ARRT proposes new area plans for oil spill response
The Alaska Regional Response Team, ARRT for short, met in Nome on September 28 for an all-day meeting in the Mini Convention Center to create a condensed and organized plan for emergency oil spill response across the state. A Northwest Arctic Subarea Committee meeting on September 27 preceded the ARRT meeting. Representatives, chair members and spokespeople from over 15 different organizations were present both days.
The ARRT supports federal and state on-scene coordinators in the event of an oil spill.
The state is currently divided into ten subareas for oil spill response plans: the Aleutians, Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet, Interior, Kodiak, North Slope, Northwest Arctic, Prince William Sound, Southeast and Western Alaska.
During the September 28 meeting, Nick Knowles, Alaska area planner and ARRT coordinator with the Environmental Protection Agency, explained the current proposal to condense those ten subareas into four areas: the Arctic, Prince William Sound, Western and Southeast Alaska. The ARRT will also create an Alaska Regional Plan, which will provide a contingency plan for statewide spill response.
When the proposal is completed and the new plans are approved, Nome will fall under the Arctic area plan, which combines the current Northwest Arctic, North Slope and Interior Alaska subareas. The reason for the merging of these subareas is to make Alaska’s oil spill response plan follow the structure of the National Contingency Plan. Alaska is unique in its current division of subareas – it is the only state not using the standard format. With a common structure, the ARRT hopes to provide a plan that is familiar in process for all emergency responders, both local and federal.
During the meeting in Nome, the ARRT Area Planning Task Force asked the co-chairs for an extension on their March 1 deadline to complete the five plans. Chris Field, the EPA co-chair to the ARRT, stressed the importance of getting the subarea plans right.
“I still kind of feel like this is a conceptual idea that we’re exploring and I don’t think we want to rush, I think we want to get this right.” Field said, “So, my sense would be that we don’t try to meet the deadline. We got some input yesterday from local folks here about how the boundaries are drawn.”
Field added that the panel was learning from the different stakeholders and cautioned how changes may impact all involved. “’Cause it changes everyone’s work when we make this change,” he said.
Gay Sheffield, Marine Advisory Program agent and Assistant Professor for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, spoke later in the day on the topic of oiled wildlife found in the Bering Strait region and the response that was followed during those incidences between 2012 and 2014. Sheffield pointed out that while the Bering Strait region may lack supplies and trained responders, the communities along the coast of the Bering Strait do not lack communication.
“We have regional communication networks in place,” said Sheffield. “We are able to communicate because we live on that water body [The Bering Sea, ed.]… there’s 30,000 people living on the coast that are monitoring and surveilling every day because, for the most part, a lot of people are either mariners and/or they are subsistence harvesters.”
Sheffield described the incidents between 2012 and 2014, when subsistence harvesters recovered oiled animals. She explained the response process to the ARRT and how the state became involved. “In every case throughout those three years, all calls came to the regional hub,” said Sheffield. “They came to myself at Sea Grant, the Eskimo Walrus Commission and Kawerak Subsistence Program.” Sheffield expressed gratitude to the United States Coast Guard, who responded quickly and effectively when the photos and information of oiled seals began to circulate. “This is food, and this is scary to us, to me, and a lot of other people.”
During the public comment period, Marty Awalin, who came to Nome for the meeting from the North Slope Borough, stressed the importance of protecting food resources in the Arctic region as well as finding a way for the villages to train for emergency spill response. Awalin said she worries that federal mandates might not be followed in oil spill emergencies, as most locals will jump to respond before state and federal responders can arrive. “They’re so protective of their resources, because that’s the best grocery store for them,” she said.
The majority of the day’s meeting involved report summaries from various task forces and organizations. One of the task forces focuses on food safety. Catherine Berg of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that there is no funding right now to do anything on food safety, although the task force is committed to keeping things rolling so that a plan can be formed once funding becomes available. Berg said that NOAA is mainly focused on Alaska with food safety concerns, as opposed to a nationwide plan, because of the importance of subsistence and commercial fishing in the state. NOAA plans to create a work group to develop a new policy regarding marine food safety in the event of an oil spill.
Federal On-Scene Coordinators, FOSC for short, from the United States Coast Guard presented their on-scene reports from Western, Southeast and Prince William Sound regions. Captain Paul Albertson, the FOSC for Western Alaska including Nome, presented the regional report since January.
There were 73 total incidents this period. One of those incidents was the fishing vessel/converted dredge vessel The North Pacific, which broke free from its anchor in August. The North Pacific was met by a second vessel and successfully returned to the Port of Nome. For all incidents in Western Alaska, 90,000 gallons of fuel were spilled. The main spill contributor was the Alaska Juris, presumed sunk about 41 miles northeast of Segula Island in the Aleutians, with 87,000 gallons of diesel on board.
Presenters also gave reports on increasing fuel vessel traffic in the Bering Strait as well as updates on Arctic Shield and the Emergency Prevention Preparedness and Response, or EPPR, a working group of the Arctic Council.
USGC Captain Todd Styrwold reported that an EPPR survey would soon be released to communities under 50,000 people in the Arctic Region to assess awareness of spill risks. The survey findings will assist the EPPR in educating locals on the best practices during an emergency event.
Captain Styrwold gave his “A-Game” overview of Arctic issues. His presentation showed the Arctic ice-melt since 1980, which currently is the size of two-thirds of the continental U.S. This has created a “new ocean” as well as increased seasonal activity in the Bering Strait, both on the Russian side and the American side, presenting new challenges for the USCG. Cpt. Styrwold mentioned the inaugural trip of the Crystal Serenity, which he said keeps the Coast Guard up at night. “What if something happens up in these remote areas?” he asked.
Arctic Shield is a strategic objective of the USCG. As the Arctic region opens up to more traffic, the potential for emergencies and Search and Rescue operations increases. Last year there were no SAR cases, but this year there have been twelve so far. Cpt. Styrwold described the Arctic Chinook SAR exercise that took place this summer in the Bering Strait region. The exercise started from the command center in Kotzebue, where a simulated 250-passenger cruise ship gave a distress call. Nome received patients needing emergency evacuation while Kotzebue, Wales and Tin City received remaining patients needing hospitalization.
During the ARRT meeting, Patricia Bower, Program Coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, kept every speaker on schedule to the agenda. Bower expressed her gratitude to the town of Nome for hosting the meeting and being so welcoming to the ARRT.
Featured speaker and Nomeite Gay Sheffield spoke during the public comment period. Her advice to the ARRT on new area plans was to think carefully about the new subarea boundaries and how they affect regional planning and local communication. After the meeting Sheffield said, “I’m glad the ARRT decided to come the very first time to Nome. We need to help them help us. I’m glad they’re here to start learning about us.”