Coast Guard, state, industry prepare for the worst with 48-hour spill response exercise

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Members of the Port Valdez Area Exercise 2013 work together at a simulated joint information center at the Valdez Emergency Operations Center in Valdez, Alaska, June 12, 2013. This full-scale, government-led, multi-agency exercise included the Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, City of Valdez and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and was designed to test the oil spill response capabilities of emergency responders in the Valdez area. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

A tank vessel strikes a barge in southern Prince William Sound. A report comes in that more than one million gallons of oil have spilled and spread across the waters of the Sound. Hundreds of personnel and response vessels need to be coordinated while weather conditions threaten to push the oil to shore and hamper attempts to clean the spill. This was the scenario facing Coast Guard, state and industry members during a 48-hour joint oil spill response exercise in Valdez and Anchorage, Alaska Oct. 11-13.

The 2013 Valdez Polar Tankers exercise involved more than 500 Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, ConocoPhillips/Polar Tankers, Inc., and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company personnel and simulated a worst case discharge from a tanker in Prince William Sound. The exercise scenario was designed to evaluate and improve agency and industry capabilities and effectiveness when responding to such an event.

“Large-scale exercises require months to coordinate and a collaborative effort amongst the maritime response community,” said Cmdr. Benjamin Hawkins, Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Valdez commanding officer and federal on-scene coordinator for Prince William Sound. “This drill was especially unique as it tested our ability to support 24-hour response operations and incorporated five different Coast Guard units, including support personnel from the Sector Field Office and Electronics Support Detachment in Valdez.”

In addition to testing response capabilities, field deployment of response equipment and coordination of response activities, the exercise also marked the first time a transition of the Unified Command’s incident command post was tested within Prince William Sound.  The scenario began in Valdez Monday evening and continued without interruption for 36 hours. Responders then shifted the incident command post to Anchorage Wednesday morning.

“Smoothly shifting response personnel to an alternate incident command post is vital to providing an aggressive response in a worst case scenario,” said Capt. Paul Mehler, Coast Guard Sector Anchorage commander and federal on-scene coordinator for Western Alaska. “An exercise of this scope gives the Coast Guard, our state partners and industry a chance to enhance and evaluate their response plans in a realistic setting.”

This week’s exercise is one of several annual multi-agency drills designed to evaluate the capabilities and effectiveness of Coast Guard, state and industry in carrying out their collective responsibilities under the Alaska Federal/State Unified Plan, the Prince William Sound Discharge Prevention and Contingency Plan and local response plans.  Similar exercises, like the Port Valdez PREPEX conducted during June, are held regularly in order to maintain skills and knowledge of response procedures.

“Response exercises similar to the 2013 Valdez Polar Tankers exercise are conducted throughout Alaska by federal, state, local and industry personnel multiple times a year,” said Lt. Allie Ferko, Marine Safety Unit Valdez public information officer.  “Alaska’s waterways are one of the state’s greatest natural resources. Keeping them safe and clean is vital to commerce and the health of Alaska’s residents and wildlife. That’s why it’s so important we continually train to minimize the impacts of these types of incidents.”

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