KETCHIKAN — The threat of an oil spill in Alaska waters looms constant. The number of agencies that came to Ketchikan recently to conduct an emergency oil spill response exercise served as a testament to the gravity of such a situation.
The U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Navy joined forces with Alaska departments of Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game, Natural Resources and Transportation to hold a nearly seven-hour exercise Sept. 26 at the Ted Ferry Civic Center.
Also in the mix were private industry partners — the Southeast Alaska Petroleum Resource Organization, Kirby Offshore Marine and Alaska Steamship Response — and tribal interest groups, Ketchikan Indian Community and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
All told, more than 120 people took part in the exercise.
The exercise scenario: The day before, the Alaska Marine Highway System Ferry Taku collided with the privately owned tugboat Pacific Wolf in water southwest of Sitka. The collision ripped a hole in the side of the barge being pulled, spilling 5,000 barrels of diesel fuel in the first hour and an additional 1,000 barrels every hour. The ferry, too, spilled 800 barrels of fuel, though no passengers were harmed.
The scene set, participants got to work making phone calls, ordering supplies and coordinating clean-up efforts from their makeshift command center. The spill might not have been real, but the response routine was, said Jeremy Woodrow with the Alaska DOT.
“They’re doing everything except actually purchasing bottles of water,” he said. Woodrow reiterated the exercise’s No. 1 assumption: This was a no-fault exercise. It was the response that was being tested, not the responders.
The auditorium rang with the sounds of voices and phones ringing. But the phone calls — simulating public inquiries, situation updates and media requests — were actually coming from just down the hall, in a smaller conference room.
“This is where the shots are being called,” Woodrow said.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Robert Carroll, who is stationed in Portsmouth, Va., was one of those calling the shots. Carroll described the effort to coordinate the exercise as a challenge, but one worth taking. He said the biggest hurdle was making sure everybody’s schedule matched up, that all the right people showed up — no small feat for an exercise that is run every three years.
“I haven’t seen anybody at each other’s throat yet,” he joked. Carroll said the exercise was a good way to hone team coordination without having to contend with the stress of a real-life disaster.
Tom Gemmel, who works for Alaska Steamship Response, said a big benefit of the exercise was “knowing who you’re working with.”
A computer-generated map was projected on the wall, presenting a “real-time” image of the fake oil spill. The map was powered by the so-called PISCES (Potential Incident Simulation Control and Evaluation System) model and featured data on wind and tide currents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The model helped exercise operators make the exercise feel as authentic as possible.
Back in the main room, Petty Officer 1st Class Dave Mosley was stationed at one of the phones. Mosley was no stranger to this kind of catastrophe. As one of six Coast Guard public information officers in Alaska, Mosley has been deployed to locales ranging from the Gulf of Mexico to the Aleutian Islands to assist with oil spill clean-up operations.
He said every region has unique factors that have to be accounted for in any clean-up response. In Southeast, those factors include a density of both islands and marine traffic. Of course, there’s also the impact on marine life. Exercises like the one held Wednesday help responders identify and eliminate “speed-bumps” in the process, he said.
John Falvey, general manager for the Alaska Marine Highway System, agreed. He was nine days on the job when the ferry M/V LeConte nearly sank after running aground on a reef near Sitka.
“As we drill and practice this scenario, we get better at it,” he said.