Environmental Response Policy

Recap of 2020 Spill of National Significance executive seminar

Editor’s note: Maritime Commons virtually attended the 2020 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.

Meeting of principles at the SONS Executive Seminar.
Adm. Karl Schultz, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, participates in a Spill of National Significance (SONS) Executive Seminar at Joint Base Andrews-Naval Air Facility Washington in Prince George’s County, Maryland, September 9, 2020. The overarching goal of the seminar is to familiarize agency principals with national oil spill response policies and explore interagency coordination procedures during a SONS. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Travis Magee/Released)

Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz hosted executives from 18 federal and state agencies at Joint Base Andrews September 9 for the 2020 Spill of National Significance (SONS) Executive Seminar. The overarching goal of the seminar, which is held every one-to-three years, was to familiarize agency principals with national oil spill response policies and explore interagency coordination procedures during a SONS. The seminar also served as an opportunity to build and strengthen relationships and promote mutual understanding of the federal government’s roles and responsibilities under the National Response System.

Since 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard’s SONS Exercise and Training Program has included executive-level tabletop exercises and seminars designed to provide principal-level officials across the federal government with an opportunity to explore and discuss complex policy considerations related to a major oil spill and/or hazardous substance release. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident highlighted the critical need for increased senior-level participation in future SONS exercises.

The 2020 SONS Executive Seminar was nominated and approved to be part of the National Exercise Program, the principal exercise mechanism for examining preparedness and measuring readiness across the nation. Staff from the Coast Guard’s Office of Marine Environmental Response Policy planned for and designed this year’s 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, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

In person attendance was limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, however more than 100 participants from around the country joined virtually or by phone to listen and discuss their agency’s role during a major spill.

The seminar began with comments from Ms. Dana Tulis, Coast Guard Director of Emergency Management, who provided content for the meeting by highlighting the fact that there has only been one SONS event in the nation’s history – the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Although still fresh in the minds of many, it has been a decade since that disaster. Tulis, who was then with the Environmental Protection Agency, was one of a handful of participants who were personally involved in the response. Additionally, 2020 also marked the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill. While fortunate that these significant types of events are few and far between, it is imperative that federal executives focus on maintaining the preparedness of the government agencies responsible for responding to a SONS-level event.

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.

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 Federal On-Scene Coordinator and the premise that the “polluter pays” reigns. Because of this, the Responsible Party has a significant role in the decision-making process, is a key member of the Unified Command, and is ultimately held responsible.

As the Coast Guard and other agencies find themselves responding to hurricane driven Stafford Act disasters, Schultz noted that agencies have responded to many hurricane responses in the recent past, and as a result have become quite proficient within the Stafford Act. But, when it comes to exercising the National Response System, mandated under the Clean Water Act, agencies get few opportunities to practice like they do with Safford Act incidents.     

The gathering of the principal federal officials was what Schultz said the SONS event was all about. He added that although agencies are adept at responding to Stafford Act disasters, exposure to larger events that fall under the National Contingency Plan is limited. For this reason, Schultz noted that the SONS Executive Seminar is a capstone event, essential for brining everyone together to discuss the challenges of an event of national magnitude.

 “No one agency can handle and event,” Schultz said. “When you’re in the crisis no one has all the right answers, but everyone has to bring their best.” He concluded by saying that “Preparation equals performance. This is part of that preparation.”

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.

The SONS Executive Steering Committee (ESC) agreed that the 2020 SONS Executive Seminar would focus on an inland and coastal scenario involving both an EPA Senior Agency Official (SAO) and a Coast Guard National Incident Commander (NIC). The ESC also agreed that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Operations Center (NOC) would be exercised as a possible mechanism to meet interagency communication needs encompassing both National Contingency Plan (NCP) requirements and Homeland Security Presidential Directive-5 (HSPD-5) on the management of domestic incident mandates within the DHS community.

The 2020 SONS Executive Seminar was a discussion-based exercise that addressed the following three objectives:

  • SONS Overview: Familiarize government principals on the SONS response structure and their respective agencies’ potential roles in a SONS response.
    • Discussion topics include: interagency roles and responsibilities, unity of effort, whole of government, and lessons learned.
  • Incident Notification and Coordination: Exercise and assess communications between the senior leadership through the NOC, to include the Principal Federal Official (PFO), Secretary of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard and/or EPA.
    • Discussion topics include: triggers for a SONS declaration, political pressure, difference between NCP and Stafford Act responses, NOC mechanism for principals, senior-level communication needs, multi-state effort to respond, hazardous winter response conditions, and public health concerns for air and water contamination
  • Transitioning of Response Management: Explore the process of transitioning the response management from the EPA SAO to the Coast Guard NIC when a SONS transitions into the coastal region.
    • Discussion topics include: identification of the greatest threats, transition of management of the spill, and communications.

The Executive Seminar was comprised of four modules designed to follow an event through stages from preplanning to transition of control. The seminar’s discussions were based on the backdrop of an exercise scenario that involved a major oil spill due to a petrochemical tank explosion at an oil refinery near Chicago, located adjacent to the Lake Michigan shoreline.

  • Module #1 Perspectives from Deepwater Horizon Incident & SONS Overview,
    Admiral Thad W. Allen, Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard (retired)

Guest speaker, retired Admiral Thad Allen, former Commandant of the Coast Guard and Federal On-Scene Coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon response, provided insight to set the stage for the seminar, and to reiterate the importance of bringing principle federal officials together to discuss the challenges of a major response effort in today’s politically charged environment.

“We’re never going to have a large-scale crisis in this country again that isn’t interfaced with the political world and operational world,” Allen said. “And trying to keep those processes distinct, so you can focus on fixing the problem, and letting political leaders do their jobs, in being responsive to their constituents, requires an inordinate amount of insight and ability to work in two worlds, without compromising what you’re trying to do.”

Allen recounted the early days of the Deepwater Horizon response when circumstances made it clear that the event was catastrophic and would impose extraordinary requirements in order to contain and clean up the spill. Not only was the size of the response unprecedented, knowledge of national response doctrine was limited, as was how to deal with a spill that was 45 miles offshore and fell outside state jurisdictions. Allen said that the magnitude of the response required a unified voice and coordinated effort between federal, state and local leaders. Never before had the nation faced such a significant response. Fortunately the response was able to rely on frameworks, plans and protocols already in place to guide decision making, such as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) and dispersant preapprovals. Also important was the activation of the National Response Team and NIC whereby the Secretary of Homeland Security assumed the role of the Principal Federal Official. 

Speaking to PFOs facing a future potential SONS event, Allen offered a wide range of recommendations for continued improvement. His noted that lessons learned from the Deep Water Horizon response and other events should be incorporated into existing oil-spill frameworks, plans and protocols. Other significant recommendation included aligning the National Contingency Plan with the Homeland Security Presidential Directive #5 (Management of Domestic Incidents), as well as improving the understanding among those holding positions during a response as to how they work together. Allen explained that part of that understanding comes from the participation in SONS exercises and training opportunities. He concluded by stressing the need to control the airspace early on in a response and called for the potential for independent inspections of drilling systems.

  • Module #2 SONS Strategic Coordination Call (SSCC)
    Ms. Dana Tulis and Director Christopher Tomney, Office of Operations Coordination, Department of Homeland Security

Dana Tulis, who was the chair of the NRT at the time of Deepwater Horizon, introduced the section and highlighted the importance of the NRT as a critical interagency communication mechanism. She noted that for the past 10 years the NRT has been working on a plan to use the NOC to coordinate SONS interagency coordination calls. Director Tomney explained the functions of the NOC and how that capability could be made available to senior executives to conduct coordination during a SONS. He noted that the missions of the SONS ESC, DHS Operations (DHS OPS), and NOC are similar in that each has a responsibility to integrate and coordinate interagency capabilities during an incident. He also added that the NOC is already working with federal, state, local and tribal partners to protect the homeland on a daily basis, therefore, taking the existing NOC communication process and moving it into the world of a SONS would be a natural fit. The NOC consists of more than 25 different organizations, and interfaces with four dozen interagency operation centers. Watch officers at the NOC provide management of interagency calls, and that capability could be used to facilitate a SONS Strategic Communication Call. Tomney explained that the NOC does not make operational decisions, but rather brings groups together to make decisions.  The proposal is looking at integrating the networking capabilities of the NOC to bring senior executives together in order to both fulfill the requirements under HSPD-5 as well as support the field with operational needs.

  • Module #3 Incident Notification & Coordination

In module three, participants were presented with the scenario involving a large facility fire, and the subsequent oil spill resulting from the loss of a 24-million gallon tank. This hypothetical SONS event created critical impacts which drove participant responses to focus on significant human, environmental, and economic impacts, as well as, claims, public affairs, and social media issues. As the scenario progressed, participants were asked to exercise and assess their agency’s communications between senior leadership through the National Operations Center (NOC), to include the PFO, Secretary of Homeland Security, USCG NIC, EPA SAO, and the White House. Participants discussed the triggers for a SONS declaration, political pressure, differences between NCP and Stafford Act responses, SONS Strategic Coordination Call (SSCC) for Principals, senior-level communication needs, multi-state effort to respond, hazardous winter response conditions, and public health concerns for air and water contamination.

  • Module #4 Transitioning of Response Management

Entering the final module, the scenario progressed in time and magnitude, and participants were asked to explore the process of transitioning the response management from the EPA SAO to the Coast Guard NIC. The transition from the fire-centric event, to the spill-centric event necessitated a change in oversight, but as Tulis noted, a SONS will always continue to be an interagency response, regardless of who takes over management. Participants discussed and walked through the identification of the greatest threats, transition of management of the spill, and communications.

Key takeaways from the seminar:

  • NIC instructions are going through the Coast Guard concurrent clearance process
  • Coordination mechanisms with the NOC and NIC staff are in development
  • Lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon continue to be extraordinarily valuable for SONS response and preparedness.
  • The transition of the FOSC role needs to be formalized and standardized in writing at the national level
  • The mechanism of the SONS strategic coordination calls needs to be tested
  • There continue to be ongoing challenges, but SONS training is key to preparedness

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.