Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Water logged — Agencies team with charter boats, Tesoro to put spill equipment to the test

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

The plot felt like a story line in a bad movie: an oil tanker rounding Gore Point is crashed into by a small pleasure craft that causes it to explode and the tanker to spill 16,000 barrels of crude oil on tides taking it toward Kachemak Bay.

The tanker was en route to deliver oil to the refinery at Nikiski after having taken on its cargo at the pipeline terminus in Valdez.

The story unfolded Thursday for a drill to test oil spill response equipment in Kachemak Bay as well as volunteers and agencies that would be involved if there were a spill. Tesoro Alaska picked up the tab for the 100 participants, some from Tesoro offices in Hawaii, Texas, California and Washington. More than a dozen boats, including the oil tanker Captain H.A. Downing, tug Vigilant and numerous barges and fishing vessels, strung out boom equipment to rake in pretend oil slicks in what they hoped would make the next spill cleanup effort proceed a lot better the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

“This was the first drill featuring a scenario outside of Prince William Sound and we were happy to see that. It depicted what could happen in the downstream communities, those that weren’t in Prince William Sound when the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill happened, but that still got hit,” said Stan Jones, director of external affairs for the Prince William Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, who observed the drill.

Spill drills have become regular events throughout Southcentral Alaska since the Exxon Valdez went aground in 1989. Back then, a mishmash of official action caused nearly as much havoc as the oil spill because no one knew how to mop up 11 million gallons of crude oil.

Now a whole contingent of agencies, fishermen and oil companies know how to do cleanup response — in theory. A host of factors are in place to mitigate effects of a potential spill, said Doug Lentsch, general manager of the Cook Inlet Spill Prevention Response Inc. Tankers are required to have double hulls, with a water-filled hold between its hull “skin” and the cargo hold. The Captain Downing has 14 separate cargo holds, so if one breaks open, it would only compromise one without the whole cargo spilling into the sea. In reality, no tankers have sprung a leak since the regulation went into effect, he said.

“The skimming system on the CISPRI vessel can pick up 1,550 barrels per hour. There are multiple systems like that that weren’t in place 19 years ago,” Lentsch said. “We now have a GRS, a geographic response strategy that is written down noting more than 120 sensitive habitats, such as one at Dog Fish Bay (in the scenario). We have just over 20 of those identified in Kachemak Bay.”

For the purposes of the drill, Peterson Cove was the “sensitive” spot, instead of Dog Fish Bay, and the remedy involved deploying a boom to line its shore in order to keep oil from the beach. The Unified Command, made up Coast Guard Capt. Mark Hamilton, Gary Folley, with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and Shawn Brown, with Tesoro, made the decisions about what should occur.

Since response equipment in Nikiski and Prince William Sound was too far away to get to the spill site immediatly, the Unified Command agreed to use dispersants in the cleanup drill. Like using soap, the dispersant “acts on surface tension, causing the slick to break up,” Folley said. “Mechanical recovery is the preference because we favor physically removing the oil from the environment. Dispersants don’t remove the oil, but we use it when the mechanical equipment isn’t immediately available.”

Oil spill cleanup is “more an industrial art than a science. The major issues are more than pure science,” Folley said. “It’s not like the fire department that gets a lot of fires and so it can practice and gain expertise. We don’t get a lot of spills. It’s not like you can work one spill then take that knowledge to the next one.”

Working in the Aleutians four winters ago to clean up fuel and soy beans spilled when the Selendang Ayu broke in half offered real experience, Folley said. In that incident, 66,000 tons of soybeans and 335,000 gallons of fuel spilled. Unlike Thursday’s gentle rain in Kachemak Bay, wind and tides along the Bering Sea made for horrendous conditions.

But drills are not necessarily “tests,” Jones noted. A test would involve “yanking people out of bed in the middle of the night,” and likely would supply tension to the point people tend to mess up, he said.

Setting up booms is an important part of the practice, along with working on equipment that sucks up oil and barges it for removal. The equipment is a testament to human ingenuity; one cleanup machine is water-powered and made up of wringers from the old style of washing machines. Another is like a floating kite that controls the lines of heavy booms and should work in severe stormy weather. A low-tech flourometer, tested for the first time Thursday, measures for oil microbes in water to see if cleanup efforts are working.

“We basically sailed around and watched them set up the booms. Our job is to look — we have no big criticisms,” Jones said. “One concept to bear in mind is that these drills are not tests, they’re practice for the ones who run the drills — and they don’t put things in the drill they can’t do.”

An official report will let responders know how they did. In the meantime, Jones and other members of the RCAC, in their observer roles, say the exercise was a good one for the most part. The idea of using dispersants because mechanical equip-ment was too far away is one that raises a few red flags, however.

Equipment is stored near high-risk areas, such as Nikiski and Valdez, Lentsch said. Booms are likewise stored at high-risk sites, though Homer Port and Harbor have some booms on site, he said.

The RCAC recommends that more response equipment be located in strategic downstream locations.

“Using dispersants always gives us heartburn. It probably won’t work in water around here, and it failed miserably in the Exxon Valdez spill,” Jones said. “We have done a lot of research since then. In fact, there are some tests they have to make before they can put dispersants on oil. Is it near shore or far enough offshore that it won’t spill on birds and so on, that did make it appropriate to use dispersants.”

The Department of the Interior issued a ruling last week that makes the matter of dispersants a moot one; no dispersants were allowed in Alaska waters except for Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. Now not even those two waterways are permitted for their use, according to a press release put out by the Interior.

Next year’s drill is already in the planning stages. For that exercise, ConocoPhillips is the company in charge of the spilling oil tanker.

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