Even as marine traffic increases past the Bering Strait, no one knows how well an oil spill could be cleaned up in the case of an accident. Stakeholders traveled to the region last week to conduct the region’s first spill response exercise, and learn more about the challenges posed.
John Katula oversees marine vessels with the Alaska Department of Conservation, one of the agencies that organized a cleanup drill last Wednesday in the community of Teller, near Nome.
“We’ve got seven of the plan holders that actually move oil in through this area involved in the exercise, so that we can make sure that if there was a spill from any of the operators that we were prepared and that our contingency plans were designed correctly to respond to any spill,” Katula said, standing on the rocky spit connecting Teller with Brevig Mission as the tide came in.
It’s DEC’s job to decide whether fuel shippers are prepared to handle an accident. In the Bering Strait, companies that barge fuel to small communities up and down the coast don’t expect to be the ones actually cleaning up oil. Instead, they contract with Alaska Chadux, an Oil Spill Response Organization.
Colin Daugherty manages cleanup response for Chadux and helped deploy 30-foot-long strips of orange boom (the floating tubes that help collect oil) along the shore of Teller’s inner-harbor, near the tank farm.
“We brought everything to enact a Geographical Response Plan to protect Grantley Harbor,” Daugherty explained, equipment humming nearby. “The plan calls for 3600 feet of boom. So we brought two containers of boom and anchors and line. And this is equipment that’s staged in Nome. So this is permanently here for this type of event.”
Part of the drill was testing how long it took for a convoy with equipment to drive the 72 miles from Nome to Teller. Organizers were interested in small but vital questions like that because no oil spill response plan for the Bering Strait has been tested in the field. And with rough water and wind speeds around 20 miles per hour, the crew was forced to adjust the day’s original goals.
“I don’t think we’d know how to do this in good weather,” Daugherty said. “It’s usually bad weather that causes an incident. So we came here this morning and adapted—we didn’t want to get anybody hurt over this, over a training exercise. So we just went to something a little bit less weather affected by working the inner harbor.”
But rough weather is part of what Chadux and others agencies want to learn more about as they plan for expanded commercial activity in the Bering Strait.
DEC will sort through the data they collected with Chadux and revise plans that are on the books. Chadux, like most other Oil Spill Response Organizations working in Alaska has most of its equipment and personnel in Anchorage. They rely on storing caches of equipment in hub communities like Nome that can be deployed relatively quickly in case of an accident. Chadux general manager Matthew Melton said getting to actually see and experience conditions is essential, because even basic things like roads present challenges.
“That was something that didn’t occur to me until I was driving the road yesterday,” Melton summed up at a debrief Thursday morning over breakfast between all the drill’s participants. “If it was rainy and washed out and we put 20, 30 tractor-trailers going back and forth on their trips, that road’s gonna get beat up.”
Another point repeatedly raised is the need to work more closely with Bering Strait residents, Jacob Okbiok works for the Teller Native Fill business, and described the reason more residents did not turn out to observe the drill.
“It’s usually around this time of year when everybody’s at camp, and maybe around first of August is usually everybody comes back,” Okbiak said in between examining equipment staged on the beach and helping pack it away. “It’s kind of, you could say [an] oddish time to chose to do an oil spill response.”
Those are the kinds of things you might not know if you’ve never been to the region.
The exercise in Teller did not answer many questions about how an oil spill in one of the most remote parts of the state will be handled. For example, while Teller has a road for rigs to haul equipment to, the rest of the 14 communities in the region do not. And though weather was rough enough to scramble plans for organizers, the water was ice-free with decent visibility–conditions that cannot be counted on most of the year.
However everyone involved in the drill, from fuel company reps to subsistence advocates, agreed this was an important first step in what needs to be a longer process.