The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Oil spill response preparation discussed


Heidi Zemach | For the LOG

AVTEC’s Marine Training Center director Scott Hamilton listens to Steven Russell, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s on-scene emergency coordinator, during NIMS Incident Command workshop last week.

Resurrection Bay and the City of Seward are downstream from oil tankers transiting Prince William Sound, and although those who experienced the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill don’t want to think about it, they could be severely impacted if another oil spill were to occur. The better prepared local communities and responders are to deal with a spill, the better off they will be when one occurs. That was the message heard by a few dozen people who attended an NIMS Incident Management workshop in Seward Oct. 2, sponsored by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council.

The workshop examined the power and decision-making structure used during a spill emergency and the role of federal, state and local responders, and ultimately explain how the community would fit into the picture

Presenters included several who would be leading an oil spill response, including USCG Sector 17 Commander Shawn Decker, who is the federal on-scene commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Response for the Anchorage Sector; Steven Russell, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation environmental program manager and spill prevention and emergency response on-scene coordinator; and Rick Bernhardt, Alaska Department of Conservation’s preparedness section manager and toxicologist who heads DEC’s Contaminated Sites Program.

The Incident Command System model was set up after the ’89 oil spill as part of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, said Cmdr. Decker. The model came from the U.S. Forest Service who used it to fight wildfires in the West. It brings federal and state agency personnel and responders together to work together on various emergencies including last winter’s tow and grounding of the Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling rig Kulluk off Kodiak Island, and the Deep Water Horizon BP oil spill in in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Alaska’s Unified Command gets about a dozen calls each year for vessels needing emergency repairs or assistance, and they don’t all make headlines, said Russell. The organized response had been underway for 72 hours, and there were 200 people and ships were working on site by the time the Kulluk was grounded last year.

Russell was a commercial fisherman during the ‘89 spill, and joined the Black Oil Cooperative in Cook Inlet soon after, working there for the next 16 years before joining DEC. He recognizes the importance of working together toward prevention.

“We’ve learned that response is not only about picking up oil,” he said, “community participation is absolutely critical.”

Kenai Fjords National Park employees and local Forest Service employees were unable to attend due to the federal shutdown, so the largest group attending were Alaska SeaLife Center staffers, eager to learn how they could help. The two Alaska Railroad dock managers Louis Bencardino and Christy Terry were also there, as was Storm Chasers Marine Services Inc., co-owners Mica Van Buskirk, Jim Herbert, a boat captain, SERVS responder, and Seward RCAC representative, and former RCAC representative, John French.

DEC has established Community Spill Response agreements with 50 Alaska coastal communities to enable them to respond to an emergency in a predictable way, with the personnel, assets, and reimbursement that they would need to provide the required services during an emergency, Russell said. But after three years of trying to arrange one with Seward City administrators, the DEC still has no such agreement with Seward, he said, but no explanation for why.

The city manager, assistant manager and harbormaster were invited, but did not attend the locally-provided workshop, although Norm Regis, the deputy harbormaster did attend the afternoon session.

DEC has staged response assets such skimmers and boom in Seward, and established a maintenance agreement with Harbormaster Mack Funk, to keep a protective watch on these oil cleanup supplies. But it would be a very good idea for Seward to get a community response agreement, as other communities have, rather than wait for an actual emergency, Russell said.

The agreement would list all of the services that the state could reimburse Seward for. It also could cover the city’s potential response to other emergencies such as an industrial fire, or an ammonia leak at a Seward fish plant, Russell said. Provided that the emergency was deemed a substantial or imminent threat to the environment or to the public health or safety, the state would quickly be able to provide the needed services, and to reimburse the city for its expenses, he said.

In a future spill’s aftermath, an environmental response might not be Seward’s number one concern, Russell said. In addition to additional ship traffic at the harbor, the community would probably be inundated with job seekers camping out in cars and tents, and taxing every one of Seward’s city services and infrastructure, demanding emergency information. “It could become a free for all,” he said.

Scott Hamilton, who heads AVTEC’s Marine Training Center in Seward, was working with the Alaska Marine Highway on the Tustumena when the ’89 spill occurred, and was involved in its aftermath, and knows the value of prevention. He is enthusiastic about the opening of the Arctic to shipping and oil exploration, and believes Seward is the obvious place for ships to stage to access the northern waters. Hamilton moved AVTEC’s current focus to accident prevention through training and simulation. With numerous realistic simulations available, oil tanker personnel can safely practice their maneuvers under various sea conditions and potential ship malfunctions before taking a real ship out to the sea, he said. Their new ice-navigation simulation is the only USCG-certified training of its kind.

“It wasn’t ever over really,” said Alaska Railroad Corporation Cruise Ship Dock Manager Louis Bencardino, who was Seward’s police chief at the time of the spill. Many people did well, making high wages cleaning the oiled beaches for Exxon, he said, but one still hears occasional reports of oil from the spill still being discovered in one place or another. “We weren’t prepared,” he concluded, “That’s the key.”

As of press time, the LOG’s inquiries about the city administrators’ absence from the workshop, and why there is no community response agreement, were unanswered.


Reader Comments

jimhunt writes:

Regarding the city manager being invited to the session: I helped organize this locally and was registered to attend. My father fell seriously ill and I flew South to see him the day of the event. The event was successful by all reviews and we in Seward appreciate the efforts expended on our and the region's behalf.


Our Family of Publications Includes:

Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2017