Coast Guard wraps up 2019 statewide inspection initiative in Alaska

Petty Officer 3rd Class Shawn Keeman (right), an inspector on temporary duty for Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, prepares to inspect a fuel storage facility in Oscarville, Alaska, July 9, 2019. Keeman’s inspection was part of Sector Anchorage’s 2019 Marine Safety Task force initiative. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Alyssa Zappe

Petty Officer 3rd Class Shawn Keeman (right), an inspector on temporary duty for Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, prepares to inspect a fuel storage facility in Oscarville, Alaska, July 9, 2019. Keeman’s inspection was part of Sector Anchorage’s 2019 Marine Safety Task force initiative. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Alyssa Zappe

By Petty Officer 1st Class Nate Littlejohn

The area of responsibility for U.S. Coast Guard Sector Anchorage is by far the largest and most remote of any Coast Guard sector in the nation. Capt. Sean MacKenzie, sector commander, exercises authority in a jurisdiction extending throughout Western Alaska to the North Slope, and from the Aleutian Islands through Prince William Sound—an area that covers approximately 5.3 million square miles and more than 35,000 miles of shoreline.

Within this area of responsibility are fuel facilities that are critical to the survival of communities in Western Alaska, where fuel in sub-freezing winter months is essential to home heating and subsistence. Many of these fuel facilities have experienced some degree of deterioration over time, from fatiguing metal to eroding shorelines and tundra upheavals, all of which impact infrastructure stability and longevity.

The majority of these facilities are also unreachable by automobile. In 2019, Coast Guard Sector Anchorage personnel executed an innovative plan to assess these remote facilities in order to determine their condition and identify facilities vulnerable to oil spills.

The sector is responsible for inspecting roughly 380 of these bulk oil waterfront facilities, 346 of which are not on the Alaska road system.

In order to accomplish this daunting task, Sector Anchorage personnel began in 2018 to devise an intricate plan designed to meet the staffing, transportation and fiscal needs of conducting these inspections with increased frequency and efficiency. That plan, the Marine Safety Task Force initiative, was launched in the spring of 2019. In an unprecedented effort, MSTF teams inspected nearly 60 percent of those facilities—almost five times more than last year.

“In the lower 48, Coast Guard inspectors can simply drive to fuel storage facilities to conduct inspections,” said MacKenzie. “Up here in Alaska, getting our folks to these places requires flying and often demands expensive lodging. Working with budget and personnel limitations during the Coast Guard’s busiest time of year are just a few of the challenges we overcame this year.”

Sector Anchorage relied heavily upon Coast Guard active duty and reserve members from other Alaska units, as well as members stationed in the lower 48 on temporary duty orders to complete the inspections. A crucial component of the MSTF was also made up of volunteers who did not wear the Coast Guard uniform.

Sector Anchorage was supported heavily by the Air Force’s Civil Air Patrol for transportation from hub communities to remote villages. CAP is comprised of volunteers, much like the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

“Due to the constraints and cost of flying commercially, CAP pilots greatly enhanced our ability to execute missions in the Arctic and Western Alaska in 2019,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jereme Altendorf, an emergency management specialist, whose duties focus on Arctic issues and the challenges presented by the Arctic to Sector Anchorage. “The success of the MSTF initiative this summer was contingent upon the willingness of CAP leadership to support us, and the volunteer pilots who flew countless hours in support of our missions this summer.”

“CAP pilots with the Alaska Wing would fly hundreds of miles each day on these deployments, continuously dropping off and picking up teams of inspectors in remote villages as weather permitted,” said Chief Petty Officer Nathan Hatfield, a lead inspector at Sector Anchorage. “But weather did not always permit. On multiple occasions these pilots became stranded with us in remote locations due to unfavorable weather conditions.”

In order to access most of these facilities, Coast Guard inspectors first flew from Anchorage to hub communities, such as Nome, Kotzebue and Utqiaġvik. Each team stayed within the hub community anywhere from 10-14 days, depending on the regulatory needs within that community. For instance, in Dillingham, MSTF members completed facility inspections, commercial fishing vessel exams and responded to a barge grounding.

From the hub community, inspectors boarded other planes to more remote Alaska villages. Sometimes the second flight was a commercial “bush” passenger plane. More often, it was a CAP plane.

Upon arriving in the villages, inspectors relied on support from locals for ground transportation, because automobiles and all-terrain vehicles were often necessary reach the inspection sites on schedule.

The primary goal of the facility inspections was to ensure public safety and protection of the marine environment throughout Alaska. Failure of these facilities could negatively impact remote Alaskan villages and potentially leave people unable to heat their homes and schools or fuel their transportation. Additionally, an oil spill in Alaska has the potential to impact the largest salmon fishery in the country.

“Remote oil pollution incidents are significantly higher in cost due to the resources needed for clean up,” said MacKenzie. “Inspectors had all these risks in mind when communicating to facility owners and operators about the cost of infrastructure upkeep and oil spill prevention versus the liability for clean-up costs associated with an oil spill.”

Inspectors continue to work closely with facility owners, operators, and supervisors to achieve compliance based on results of these inspections.

“When Coast Guard inspectors came to Golovin, they dinged us [pointed out violations] on a few things,” said Dean Peterson, Alaska native, fuel farm manager, and lifelong resident of Golovin. “At the end of the day though, they gave us a reasonable amount of time to correct violations and we weren’t fined. I think we were treated fairly.”

Detailed results of the surge operation are scheduled to be available in February 2020, and will be shared with many regional partners, including the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as Department of Interior, who originally helped fund establishment of many of these fuel storage facilities in the 1970s.

Sector Anchorage MSTF teams did more than just inspect facilities. Each MSTF team was also tasked with meeting the needs of the regulated community by providing commercial fishing vessel exams, hazardous material container inspections, and evaluating oil spill booming strategies, dependent upon the time they had available in each community.

“Through the 2019 MSTF initiative, the Coast Guard inspected 236 bulk oil storage facilities in 102 Alaska communities,” said MacKenzie. “We also inspected 475 commercial fishing vessels and 22 hazmat containers.”

“2019 was a success for the MSTF initiative,” said Altendorf. “But this summer was also an educational experience for everyone involved. We learned a lot about what worked, what didn’t, and what we know we can improve upon. We’re in the process of planning for 2020 with the goal of completing the inspections we were not able to get to this year.”

Sector Anchorage MSTF inspectors are the boots on the ground and the face of the Coast Guard in the Arctic and Western portions of Alaska. The 2019 meetings between village citizens and Coast Guard inspectors represented an opportunity to cooperatively assess and improve the fuel facilities that are key to sustaining remote communities in Western Alaska.

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