Environmental Response Policy

4/4/2018: Recap of recent Spill of National Significance executive seminar

Editor’s note: During a Spill of National Significance – as with any oil spill – maritime industry is a significant party to the response, either as the Responsible Party, a salvage or marine firefighting provider, an OSRO, or other contributory role. Maritime Commons recently attended the 2018 Spill of National Significance Executive Seminar and is providing a summary of the discussions among federal executives in attendance in order to inform our readers what to expect about how the government operates under the various response regulations and frameworks in play during a SONS. We hope you find it informative and as always, feel free to leave comments or questions below.


Photo of Adm. Zukunft addressing the attendees of SONS executive seminar

Adm. Paul Zukunft address attendees at the Spill of National Significance Executive Seminar March 22, 2018. Photo by PA1 Patrick Kelley, USCG.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft hosted executives from 17 federal agencies at Joint Base Andrews March 22 for the 2018 Spill of National Significance (SONS) Executive Seminar. The overarching goal of the seminar, which is held every one to three years, is to familiarize agency principals with national oil spill response policies and explore interagency coordination procedures during a SONS. The seminar is also an opportunity to build and strengthen relationships and promote mutual understanding of the federal government’s roles and responsibilities under the National Response System.

Staff from the Coast Guard’s Office of Marine Environmental Response Policy planned for and designed the seminar. Executives from the following agencies participated: Dept. of Agriculture, Dept. of Commerce, Dept. of Defense, Dept. of Energy, Dept. of Health and Human Services, Dept. of Homeland Security, Dept. of Interior, Dept. of Justice, Dept. of Labor, Dept. of State, Dept. of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency, General Services Administration, National Security Council Staff, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

After thanking participants for attending the seminar, Zukunft, who served as Federal On-Scene Coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon SONS, said, “Eight years ago, in March of 2010, we held a SONS exercise, but we didn’t have nearly the level of participation as we do today. The sentiment eight years ago was, ‘Why are we doing this? We’re never going to have another Exxon Valdez.’ Well, they were right. A month later, we had something else – something called Deepwater Horizon.”

According to the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP), a SONS is “a spill that due to its severity, size, location, actual or potential impact on the public health and welfare or the environment, or the necessary response effort, is so complex that it requires extraordinary coordination of federal, state, local, and responsible party resources to contain and clean up the discharge.” During a SONS, interagency coordination and involvement of senior officials is key to assuring Congress and the public that the federal government is taking all appropriate action to mitigate the adverse impacts to public health, the environment, and the economy.

One of the challenges officials faced during Deepwater Horizon was a lack of awareness and understanding among federal, state, and local agencies of how the U.S. government responds to a Stafford Act/National Response Framework incident differently than how it responds to a NCP incident. Each trigger a different but complex series of frameworks, laws, regulations, funding mechanisms, and directives that guide the response.

In a Stafford Act response, the affected state(s) takes the lead and requests support from the federal government. FEMA coordinates support to the state(s), using the National Response Framework. This process is most familiar to states and they expect it during a response; it is how they receive federal aid during hurricanes and other natural disasters. Conversely, under a NCP response, the federal government – either the Coast Guard or EPA – is pre-designated as the lead and the premise that the “polluter pays” reigns. Because of this, the Responsible Party has a significant role in the decision-making process and is a key member of the Unified Command.

The Executive Seminar was comprised of three modules, each centering on a unique SONS scenario. This was the first seminar to have a multi-SONS scenario approach, which was designed to provide participants with how different SONS incidents can occur, but that the response mechanisms and coordination are the same. Federal agencies each had the opportunity to weigh in from their particular perspectives about challenges they may face and resources they may offer.

• The scenario for Module #1 Federal Doctrine for Oil/Hazardous Substance Emergency Response was a 4.2 million gallon oil spill from a tanker transiting the Arctic. The incident occurred after the only available ice escort experienced a mechanical failure. The objective was to familiarize participants with the various response frameworks used in the U.S. to respond to a SONS. Attendees discussed funding mechanisms, activation procedures, and agency authorities and jurisdiction. Rear Adm. Peter Gautier, director of Governmental and Public Affairs for the Coast Guard, and Joshua Dozer, Director of Planning and Exercises for FEMA, each provided an overview of the federal doctrines, from their agency’s perspective.

• The scenario for Module #2 SONS Interagency Coordination was a combined oil and chemical incident in the Gulf of Mexico. Two tankers, one carrying light sweet crude and the other carrying Vinyl Chloride, collided in the Houston Ship Channel, and both released product. The objective was to give seminar participants the opportunity to examine the mechanisms for incident information flow during a SONS, and discuss recommendations associated with message and information coordination across the interagency, and effective and timely communication with the public. Ms. Dana Tulis, director of Incident Management and Preparedness Policy for the Coast Guard, briefed participants on a proposed interagency coordination structure for a coastal or inland SONS, which highlights the communication flow from an incident Unified Command all the way up to the White House.

• The scenario for Module #3 Transboundary Relationships was a pipeline incident in the Great Lakes. In this scenario, a pipeline failed due to accidental third-party excavation damage and released 210,000 gallons of light sweet crude into the St. Clair River. The objective was to discuss U.S. policy related to shared maritime borders, coordination, and mutual assistance pertaining to countries impacted by a SONS incident. Lt. Cmdr. Joel Coito, the Coast Guard liaison officer to the Dept. of State’s Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, briefed attendees on international joint contingency planning, existing agreements and contingency plans, and differences in the funding mechanisms and claims processes.

Key takeaways from the seminar:

• Ensure agency-to-agency support and funding mechanisms are well understood prior to a SONS event.
• Coordination with international partners is critical.
• Establish trust with all levels of responding agencies and the public during a response.
• Establish relationships with partner agencies in advance to counter many of the challenges to be expected during a SONS.
• Understand the role of the International Coordinating Officer (ICO) as the bridge between the U.S. and Canada during a spill that crosses the U.S./Canada border.

For more information about the various components of a SONS mentioned in this blog, visit the websites below:

National Response Framework
National Contingency Plan
Stafford Act
Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund
Incident Command System

This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.

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