Mock oil spill's goal is to find response problems
What if . . . Thursday morning began serene and sunny, with a brisk breeze blowing in from the east on a typical spring day. Vessels traversed Vineyard Haven Harbor, and visitors arrived for the start of a pleasant weekend.
At approximately 9:30 am, the peace was disrupted when a tug towing the Meropa, a barge full of number two fuel oil, swerved quickly to avoid a speeding motor yacht. The cumbersome barge swung hard onto the Vineyard Haven Harbor breakwater splitting its hull. The entire cargo of oil immediately began to spill into the harbor.
This accident scenario was a drill played out Thursday morning on paper by an off-Island consultant and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
(Left to right) John Lane, Ralph Packer, Andy Farrissey, Norman Wahl, Richard Packard, Bruce Ingham, George Wilson and Aaron Frost discuss strategy during a mock oil spill drill last Thursday. Photo by Ralph Stewart
On Thursday, Ralph M. Packer Jr. - owner of the R.M. Packer Company, a wholesaler of petroleum products as well as an operator of tugs and barges - and other local and state officials gathered at the Tisbury Wharf Company as if there were a legitimate spill; calls went out to federal officials, equipment was checked for malfunctions, and the Steamship Authority (SSA) was notified and ordered to stop running passenger ferries.
"We're not testing individuals, we're testing the plan," said Robert Hazelton, a marine safety and security consultant with RHH Associates. He stressed that these drills are executed in order to identify breakdowns in communication, and future concerns.
If such a disaster were to occur, local companies, state and federal agencies, and Island residents have a comprehensive plan in place to deal with it.
The Island is equipped with a Spill Management Team, required by law following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
Mr. Packer is designated by state officials as the team's qualified individual. His job is to bring together all needed forces in case of a spill. All captains sailing into Vineyard Haven Harbor are supplied with Mr. Packer's contact information, and in case of an emergency spill of any magnitude, he is the first call. Mr. Packer then pulls together the team of local and off-Island officials to address the situation.
One glitch identified by the team on Thursday was the absence of the Environmental Police on the calling list.
Mr. Hazelton said if birds or other wildlife came into contact with the spilled fuel, humans would likely try to help. Wading into contaminated waters and becoming saturated in spilled oil is potentially dangerous for both the humans and animals, and a trained professional is needed to handle such a delicate situation.
"Human health and safety is the number one priority," Mr. Hazelton said. "People are more important than animals, according to the protocol."
Other problems addressed during the drill were the lack of response and cleanup equipment already on the Island, places to house the many officials who would travel here to help, and how those officials would get to the Island if the SSA were prevented from operating.
The team met at the end of the day to discuss the encouraging and discouraging results of the drill, and what could be improved in the future.
Mr. Hazelton said the law mandates the team address the worst-case scenario, which in this instance was a full loss of cargo, with 200,000 gallons (the full capacity of a tank barge) spilling into the harbor during adverse whether conditions. Officials said this situation is highly unlikely, noting the Exxon Valdez lost only 11 percent of its cargo.
Nonetheless, the team was forced to address immediate environmental and logistic issues associated with the scheduled scenario.
"The important part of these drills is preparedness, and making sure everything is in place," said Richard Packard, chief of emergency response from the DEP.
Mr. Hazelton said he purposefully scheduled the wind to come from the east, so the Oak Bluffs SSA port would also have to close, causing a further dilemma of incoming personnel and equipment. He added that the Island presents unique problems as far as transportation and available space are concerned, issues that don't exist on the mainland.
What if Mr. Packer were vacationing off the Island? Who would take his place? What if necessary containment equipment could not make it to the Island for a couple of hours, and the oil began to seep onto the shore? What if a child, unaware of the danger, waded into the contaminated waters? These, and other questions, were raised for the team to address and discuss.
To date, there have been no large oil spills in the waters surrounding the Island, officials said.
"It's partly lucky and partly careful," Mr. Packard said.
Rick Reinhardson, director of Tisbury Towing, the company that operates Packer tugs and barges, said he oversees approximately five incoming barges a week, two of which specifically carry oil. He said this number is somewhat consistent throughout the year.
The heaviest oil brought onto the Island is number two, classified as home heating oil. This type of fuel is lighter and easier to clean than thicker fuels, but still a hazard if spilled into harbor waters. Mr. Reinhardson said the SSA ferries also carry significant amounts of fuel.
With officials from the US Coast Guard, National Response Corp., and the Clean Harbors Environmental Services buzzing about on Thursday, and laptops and Nextel phones vibrating to life, it appeared as real as if the emergency were authentic.
"Remember," Mr. Packer joked. "This is just a drill. But we're prepared."