Coast Guard holds oil spill preparedness training in Nome
Officers from the Coast Guard Sector Anchorage led an oil spill preparedness seminar and demonstration in Nome on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week. The first day was reserved for presentations from government agencies, including the Coast Guard, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Alaska Department of Homeland Security. Alaska Chadux, a private oil spill response organization, also presented. The USCG, ADEC and EPA were looking for local input and knowledge to add to the Northwest Arctic Subarea Contingency Plan. The second day consisted of an oil spill response demonstration, which included deployment of a boom at Hastings Creek.
Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Matthew Mitchell said USCG had two goals for their trip to Nome, the first being to increase awareness about the “fairly complex” oil spill response system. The second objective was for the USCG to perform a deployment exercise at Hastings Creek. “The goal is to improve preparedness and help to set the foundation for a coordinated response,” Mitchell said.
The deployment exercise is one piece of the Subarea Contingency Plan, or SCP. The SCP, which contains information about a specific location, is part of the Alaska Federal/State Preparedness Plan for Response to Oil & Hazardous Substance Discharges/Releases Unified Plan. Last September, the USCG and ADEC held a public meeting in Nome to begin updating the plan. This process takes place every five years. At the moment, the USCG is working on the community profile section of the plan, which details possible contaminants and response resources.
Oil spill response is “very much a team sport,” Mitchell said. Numerous agencies, both state and federal, respond to 2,000 or so oil spills each year in Alaska. Several of these agencies visited Nome to introduce themselves to and hear from local stakeholders. Having local residents involved in the SCP helps optimize agency response to oil spills and other environmental hazards. It is also helpful for each community to have a local on-scene coordinator, someone who knows what to do in case of an incident, Mitchell said.
Inside Nome city limits, the local on-scene coordinator is the city manager. Outside of town it is an employee of the landowner, most likely an Alaska Native Corporation. It is unclear who will assume on-scene coordinator duties in the villages. Mitchell said that, though the USCG encourages every community to have a coordinator, it is not the Guard’s place to assign the role to particular individuals.
Marie Katcheak, originally from Stebbins and now working for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest Campus in Nome, suggested that the tribal council presidents be the point of contact for the villages. The local coordinator needs to hold a stable, established position, she said, which is hard to achieve in communities where officials are elected every three years.
According to Mitchell, the onsite coordinator does not need to have any oil spill specific training to perform requisite duties. Though the USCG and ADEC do hold workshops, such as one in Anchorage a few years ago that was attended by tribal leaders, the most important task for an on-scene coordinator is to be able to make decisions for the community. In the case of small spills that affect the shoreline and marine waters, the USCG will assist the on-scene coordinator through the phone. In the event of a larger incident, they will sometimes fly a coach in to help the community deal with the problem.
When an oil spill occurs in Northwest Alaska, it takes time for USCG and oil spill response companies to arrive. The first people to respond to the incident will, more than likely, be local residents. The State has two response connexes located in Nome. Inside the connexes are personal protection equipment; containment tools, such as boom; recovery tools, including oil sorbent sheets, and storage and disposal equipment. The USCG also has gear caches spread around the state, usually in different areas from ADEC. Mitchell said he wasn’t sure how many communities in the Nome region had oil spill response tools.
However, having gear available does not mean that there will be people on hand trained to use it. Since the on-scene coordinator is not required to have any oil spill response-specific training, there will likely be a large lag time between the discovery of the spill and the initiation of the cleanup process.
Brevig Mission Native Corporation sent employees Natalie Olanna and Marc Barr to the meeting. Brevig has a connex with sorbent pads and boom, but Olanna was concerned because no one in the community knows how to use them. She and Barr attended the seminar and drill in the hopes that they would learn how to use the equipment. “We thought that this would be hands-on training for oil spill,” said Olanna. “It turned out to be presentations.”
Last year, Barr completed a 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard, or HAZWOPPER training. However, the course was mostly reading and writing, not hands-on training for oil spill response.
According to General Manager Matthew Melton, Alaska Chadux is a nonprofit organization classified as an oil spill removal organization by the USCG. It provides the resources to contain, control and clean up oil spills. Chadux has equipment hubs in 14 locations, including Nome’s Crowley Marine Services fuel terminal, and are adding three more this year, including Kotzebue. Equipment hubs store containment materials, such as boom, storage materials for water and land and communication devices. In addition, there are vessels and local personnel who know how to deploy the equipment and what to do in case of an emergency. These people will be the first responders for oil spill incidents in Nome and the surrounding villages.
Geographic Response Strategies test
On the second day, the USCG performed a Geographic Response Strategies, or GRS, deployment at Hastings Creek. According to the DEC website, GRS are recommended deployment strategies for initial responders, usually a professional cleanup company. The plans are made to protect environmentally sensitive areas. The purpose of GRS exercises is to find and solve problems in the Subarea Contingency Plan before there is an actual emergency.
Alaska is divided into ten sections, and the Seward Peninsula is part of the Northwest Arctic zone, which extends from just below Point Hope to Stebbins. Nome is part of the southern section of the zone. There are 53 GRS spots identified in the southern section of the Northwest Arctic area and Mitchell estimates that six have been tested. However, he said, the “large majority” of the areas have been surveyed, which means that the USCG has been on site.
“The whole reason we do (the testing) is to update the plan with something that really works,” said USCG Lt. James Nunez, who helped deploy the boom at Hastings Creek. However, he added that, although the GRS gives a good baseline, it is not “gospel.” True to form, the Hastings Creek GRS needed modification. The USCG set an anchor on the west side of the creek, and two men waded across to guide the boom. In order to protect the lagoon, the boom was moved farther up the creek than originally expected, and was set at an angle so as to funnel materials to East beach.
According to the ADEC website, the Geographic Response Strategies include the location and description of the area; the suggested response strategy, implementation; response resources and location nearby; the best way to access the site; the resources that need protection (such as fish, birds, and marine mammals); and any other special considerations.
Sites are identified through consultation with local residents, natural resource managers, oil spill response professionals, industry representatives and sometimes regional citizens’ advisory counsel members. Sites are initially chosen based on three criteria: environmental sensitivity, risk of being impacted due to waterborne spills and the feasibility of successfully protecting the site.
Once the sites are identified, they are placed into a site selection matrix and ranked based on criteria, including proximity to threatened or endangered species or habitats; subsistence harvest areas; fish streams and spawning areas and high use commercial fishing areas and high use recreational areas. A tactics and operations group is formed to develop protective strategies for each site once funding becomes available. The drafts are reviewed by the public, modified accordingly, and added to the Unified Plan.
Anyone has the ability to submit a site to be added to the list, but Mitchell said the USCG is not currently seeking to expand the list. Instead, they want to focus on testing and reviewing existing sites. Marine Advisory Program Agent Gay Sheffield said she was concerned that USCG was not currently adding to the list of sensitive areas. “The areas here need to be completely covered because we rely on animals for food, this makes it a high priority,” she said.
Sheffield urges communities to take matters into their own hands and look over the Unified Plan to make sure that all culturally and environmentally sensitive areas are identified. This can be hard because internet access in rural villages is limited. It is often necessary for communities to receive hard copies. Sheffield said, “If a tribe wants a sensitive area covered, by all means they should go through the process to get it covered.” Otherwise, she warns, “We won’t have a voice to put areas on that list.”
Copies of the plan can be obtained through the ADEC office and the USCG Sector Anchorage.