Last week, the Coast Guard gathered top agency officials to discuss strategic plans for responding to a potential Spill of National Significance, or SONS, in the Arctic.
A SONS is a spill that, due to its severity, size, location, actual or potential impact on the public health and welfare of the environment, or the response effort, is so complex it requires extraordinary coordination of Federal, state, local, tribal and responsible party resources to contain and clean up the discharge. The purpose of the SONS Executive Seminar is to enhance senior level interagency planning and coordination to effectively manage and respond to a SONS incident in accordance with the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan and the National Response Framework.
This seminar was the capstone of a three-year focus on the extraordinary challenges of responding to an offshore oil spill in the Arctic. Over the past year, the agencies have convened working groups to address three of the most daunting issues identified in 2013.
Coast Guard Vice Commandant, Vice Adm. Peter Neffenger spoke about the importance of collaborating with those in attendance.
“This talented group – all of you – are this nation’s top experts. You know the questions to ask to identify the challenges we would face in responding to an oil spill in the Arctic, and what we need to do together to meet those challenges,” said Neffenger.
Top officials from the following agencies were in attendance: Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Interior, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency, General Services Administration, Health and Human Services, National Pollution Funds Center, National Security Council, State of Alaska and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The issues discussed in the 2014 seminar, brought to light in 2013, were:
• The state of science and communicating to the public regarding the use of dispersants
• Arctic logistics assessment
• Communication coordination
State of science and dispersants
If a decision is made to use dispersants during a response in the Arctic, senior leaders need clear information on the state of dispersant science. An interagency working group was formed to evaluate the state of science and uncertainties and provide recommendations. Interagency efforts are planned to continue through September 2015 to provide workshops, research, and survey and provide reports on this topic.
The group ran two computerized scenarios that track particles to simulate an oil spill in the Arctic. This provided information on how the oil would spread and impact the region which gives invaluable information for a possible future response.
Arctic logistics assessment
Providing the necessary resources and infrastructure to support the federal government’s response to an Arctic SONS poses significant logistical challenges. Extensive preparation and the development of a logistics plan are necessary to determine critical resource gaps and how best to address them.
“We need to look at the gaps, and our limitations and tap into the brain trust of those here at the table, to identify sufficiency of our authorities, capabilities, capacities and partnerships,” said Abel. “Before drilling hardware even goes out on the water, we need a plan to prevent possible incidents and make sure that those plan requirements are met.”
The Alaska Regional Response Team, in coordination with an interagency SONS working group, is developing a logistics assessment for response to a SONS incident in the Arctic. The seminar outlined the next steps planned in this effort which are on track for completing in 2015.
Capt. Claudia Gelzer, chief of the Coast Guard’s Office of Environmental Response, spoke about the complexities and uniqueness of an oil spill response in the Arctic. Gelzer also highlighted the importance of seminars, such as the SONS executive meetings and working groups, to explore the gaps and identify solutions.
“A spill in the Arctic would truly be unlike anything we’ve ever experienced,” said Gelzer.
The alignment and coordination of communication efforts from response organizations is critical to ensuring accurate and timely information is released during a SONS response. Responding agencies should be prepared to coordinate with affected populations, states and the responsible party to share information and ensure that the most accurate information is being released.
Rear Adm. Peter Gautier, director of governmental and public affairs, spoke about the importance of communication coordination.
“We need to be prepared to communicate information to stakeholders and provide a regular flow of information across all levels,” said Gautier.
An interagency working group has developed a draft SONS communication coordination strategy which is currently under review; the final strategy will be available on the National Response Team’s website.
Inland SONS scenario
During the second phase of the seminar, participants examined challenges associated with an inland SONS. This interagency discussion was timely and important due to significant increases in the volume of crude oil transported over land routes across the country. A scenario involving a train derailment and subsequent discharge of Bakken crude oil provided the framework to discuss policy, interagency coordination, and strategic communications concerns unique to an inland SONS.
According to the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the volume of crude oil moving by rail has quadrupled in less than a decade. Transportation by rail has increased including the volume of crude oil transported via railways.
Similar to the Arctic SONS scenario the previous seminars had focused on, top agency officials worked through an inland scenario to identify response challenges, determine what involvement their agencies would be responsible for, and discuss logistical challenges and other factors that would impact an inland SONS response due to a railway incident.
“We are going to leverage the evolution of our capabilities in the realm of environmental response,” said Mary Landry, director of incident management and preparedness policy. “We’ve done a lot of work over the past three years through the executive seminars series and we will continue to improve our capabilities and plans.”
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