Dillingham takes part in spill drill

In small clusters of shipping containers peppered across the state, you’ll find the front line defense for oil spills. They’re placed and stocked by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

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Dr. Rick Bernhardt from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation shows volunteers how to stage containment boom Tuesday morning at the Dillingham boat harbor. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran, KDLG - Dillingham)
Dr. Rick Bernhardt from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation shows volunteers how to stage containment boom Tuesday morning at the Dillingham boat harbor. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran, KDLG – Dillingham)

On Tuesday, a team from DEC and the Coast Guard was in Dillingham to demonstrate when and how to put that defense to work. For a couple hours, the bingo hall in Dillingham served as a classroom, where the students, so to speak, got some basics in environmental safety.

From the bingo hall, class moved out to the airport, where DEC has a few Conex shipping containers set up. They’re filled with all manner of stuff like containment booms; those long, floating barriers that help contain oil spills in the water. There’s also lots of rope, shackles, generators, gloves, bug dope, etc.

It’s out here that we learn from DEC’s Dr. Rick Bernhardt that now is the time of year when these materials are most likely to be put to use.

“Fishing vessels tend to pile up on the rocks and have accidents,” Bernhardt said. “They’ve worked all season, long hours, hard work, they’re tired and it’s usually those 2 a.m. trips back to port when someone piles up on the rocks. We have spills throughout the year but we really have a density, particularly on fishing vessels, in the next month or so.”

After the airport, it’s on to the boat harbor, where we get to see some of this stuff put into action.

It doesn’t take long to get a couple hundred feet of containment boom strung across the harbor entrance. Dr. Bernhardt said getting this equipment ready and staged and even partially deployed, is key in preventing damage.

Containment boom is stretched across the entrance to Dillingham harbor Tuesday during oil spill response training exercises. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran, KDLG - Dillingham)
Containment boom is stretched across the entrance to Dillingham harbor Tuesday during oil spill response training exercises. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran, KDLG – Dillingham)

“Even if people don’t deploy a protective strategy perfectly, if they can spend a couple hours getting started so when the professionals arrive, if they can spend a half hour touching it up instead of three hours to deploy it, then they’re that much further ahead of the game,” Bernhardt said.

“It was (a good turnout). Seventeen people. That’s one of our best, so hats off to Dillingham,” Gabe Dunham said. As an agent for the Bristol Bay Marine Advisory Program at Alaska Sea Grant, and simply as a resident, Dunham has a vested interest in spill response.

“Well it’s certainly given me an idea of the procedure or the operations that are supposed to go on; the order in which you contact the appropriate authorities,” Dunham said. “It gives me a good idea of what the response network looks like here in Dillingham. I think that’s helpful just to know who’s going to be around when things like that happen.”

Harbor master Jean Barrett said he hopes those Conexes out at the airport never need to be opened except for training days like this. But if they do, he’s confident that training will translate to swift, effective response.

“As a whole, there’s enough entities involved, between the fuel companies, the power plant, the city of Dillingham and the state, to be able to get boom in the water,” Barrett said. “That’s the most important part. I hope the boom we have in the city’s response container never touches the water.”

But if it does, the folks who participated Tuesday won’t just be ready to help, they’ll know how to help, too.

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Shaylon Cochran is a host and reporter at KDLL in Kenai. He’s reported on fishing, energy, agriculture and local politics since coming to Alaska in 2011. He has worked at KDLL/KBBI on the Kenai Peninsula, where he picked up lots of new hobbies, like smoking salmon, raising chickens, skiing and counting RV’s. He holds a bachelors degree in Journalism from Iowa State University.

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