What happens if there is an oil spill at a power plant or distributor on the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth or Newington, New Hampshire? If the first responders at these facilities fail to immediately control the spill, who responds as that oil moves upriver and into Little Bay and Great Bay? Enter the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ (NH DES) Coastal Oil Spill Response Team. Led by Coordinator Carroll Brown, NH DES will be on the scene in short order to prevent the migration of oil into the estuary on the incoming tide. To ensure that they are ready to respond effectively and efficiently, they conduct annual practice exercises like the one just completed in late October. Several observers, including me, were aboard the command vessel to view the effort.
The objective of the practice effort was to deploy more than a mile of orange-colored, rubberized, containment booms that are permanently stored on strategically positioned barges in Little Bay – the northern portion of Great Bay – as quickly and competently as possible. Smaller vessels pull the boom from those barges and anchor it to the shore on both sides of the bay. Larger boats then pull it taught before connecting it to anchored buoys already in place. In a little more than two hours (slightly longer than the two-hour goal), several booms were successfully deployed – meaning a moderate spill would have been prevented from moving into Great Bay proper. Using the tide and currents in the bay to advantage, the intent is to divert any surface oil to the Newington side where surface skimmers can collect the spill for removal.
Directing the exercise from the command vessel, Carroll Brown fielded questions from the onboard observers, noting ways to improve the effort for the future. The exercise was not complete until all the boom was stored back on to the barges – ready to be deployed in the event of a real spill.
In addition to preventing oil from entering Great Bay, the NH DES has boom deployment planning scenarios for the Oyster River, Bellamy River, and the Upper Piscataqua. But make no mistake, if the tide was out-going, the considerable strength of the tides in the Piscataqua River would negate any effort to deploy booms in the down-river portion of the river. A spill could travel several miles to the Atlantic Ocean. What the NH DES has planned and practiced is very close to the best that anyone can do for Great Bay. The best scenario, of course, would be no spill at all.