Coast Guard brings oil spill response assurance to North Slope residents

Story and photos by Petty Officer 1st Class Jon-Paul Rios

In an era where most of the United States has easy access to information at the click of a button, Alaska remains unique. Vast distances between communities combined with a lack of technological infrastructure makes getting information to rural communities a challenge.

Community members listen while a member of Alaska Chadux Corporation, alongside the Coast Guard, makes opening remarks prior to an oil spill equipment deployment demonstration in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, July 27, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jon-Paul Rios.

For North Slope residents in Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, Alaska, this remains true. Though not as remote as other surrounding villages, the Coast Guard understands this lack of communication and looks to inform the public, government responders and stakeholders.

A group of 15 Coast Guard members from the 17th Coast Guard District, Coast Guard Sector Anchorage and the National Strike Force Pacific Strike Team landed at the single-terminal airport in Utqiaġvik July 24. The team quickly piled into long-bed pickup trucks and made their way down muddy, unpaved roads to their hotel in preparation for the days to come.

The Coast Guard and several statewide oil spill removal organizations, conducted a three-day oil spill response seminar July 25-27 with the common goal to inform North Slope community residents, responders and elders with awareness on North Slope oil spill preparedness, planning and response operations.

The seminar took place at Barrow High School, usually home to about 240 students but currently on summer break.

“This is the northernmost city in the United States with a population of about 4,500 people,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jereme Altendorf, planning specialist at Sector Anchorage. “We do this seminar for the people, the community. We plan hard and train harder and hope to provide assurance that we are capable to respond to an oil spill in the North Slope environment.”

Attendees gathered in the school’s auditorium where speakers at the seminar discussed environmental law, Incident Command System, the science of oil spills, oil spill recovery on ice, alternative response technologies, oiled wildlife operations, historic site preservation, international issues related to oil spills, local response teams and their resources.

On the final day of the seminar, an oil spill equipment deployment demonstration was held at the beach near the borough’s fuel supply. This provided a visual to better demonstrate the Coast Guard and partner agencies’ capabilities and readiness in the case of an on-water or shore side spill.

During the demonstration, the Coast Guard assisted members of Alaska Chadux Corporation in deploying a Beach Deluge Response System. The system works by flooding the beach with water causing fuel to rise to the surface and subsequently skimmers and absorbent products are used to complete cleanup.

Members of Alaska Chadux Corporation monitor a Beach Deluge Response System during an oil spill equipment deployment demonstration during the Operation Arctic Guardian seminar held at the beach near the borough’s fuel supply in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, July 27, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jon-Paul Rios.

“It makes it real,” said Altendorf. “Doing the live demonstration in their city, in their water, makes all the difference because it reminds them that the potential of a spill is always possible and we need to be ready to respond.”

This isn’t the first time the Coast Guard has conducted similar training. In the past, Coast Guard members have gone to places like Kotzebue and Nome, Alaska, to inform the public but those trainings only lasted a day. With the amount of positive feedback received, the Coast Guard decided to extend the training in Utqiaġvik to three days.

“We hope to continue evolving this training based off lessons learned and interactions with the community,” said Altendorf. “At the end of the day, if we leave knowing we reached five or 500 people, I feel like our mission was accomplished.”

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