Coast Guard sets the record straight with regards to dispersant use in Alaskan waters

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – With the concurrence of the State and the U.S. EPA, the Coast Guard may choose to use dispersants when they are determined to be an appropriate and effective tool to mitigate the effects of oil should there be a spill in Alaskan waters.

In a communication from the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) on September 26 the DOI Alaska Regional Response Team (ARRT) representative identified the department’s unilateral retraction of its previous support to allow preauthorization of dispersant use in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. These are classified as zone one areas of Alaska and are the only areas in Alaska where dispersant use was preauthorized.

Under preauthorization the federal on-scene coordinator (FOSC) can approve the use of dispersants in a zone one area without consultation of the ARRT. Preauthorization was put in place to allow the timely and effective use of dispersants as an oil spill response tool to minimize environmental impacts. Certain environmental conditions must exist for dispersants to be used effectively. The window for use can close quickly.

This retraction of approval by DOI of preauthorization does not prevent the use of dispersants in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. The use will be considered through a process of concurrence with the State and U.S. EPA, as well as consultation with the trustees of ARRT, for all zones rather than just zones two and three. The process of consultation is outlined in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan.

The guidelines for use of oil dispersants have existed and been approved since 1986 for Cook Inlet and 1989 for Prince William Sound by the ARRT.

“Dispersant products have only improved in the last 20 years since zone one was established,” said Capt. Mark Hamilton, commander Sector Anchorage, Captain of the Port Western Alaska. “The science that was used to justify the establishment of zone one and allow preauthorized use of dispersants beyond the 10 fathom curve is still sound.”

The move by DOI makes Alaska the only coastal state in the U.S. that has had dispersant preauthorization rescinded. This makes Alaska now one of only two coastal states the does not have preauthorized zones for dispersant use. In Hawaii the use of dispersants has been widely embraced by responders.

“Dispersants are one of many tools we have to mitigate the effects of oil spills during a response effort,” said Hamilton. “Mechanical means of recovery are preferred, but oil is much easier to clean up before it hits the beach. Dispersants are never used without careful consideration. They are designed for specific applications and have proved to be very effective when used properly.”

Zone one is defined as an area in which dispersant use should be considered as a means to prevent or reduce the amount of oil reaching the shoreline or other sensitive resources, including:
* endangered or threatened species protected by Federal and State governments;
* nesting, spawning, breeding, and nursery areas for mammals, birds, fish, and shellfish;
* fish and wildlife concentration areas where these animals feed, rest, or migrate;
* sensitive marine habitats, including:
* seagrass beds
* kelp beds
* shellfish beds
* tidal flats
* marshes
* shallow subtidal areas
* low energy bays and harbors
* rocky intertidal areas;
* aquaculture and commercial areas which are shallow enough to allow impacts from oil spills; and
* recreational and industrial areas.

Zone one areas are characterized by water conditions (depth, distance, and currents) that will allow dispersed oil to be rapidly diluted to low concentrations, and are far enough away from sensitive resources that dispersant operations would not cause disturbances. In this zone, there is a significant likelihood that spilled oil will impact sensitive resources, and an immediate response is required in order to mitigate environmental consequences.

The ARRT is an advisory board to the FOSC. The ARRT provides federal, state, and local governmental agencies with means to participate in response to pollution incidents.

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