Ever since 1859 when the first commercial oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, oil spills have become an unfortunate fact of life. In the spring of 1989 the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spewed 11 million gallons into Prince William Sound. I have held a grudge ever since, and, without exception, never purchase fuel from an Exxon or Mobil station. As a result of the British Petroleum, Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010, I added BP to that list. If I looked closely, I bet that every company in the oil industry has had significant spills, and if I added them to my “grudge” list, I would have to stop buying gasoline.
As with any disaster, we need to learn from our mistakes, and be prepared to do better in the future. I see those “lessons learned” in the Great Bay and the Piscataqua River of New Hampshire and Maine. Much of the Piscataqua River is lined with industrial activities. This working port is home to scrap metal recycling; importers and distributors of oil and other commodities; power generation; road salt storage; and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, to name a few. The river is also an important resource for commercial fishermen and recreational boaters. Upriver – in stark counterpoint – are Little Bay and Great Bay, designated by the federal government as an estuary of national significance. Tidal movements up and down river are extreme.
To the credit of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NH DES), a strategy to contain an oil spill in the river and prevent it from reaching Great Bay has existed for years and has become more sophisticated. The strategy does not exist just on paper. On October 16th, I attended the annual oil spill response exercise at the NH DES Pease office in Portsmouth, and came away impressed with the coordination, planning, practice, and overall preparedness of all the players.
When I arrived, I thought I would just see a few officials in a command post. But that wasn’t the case. There were 150 personnel in several rooms, working a variety of jobs: communications, press, environmental, tech support, planning, meteorology, avian and mammal rehab, and, obviously, command. Besides industry representatives and personnel from NH DES, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Environmental Protection Agency, and fish and wildlife departments — both federal and state – there were local fire departments, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, all the power generators, and the U.S. Coast Guard, which had a very significant presence. On one wall projection was current and predicted weather and tidal movements. A second screen showed the real time training exercise out on the river and bay. The extent of the spill could be seen and the locations of the containment booms were clearly marked.
Even before the command post had convened, the hypothetical company causing the spill had reported the practice spill in the early morning hours to the designated first responders. This automatic response is part of the existing plan. Out on Little Bay and the Piscataqua, state and industry teams and subcontractors had been activated. Boats and crews were pulling containment booms off the barges that are staged in Little Bay, just a short distance from the river. The tide was still moving into the estuary and the object was to stop further oil penetration into Great Bay. Two hours would elapse since the spill was reported, but the boom deployment was successful and the oil was prevented from traveling beyond Little Bay into Great Bay. Skimmers had been deployed.
Back at command, all the supporting personnel had convened at the operational headquarters. The volume of oil was artificially increased to test the response capabilities of those teams on the water. While Great Bay proper had been protected, the spill headed into both the Bellamy River and further up the Piscataqua River. The crews worked to control the spill. And then things really got worse. In real time, the tide changed direction. The hypothetical oil went the other way – reaching Portsmouth and the Atlantic, unimpeded, in short order. The real-world results of this scenario would be catastrophic. It would test every facet of planning and response of every person in headquarters and on the water – just what this exercise was intended to do.
I was impressed by the serious attitudes and professionalism of everyone I met. Make no mistake, the clean up resulting from the worst-case practice scenario would be costly and lengthy, and the economic and environmental impacts would be long lasting. Minimizing the effects of small and moderate spills is possible and the NH DES and all their partners are obviously committed to that end. Effective responses to the big spills, given location and extreme weather and tide conditions, will prove to be a real challenge.