NASWI hosts oil spill drill

People help set up Tuesday afternoon for a preparedness response exercise held this week on the Seaplane Base. Dennis Connolly/Whidbey Crosswind

Agencies including the Navy, the Coast Guard and Washington Department of Ecology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and many others, gathered in Oak Harbor this week to practice how they would handle a large oil spill west of Whidbey Island.

They were participating in a National Preparedness for Response Exercise Program held from Tuesday to Thursday to practice oil spill response and test the readiness and skills needed to effectively manage a major environmental incident. No oil was to be spilled but more than 200 people on the Seaplane Base and in the water were to be on hand. Containment booming, oil-skimming vessels, other boats and aircraft were scheduled to be in the area during the exercise.

“It’s a mystery spill,” said Dale R. Jensen Tuesday. Jensen is the manager of the Spills Program for the Department of Ecology.

“No one knows the type, the  heaviness of the ‘oil’ or the vessel it came from. It will be about 10 miles long by a half mile wide,” he said.

The ‘spill’ was called in Tuesday night by a tug and barge operator and everyone on a call list for oil responses was called into Building 13 on the Seaplane Base.

How everyone responded will be evaluated by a team, members of which include people from Conoco Phillips, BP, Cherry Point Refinery, Global Diving and Salvage Company and Polar Tanker.

From left, Dale R. Jensen and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, with the state Dept. of Ecology and Capt. Scott J. Ferguson, U.S. Coast Guard, pose before a drill for the National Preparedness for Response Exercise Program. Dennis Connolly/Whidbey Crosswind

There are approximately 3,000 oil spills a year in the Puget Sound. The U.S. Coast Guard responds to 1,200 of those, said Capt. Scott Ferguson, commander of the USCG Sector Puget Sound.

The other spills are handled by many local environmental teams or professional spill watchers. Fifteen billion gallons of oil are transported through the Puget Sound each year.

That said, Northwest has the lowest spill volume in the country.

“The ultimate goal is preservation of environment, cultural and economic resources from oil damage,” said Ferguson.

“Actually, failure is a success,” said Jensen. “We have constant spills and good practices but this gives a chance to see gaps or some failures, lessons to be learned.

Both men said having industry partners was important.

“We invite our industry partners to evaluate us,” said Jensen.

Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, preparedness section manager for the Department of Ecology also thanked the Navy.

“They’re a very important partner,” she said. “The Navy has a lot of spill response equipment, they’re a partner, they’re letting us use the Seaplane Base and the building.”

Jensen said they just want to do their best.

“Between agencies, our federal and state partners … we want our community to know we are doing our absolute best and being as transparent as we can,” he said.

When the training is over and done, those involved will have had a valuable opportunity for  agencies to work together. They will be evaluated on their ability to mount planned, first-stage response strategies using Northwest Area Contingency Plan and Incident Command System processes.

And a 10-mile long “mystery” spill will not really be dumped, but the response to it will speak volumes to those involved.