A massive oil spill preparedness drill conducted by Tesoro, the U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on the Kenai Peninsula last week demonstrated that industry and state agencies are prepared to act should disaster strike. At the same time, it showed that no amount of practice or level of preparedness is ever enough.
Hundreds of people participated in the two-day event, with a planning portion done in Nikiski and an equipment deployment drill in Kachemak Bay. Tesoro footed the bill for the entire drill, just as it would for cleanup of an oil spill involving their tankers.
The drill was carried out as though a spill had actually occurred, with people doing the tasks they would be expected to do in a real situation. About the only thing that wasn’t real was the spill itself.
That includes real concern over how the spill was handled. Occurring south of Gore Point off the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, the tanker gushed oil into the Gulf of Alaska, with the nearest equipment able to clean up the mess hours if not days away in Nikiski and Prince William Sound.
The Unified Command decided to spray chemical dispersants on the oil, to break up the slick until mechanical equipment could arrive. They dotted their regulatory i’s and crossed their t’s in making that decision.
However, the Department of the Interior just happened to issue a ruling last week that bans the use of dispersants in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, which were the only two areas of the state that it had been allowed.
Should a spill occur in that area today, dispersants would no longer be a viable option to impede the slick as it advanced toward the coast of the Kenai Peninsula.
Without equipment staged closer to the southern peninsula, the oil would have reached shore, multiplying the difficulty of cleanup efforts. This demonstrates even more clearly the necessity of training and continued review of response plans.
In the case of oil spills, practice can’t ever make perfect, but it can make us better prepared.