Here comes the boom

Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda Barnett, a marine science technician at Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, and Edward Fleming, a member of Northwest Arctic Borough Search and Rescue, prepare lines and anchor before deploying a containment boom in Kotzebue, Alaska, June 24, 2015.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda Barnett, a marine science technician at Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, and Edward Fleming, a member of Northwest Arctic Borough Search and Rescue, prepare lines and anchor before deploying a containment boom in Kotzebue, Alaska, June 24, 2015.

You can’t just walk into Kotzebue. It’s not that easy. There aren’t roads in or out of town, so it’s air or water that brings you there. The little city is out on the northern tip of Baldwin Peninsula, 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun never sets in late June.  Sprawling expanses of tundra and icy Bering water are the only neighbors.

Matt Odum and Lt. James Nunez, both of the Coast Guard 17th District Response Advisory Team, deploy a length of containment boom with the help of a Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team boatcrew in Kotzebue, Alaska, June 24, 2015.

Matt Odum and Lt. James Nunez, both of the Coast Guard 17th District Response Advisory Team, deploy a length of containment boom with the help of a Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team boatcrew in Kotzebue, Alaska, June 24, 2015.

Despite the great effort necessary to visit Kotzebue, it’s an important part of the region. They call it the “Gateway to the Arctic,” and for a good reason. Scattered throughout the Northwest Arctic Borough are small tribal villages that rely on Kotzebue as a hub to connect them to the outside world. The subsistence in these communities is bolstered by communication with other parts of the state, where decisions like how to protect fish stocks or how to respond to a major oil spill are made. In much of the Arctic, hazardous substances in the water directly affect the community’s ability to feed families.

When Rear Adm. Dan Abel, the Coast Guard 17th District commander, visited Kotzebue last year to meet with local leaders they let him know that spill response capabilities were a priority in the area. After months of planning and several scouting trips by the federal on scene coordinator for the Northwest Arctic region, Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane was sitting on the Kotzebue airport tarmac unloading literal tons of oil spill response gear.

The Coast Guard isn’t the only agency interested in training and testing response capabilities in the Arctic. Brad Dunker, an environmental program specialist with the equally invested Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, made the trip to represent the state during the exercise.

“We’re working with some of the locals to do some outreach and education,” said Dunker. “One of the needs in the region is to improve their knowledge and understanding of what we do as responders.”

With education as the key goal, the first day in Kotzebue was spent not at the beach, but in the classroom – on the second floor of the Kotzebue Fire Department, home to the gracious hosts of the exercise that week.

Participants spent the entire day in the training room, hearing from a broad spectrum of spill response experts: marine science technicians from Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, 17th District Response Advisory Team, ADEC, Crowley Marine Services and the oil spill response organization, Alaska Chadux. The open forum enabled concerned citizens and local first responders to ask questions about response techniques.

“We had representation from a lot of different agencies that are here in Kotzebue,” said Lt. James Nunez, a member of the 17th District Response Advisory Team. “It was a good place to have an open dialog, to talk about some of the constraints for operating up here.”

With the training completed, everyone was ready to get their hands dirty on the beach. A Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento Hercules crew flew in from California with the Pacific Strike Team: the Coast Guard’s spill response A-Team on the West Coast. They brought with them two boats and an all-terrain vehicle to deploy containment boom, a critical tool for corralling spilled materials.

A Kotzebue Volunteer Fire Department truck tows a Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team trailer off of an Air Station Sacramento HC-130 Hercules aircraft in Kotzebue, Alaska, June 23, 2015.

A Kotzebue Fire Department truck tows a Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team trailer off of an Air Station Sacramento HC-130 Hercules aircraft in Kotzebue, Alaska, June 23, 2015.

Helping hands and smiling faces crowded the section of beach chosen for the exercise.

The local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service detachment volunteered trucks and personnel to move equipment, the fire department towed the strike team’s boats and an employee of the National Park Service stationed in Kotzebue showed up to help as well. Visitors from Nome, Deering and Kivolina also joined to see how a response would function. The Kotzebue Sound and surrounding waters support their way of life.

Hundreds of feet of boom were loaded up at the airport and trucked to the imaginary spill. Responders lined up to deploy the enormous yellow border into the water, as the Pacific Strike Team pulled from the other end with their boats.

In no time at all two lengths of boom stretched out from the shore, creating a surface-level net in the calm water.

“Just seeing what sort of equipment and gear we had on hand there if a spill were to take place, that’s crucial information for a pollution responder,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda Barnett, a marine science technician with Sector Anchorage’s incident management division. “In the remote areas getting equipment anywhere is always a challenge.”

Cmdr. Stacey Mersel, Coast Guard Sector Anchorage deputy commander, talks with Arctic residents during a training session in the Kotzebue, Alaska, Volunteer Fire Department June 23, 2015.

Cmdr. Stacey Mersel, Coast Guard Sector Anchorage deputy commander, talks with Arctic residents during a training session in the Kotzebue, Alaska, Fire Department June 23, 2015.

With the exercise behind them, responders from across the state, as well as those based locally, have a better idea of what tools are at their disposal and what would need to be brought in from elsewhere.

“It went very well, I learned a lot,” said Edward Fleming, a first responder with Deering Search and Rescue, a town 60 miles south of Koztebue across Kotzebue Sound. “I’ll be able to talk to my guys back home and tell them what we did here.”

 

See more photos here.

The Kotzebue spill response exercise was a part of the 17th District’s Arctic Shield 2015 operations

Tags: , , , , , ,