Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert
From its extreme weather to its remote communities and limited infrastructure, Alaska can present many challenges for response agencies in times of crisis. Plans for how to remove pollution or conduct a rescue at the edge of the last frontier are becoming increasingly important as the state sees more maritime traffic through its ports and waterways. That’s why the Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and city of Unalaska came together with industry members from North Pacific Fuel and Alaska Chadux Corporation to conduct Aleutians PREP Exercise 2014 in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, Sept. 24-25.
Aleutians PREP Exercise 2014 was part of the National Preparedness for Response Exercise Program and entailed the deployment of oil spill response equipment and a full-scale, government-led, multi-agency exercise that tested the agencies’ ability to respond to a simulated fuel spill while navigating the limitations of working from the isolated island town of Unalaska.
“The exercise was designed to evaluate the capabilities and effectiveness of the federal on-scene coordinator, Alaska state on-scene coordinator, the Aleutians Area Committee and local and industry partners,” said Jackie Stephens, Coast Guard Force Readiness Command Exercise Support lead for Aleutians PREP Exercise 2014. “This exercise provides the response community an opportunity to improve preparedness by validating information and procedures within their contingency plans.”
The scenario for the exercise which involved a massive diesel fuel spill caused by a landslide at the North Pacific Fuel terminal in Unalaska provided many challenges for responders. Besides the obvious task of removing the diesel and rescuing impacted wildlife, federal, state, local and industry members had to figure out how to get equipment and personnel on scene while dealing with limited communications, sparse lodging, vast distances and poor weather conditions.
“Participants in the exercise were evaluated on their ability to effectively respond to the scenario and also on their ability to work around the challenges inherent to working in a remote location,” said Capt. Paul Mehler, federal on-scene coordinator and Sector Anchorage commander. “The Coast Guard and our partner agencies have a responsibility to the safety of Alaska’s residents and the accessibility of its ports no matter how secluded so we need to be prepared for situations that test both our skill and our ingenuity.”
Upon completion of the Sept. 24 exercise, personnel deployed spill response equipment Sept. 25 in order to test the readiness of response and cleanup crews from North Pacific Fuel and Alaska Chadux Corporation. The entrance to the Iliuliuk River was boomed off and skimmers were operated from both the shore and a Vessel of Opportunity Skimming System after the area was examined by a state historical properties specialist from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s important for responders to have a working knowledge of how to operate spill response equipment, but it’s equally important that these exercises are conducted in a way that doesn’t endanger or adversely affect historical sites or environmentally sensitive areas,” said Lt. Matthew Mitchell, Coast Guard Sector Anchorage planning department chief.
At the end of the exercise and equipment deployment, planners, evaluators and participants gathered or contributed feedback on performance and suggestions for future response efforts. Aleutians PREP Exercise 2014 may have only been a simulation, but the lessons learned may give responders the edge they need to quickly and successfully tackle a real spill when that day comes.