, however, "Then maybe you find out you don't need three skiffs, that two will do," he said.
While drills are not likely to be held at each of the dozens of identified critical sites, Russell said it helps to practice at any of them.
"We can take information we learned at Jakolof Bay and apply it to Sadie Cove, though I don't think it would necessarily work farther up the bay," he said.
As Jakolof Bay was boomed off, others practiced skimming oil. Using booms as tow lines, two boats slowly drove through the imaginary oil as an oil recovery barge behind them slurped oil off the water surface and into its enormous storage tanks.
Other boat crews practiced with different types of skimmers provided by state, federal and private agencies. Using fishing boats as oil skimmers is part of the "vessels of opportunity" program, Russell said. Each is contracted to be ready for another big spill, as well as to practice regularly.
While many at last week's drill were paid to be there, others were just keeping an eye on the oil industry.
Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Committee's Steve Howell said his group was organized to "fight complacency" in the oil-response community. He said he was happy with what he saw Thursday.
"I was pretty impressed," particularly with the communications between the vessels. With so many different operations occurring in a small area, communication is the key to success, he said. "Communications have to be specific and clear because there is so much going on."
Joel Gay is a reporter for the Homer News.
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