Portland chosen for nation’s largest oil spill exercise

PORTLAND, Maine – As today marks the 20th anniversary of the nationally catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Coast Guard Sector Northern New England here announces that it will host the federal Spill of National Significance drill scheduled for March 2010.

The largest of its kind, the SONS 2010 will draw more than 1000 participants to Portland, the second largest oil-importing port on the east coast, and will exercise a plan to prevent and combat oil and chemical spills in the region.

“Our strength is that we have done well to stay in touch with industry,” said Lt. Lauren Trocchio, of Sector Northern New England. “If a spill happened here, it’s not like we’d be meeting with our partners for the first time. We’ve been building those relationships, practicing and planning spill responses with them for more than a decade.”

Trocchio, assigned to the sector’s response department, said that additional work has been done in the past 20 years to harden the region, home to many environmentally sensitive coastal areas, from the threat of a major oil spill.

“The Exxon Valdez was a tragic event that had a devastating impact on the environment,” said Rick Berry, of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. “One of the few positive end results of this disaster was the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which ushered in a wave of national regulations and policies to prevent and manage future spills.”

The Coast Guard, which played a major role in responding to Exxon Valdez, has since advanced its capability to respond to major spills.

For instance, Sector Northern New England, which is responsible for the coastal and inland waters of Maine, New Hampshire and Lake Champlain, Vt., now annually conducts mandated spill drills. Sector personnel have worked extensively with local, state, federal and international partners, including Canada, to improve existing spill response plans. Contingent partners include the Department of Environmental Protection, state environmental officials in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, dozens of local clean-up companies and experts, and two local ships: the National Response Corporation’s Guardian and the Marine Spill Response Corporation’s Maine Responder.

“The direct impact of Exxon Valdez and OPA 90 has been that these regulations, partnerships and exercises have significantly protected Maine and New Hampshire’s coastal industries, specifically fishing and tourism,” said Capt. James McPherson, commander of Sector Northern New England. He said another result is that oil spills have been reduced by 90 percent nationally.

The sector equipped its marine safety units and responders with 80,000 feet of boom, and the storage tanks onboard the Guardian, the Responder and other area barges combined can hold up to 18 million gallons of product.

The sector also has eight spill response trailers, each filled with oil and chemical absorbent boom and pads and sampling kits. The trailers are fixed with tow hitches and can be deployed quickly to the site of a spill.

Further, cutters in the area have been upgraded to employ state-of-the-art oil recovery systems and crews receive regular training.

“We’re adamant about being prepared, because we oversee a number of sensitive areas from clam flats, salt marshes, to off-shore fishing grounds,” Trocchio said. “Also, we have a lot of rocky coasts, which is a concern for vessel groundings, and would make clean up very difficult.”

“Every oil spill is different and presents us with variables due to the time of year, spill location, weather and oil spill type,” said Barbara Parker of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Parker, the director of DEP’s division of response services, said the partnering agencies have trained extensively to meet the challenges of an oil spill along the coast of Maine.

“Thanks to a lot of hard work and coordination during the past 20 years between government agencies at all levels, we are better able to prevent oil spills and we are better prepared to respond to spills if they do occur,” said Ira W. Leighton, acting regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s New England office. “EPA is proud to participate in next year’s SONS exercise with our Coast Guard and New England partners.”

“The Department of Interior’s bureaus work closely with responders from U.S. Coast Guard, EPA, Maine and New Hampshire, to ensure the protection of nationally significant resources,” said Andrew Raddant, regional environmental officer for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

SONS 2010 will draw response agencies and industry experts to the area and is expected to stimulate funding for new response equipment locally. Through table-top exercises and simulations, it will produce a detailed response plan specific to the northern New England region as well as lay a foundation for a national spill response strategy.

“Many perspectives are factored into a spill of national significance, especially the economic and environmental perspectives,” said Trocchio. “By bringing a large-scale exercise up here, it will allow us to nail down our strengths and weaknesses and provide a lot of our local units with training, resources and a plan that is specifically tailored to this area, but applicable nationwide.”

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