What would happen if a cargo ship sailing toward San Francisco collided with a tug towing a tank barge southwest of the Golden Gate? Representatives from Federal, State, and local agencies responded to this hypothetical collision in an oil-spill-preparedness drill on August 9 and 10, 2006. "We learned a lot from the drill," said Catherine Cesnik, who coordinated participation by five Department of the Interior (DOI) bureaus, including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). "Our main goal was to protect resources under DOI's care, and we accomplished that."
The drill was part of the Safe Seas 2006 Oil Spill Response Exercise, a 2-week-long, multi-agency effort led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in collaboration with the U.S. Coast Guard, the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response, Harley Marine Services, and DOI. The exercise involved nearly 400 people in training, field operations, oceanographic surveys, and incident-command-post activities.
After the imaginary collision, the tank barge Dottie and the cargo ship, merchant vessel Blue Harp, spilled oil as they moved away from the collision site, threatening three National Marine Sanctuaries (Gulf of the Farallones, Cordell Bank, and Monterey Bay), the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes National Seashore, the California Coastal National Monument, and other economic and ecological resources. Oil released by the vessels was simulated by hundreds of yellow (Dottie) and orange (Blue Harp) drift cards released to test ocean-current and oil-spill-trajectory models. (Visit Drift Card Study Results: Safe Seas 2006 to see where the drift cards were released and where they have been reported washing up on shore.)
Representing the USGS in the drill was scientist Patrick Barnard, who has been modeling current and sediment trajectories around the Golden Gate as part of a study of sediment transport and erosion at San Francisco's Ocean Beach (see Ocean Beach Coastal Processes Study). He is sharing data with oil-spill-trajectory modelers in NOAA's Hazardous Materials Response Division (HAZMAT). Results from the drift-card release will help Barnard and his NOAA HAZMAT colleagues improve their numerical models and the accuracy with which the models can predict where spilled oil will go.
Additionally, green drift cards were scattered on beaches at dawn on August 9 to represent oil and marine debris that had washed ashore as a result of the collision. These cards provided data for Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Teams (SCAT teams), who visited the beaches to map the locations of oil and debris; record the condition, location, and percent coverage of the oil; and suggest appropriate response strategies. SCAT maps and reports were brought back to the command centerset up in an auditorium at the Mission Bay campus of the University of California, San Franciscoto help guide cleanup decisions.
"It was very busy!" said Cesnik of the command center, where she worked during the drill with other representatives of her DOI officethe Office of Environmental Policy and Complianceand coordinated the interests of the participating DOI bureaus: the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the USGS, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service (NPS), and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Also working in the command center was Greg Baker, a NOAA employee in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program. Stewardship for the Nation's natural resources is shared among various Federal and State agencies and tribal governments, referred to as Natural Resource Trustees. When an incident, such as an oil spill, threatens natural resources managed by one or more of these trustee groups, they conduct damage assessments to determine the nature and extent of the event's impacts on natural resources (for example, see the Natural Resource Damage Assessment Process. The trustees share responsibilities to assess how a spill may have injured natural resources, and then to seek to make the responsible parties restore, replace, rehabilitate, or otherwise compensate the public for these losses. Baker pointed out that the trustees have a somewhat different job from that of the oil-spill-response personnel: "Responders, such as the SCAT teams, don't generally have time to stop and do detailed scientific studies. Their interest is in limiting the spill and cleaning it up. We [Natural Resource Trustees] need to assess the extent of the injuriesgo lay transects and figure out how many critters are oiled, for example, so that we can recover money from the responsible parties to restore damaged environments. So, during the drill, we mainly organized ourselves and figured out how we could gather the data we need to someday be able to prove how big the impact was and what the responsible parties need to do to make up for it. We're talking about economic as well as biological lossesnot just birds oiled but perhaps a popular beach closed, so people can't enjoy it." The evidence of these injuries is ephemeral and will gradually be removed by cleanup and natural processes, "so the trustees need to be out there early on," said Baker. In addition to assessing damage for long-term restoration, the trustees may be able to identify emergency-restoration actions that will reduce the impacts from spills, thus assisting the responders.
During the Safe Seas drill, the participating trustees (NOAA, several DOI agencies, and the California Department of Fish and Game) experimented with ways of combining their data-gathering work with the fieldwork of the oil-spill responders. "The drill was good because it incorporated a test of our ability to do damage assessment and work with the responders," said Baker. The drill also reinforced the importance of organizing and conducting the damage-assessment work in much the same way as the oil-spill-response work, with an incident-command structure that provides everyone with clear responsibilities and lines of communication early on.
The Safe Seas 2006 exercise included many training courses in the months leading up to the drill. "This exercise really focused on training the participants," said Cesnik, who considered the classroom and in-drill training a particularly successful aspect of the exercise. In addition to standard safety training, NOAA organized Safe Seas Short Courses in which experienced instructors taught such skills as how to conduct aerial observations of oil on the ocean, how to apply dispersants, how to treat oiled wildlife, and much more. Because of the coursework, the exercise "not only tested knowledgeable responders but also trained new folks as well," said Cesnik. The short courses also gave participants a chance to network with their counterparts in other agencies, something that is harder to do in the fast-paced activity of the drill itself.
The field exercise conducted on August 9 and 10 was the culminating event of the drill. "Everyone was pleased with the turnout, the testing of the contingency plans, and the good lessons learned," said Cesnik, who joined the exercise design team last March. "Not everything was 100 percent successful, but it wasn't supposed to be. We wanted things that were going to go wrong, to go wrong in a drill environment." Baker echoed Cesnik's thoughts, saying, "The drill gave us a good opportunity to see what we're ready for and what we're not ready for. The exercise was extremely useful." To learn more about Safe Seas 2006, please visit the Safe Seas Exercise Web site.
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