State Proposes Changes to Oil Spill Response Plan

State officials were in Unalaska on Friday to talk about a proposal pre-authorizing the use of chemical dispersants on oil spills in Alaska waters.

Officials from the Alaska Regional Response Team spent four hours at City Hall taking public comment on the proposed changes.

They said the update to the state’s 25-year-old spill response plan wouldn’t guarantee that the controversial dispersants would be used — it would just make it easier to deploy them in the event of a crude oil spill from a tanker.

Mark Everett is the Coast Guard’s co-chair on the ARRT. He said they’re drawing on lessons from spills like the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico and the Exxon Valdez, the only spill in Alaska where dispersants have been used. He said the main lesson is that it’s important to act quickly.

“A crisis is not the time to find the tool that you need,” he said. “The pre-spill environment, the planning environment is the time to do that collaboration and to receive the input you need to be able to make the best possible decision when you absolutely have to.”

The ARRT has been touring the proposed area where dispersants would be pre-authorized. That area stretches from the waters off Prince William Sound to the tip of the Aleutian chain. In the Aleutians, it begins off-shore and extends 100 nautical miles to the north and 200 nautical miles to the south. Officials say that’s where crude oil tankers travel, and where a spill would most likely occur. The zone has anchor points — narrow channels in to shore — at Cape Suckling and Cape Sarichef.

At the meeting, the ARRT officials went through a proposed checklist where officials could evaluate the environmental risks from an active spill and talk to federal, state, tribal and community stakeholders. The proposal also includes a process for identifying parts of the pre-authorization area where dispersants shouldn’t be used, like wildlife habitats or fishing grounds. And it lets officials designate areas outside the pre-authorized zone where they could use dispersants if they needed to — like closer to shore off Unalaska.

Chris Field of the Environmental Protection Agency noted that dispersants are already generally authorized in the state, but are very rarely used anywhere. They’re one of Alaska’s two options if mechanical oil recovery fails during a spill. The other is burning the oil on the surface.

Field said the pre-authorization proposal creates more streamlined checks and balances to put dispersants into action.

“If you have a pre-authorization plan, which we’re proposing as part of these dispersant guidelines, then the federal on-scene coordinator can initiate the use of dispersants without getting EPA and state approval because we’ve already agreed to the pre-authorization plan,” he said.

He also said this proposal could prompt the private companies that own the dispersants to put stocks of them closer to where spills can occur — within six to seven hours, maximum.

The ARRT members took comments from their Unalaska audience to help shape the plan. Some people were concerned about environmental impacts and local involvement in the decision-making process.

Unalaska natural resources analyst Frank Kelty asked if dispersants could seep into the water taken in by processing plants in Dutch Harbor.

Rick Bernhardt, the state’s spill preparedness coordinator, said dispersants could threaten processors, but that spilled oil would already pose a far greater threat.

“So if you’re sucking up dispersants, in reality, the fishery’s gonna be shut down,” he said. “You’re not going to get one without the other.”

Kelty said he recognized that, but he still wanted a way for seafood processors to be involved during a spill.

“I want to make sure the processing industry is part of your stakeholders that would be notified immediately,” he said.

Others wanted to know more about the research behind different brands of dispersants, and how toxic they can be to everything from seafood stocks and wildlife to the phytoplankton some of those animals eat.

Bernhardt said they’re considering those topics. He said they recognize that no dispersant is completely safe, and that dispersing the oil into the water column doesn’t completely solve the problem. But he emphasized that oil is damaging to the environment on its own if left untreated.

“Every decision that we’re going to make in the response community once that oil is in the water … has risks. It has potential to do further harm,” he said. “What we’re really talking about here in the process of decision-making for spill response is, what’s the greatest possible good that we can do and the least possible impact on the environment?”

And he noted that there are safer dispersants available now than there were during the Exxon Valdez spill.

Carl Wassilie represents the Center for Water Advocacy in Homer. He called in to the meeting and said he had concerns that tribal officials hadn’t been given enough time to weigh in. And he said he wants more assurances on toxicity.

“I’d like to see some of that documentation,” he said. “Is that something that’s going to be in the report, that’s part of this plan, that we can insure that we have a balanced approach to the use of dispersants? Decision-making that includes all available science?”

Bernhardt said they’re looking at that kind of research as part of the planning process.

The public can continue to comment on the pre-authorization proposal, which is posted online, until February 14, 2014.

Annie Ropeik is a reporter for KUCB in Unalaska.

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