Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Know the drill — Tesoro stages practice for possible disaster

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Had it been real, it would have been a frightening situation.

It’s 6 a.m. The Seabulk Arctic, an oil tanker carrying 13,381,872 gallons of North Slope crude oil for Tesoro from the Alyeska Terminal in Valdez to the Kenai Pipeline Company dock in Nikiski, is struck by a high-speed vessel coming out of Port Dick in the Gulf of Alaska about nine miles south of Gore Point.

The vessel didn’t respond to hails when it appeared on the tanker’s radar. The tanker attempted evasive maneuvers, but the smaller, more agile craft changed course and slammed into the tanker’s starboard side, breeching two cargo holds with 1,517,628 gallons of crude.

The smaller vessel is destroyed in the collision, and the Air Force finds no other threats to the tanker in a flyover of the area. The tanker is stable, but listing 5 degrees starboard, and wind and sea currents are pushing a three-mile-long oil slick toward the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula.

What happens now?

That’s what Tesoro, the Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation met Sept. 24 and 25 to find out.

The collision and resultant spill scenario served as the premise for a massive drill to test oil spill response capabilities in Southcentral Alaska.

It was practice, but the response was conducted as though it were real.

“This really is training and practice in the event they did have an actual oil spill, to work closely with the government agencies that would be involved,” said Alan Poynor, who served as Tesoro’s public information officer for the drill. “It’s all practice but it takes on a flavor of reality because many of the people here worked for real events.”

In the drill, the tanker collision happened at 6 a.m. Wednesday morning. By 8 a.m., the Cook Inlet Spill Prevention Response Inc. facility in Nikiski was humming with activity as more than 100 people attended to their specific responsibilities, which, combined, would help mitigate the theoretic disaster unfolding in the Gulf.

The response utilized an incident command structure. Incident command, also called Unified Command, evolved from devastating wildfires in the 1970s in the Lower 48 that were made worse by miscommunication and turf wars between agencies that should have worked together to respond, Poynor said.

In an oil spill, the Unified Command system brings together representatives from all the agencies and entities involved to one place to formulate and carry out a response. In this case, that meant representatives from the Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Tesoro descended upon CISPRI for the day.

Downstairs, the environmental department was a sea of blue vests huddled around computer screens, hunched over printouts and discussing spill mitigation options and their possible ramifications.

“Everything has to be approved by ADEC,” Poynor said. “We can sit down and say, ‘This is what we want to do.’ DEC may say, ‘No, you can’t do that because of these environmental concerns,’ so that’s why it’s so important that the three groups work together.”

The glow of computer screens lit up an adjacent room that had become home to the Joint Information Center, made up of representatives from Tesoro, ADEC and the Coast Guard. Their task was to manage information by creating press releases, dealing with the media and updating a Web site. Around the corner was a communications station, where operators could contact personnel in the field.

Upstairs, the scenario continued to unfold as realistically as an actual spill, down to the small mountains of empty caffeinated beverage containers collecting on tabletops, the scheduled, then rescheduled, then come-on-we’re-meeting-now briefings and the “miserably hot,” as Poynor put it, conditions that inevitably exist when 100-plus people are stuffed into a room where a fan in a propped-open door is the closest thing to air conditioning.

More blue vests represented the planning section, which is responsible for researching and tracking all the factors that could affect the spill, like weather conditions and tides. An image projected on the wall showed the three-day trajectory of the oil spill as it bloomed then receded in a continuous loop of images. By the end of day one an ominous red blob representing the oil slick had reached Perl Island at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. By day three it was rounding the peninsula and heading into Cook Inlet.

At a side station was the documentation department, which does just that for absolutely every piece of paper, order and action in the response, so it can be evaluated later.

Across an aisle was the resources unit, seated at computers with databases of every available piece of equipment and personnel, and their current whereabouts. Visual index cards corresponding to all the equipment, from a C-130 plane down to a portable pump, were arranged on the wall, so the inventory could be seen at a glance.

Behind resources was operations, which takes all the information from planning, resources and the environmental unit and decides what to do with all of it.

“That’s our goal, to have a good game plan, to have as effective a response as possible,” Poynor said.

Once that’s decided, the logistics section puts the plan in motion. On Wednesday a bank of phones was in use as workers made actual phone calls to real suppliers, asking if they had certain equipment or supplies available and how long it would take to get them where they needed to go. Every call began and ended with “This is a drill.”

“So we don’t panic everybody,” Poynor said.

Next to logistics was finance, in charge of tracking and paying for all the costs associated with the response. Tesoro footed the bill for the entire drill, just as it would for an oil spill cleanup involving one of their tankers.

In a back corner, overseeing it all, was the Unified Command.

“Nothing is done in this response without all the members of the Unified Command agreeing about it,” Poynor said.

Drill controllers and evaluators, including representatives from the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, circulated through the building, keeping an eye on the team as it developed its response.

“The controllers, they know what’s going to happen, we don’t,” Poynor said. “They throw curveballs at us all day long to see how we respond.”

By 3 p.m., the Unified Command was ready to unveil its spill response plan at a mock press conference in the Nikiski Middle-High School auditorium. In the audience were members of local media and drill evaluators posing as media. Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis served as moderator, giving a recap of the situation, followed by statements by members of the Unified Command, Capt. Mark Hamilton of the U.S. Coast Guard, Shawn Brown with Tesoro Alaska Corp., and Gary Folley, ADEC

The Unified Command fielded questions from the media, and “media,” including a grilling from the New York Times about how long it took to notify nearby villagers of the spill, and pointed questions from the National Enquirer about equipment response times.
After about 30 minutes the press conference ended and the Unified Command headed back to CISPRI to wrap up the “tabletop” planning portion of the drill. On Thursday, the group was in Homer to practice the deployment of oil spill response equipment.

Following the drill, John Kwietniak, manager of contingency planning and response, and Steve Hansen, Nikiski refinery manager for Tesoro, said they were happy with how it went.
“I think it went awesome. It just reminds me how privileged I am to work with this team. I am kind of humbled by the performance from the tabletop to equipment deployment. I thought it went extremely well,” Kwietniak said.

“It was a serious exercise, I think our folks responded in that fashion,” Hansen said. “… This group once again joined together without missing a beat with focus, and at the same time a thirst for learning. They not only displayed an excellent outcome in this drill, but they are better prepared for the next drill, whether it’s a tabletop or another exercise or the real thing.”

Stan Jones, a drill observer and director of external affairs for the PWSRCAC, praised Tesoro for the extensive scope of the drill, its location outside the usual areas of Prince William Sound or Nikiski, and the level of commitment Tesoro showed to training with the amount of equipment it deployed in Thursday’s exercises.

On the negative side, he challenged the decision to use chemical dispersants as a first response to the spill until mechanical equipment could get to the scene, and took issue with the spot chosen as a port of refuge for the leaking tanker, since the spot was actually environmentally sensitive, Jones said.

The RCAC will compile a report on the drill and submit recommendations to the agencies involved.

“Our recommendations always get a serious hearing, and sometimes they’re adopted and sometimes they’re not, and sometimes we have to make them repeatedly before we prevail. But in the long run, we prevail quite often, sometimes to an extent that surprises me,” he said.

Overall, Jones gave the drill mediocre rating.

“It was not a particularly challenging drill, but they mobilized a lot of people and spent a lot of money and did OK as far as people sitting down and doing what they needed to do,” Jones said.

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