Heidi Duncanson | Development and Communications Coordinator
Earlier this month, four members of our staff participated in a major environmental drill involving two dozen federal, state and local agencies and industrial partners.* The Northern New England Oil Spill Full Scale Exercise was held by NH Department of Environmental Services (NH DES) to prepare for an oil spill incident off our coast and demonstrate the ability of all agencies to respond using the Incident Command System (ICS) Response Management System. Senator Jeanne Shaheen was among the officials who came to observe the exercise.
According to Carroll M. Brown, Jr., Oil Spill Response Preparedness Coordinator for NH DES, this full scale exercise is generally the most complex and resource-intensive type of exercise the department holds. “The full scale exercise involves multiple agencies, organizations and jurisdictions and is intended to validate many facets of preparedness,” Brown explained. “This deployment of the entire strategy occurs once a year to give all the staff in our Section and our contractors practice in the process. As part of the exercise, we sent about 25 people and 12 boats out to two locations to practice placing oil booms from our pre-designed boom strategy plans.”
Conducting this kind of drill on a regular basis is important because of the unique challenges presented in Portsmouth Harbor. “The Piscataqua River has some of the highest tidal currents along the east coast and significant tidal height changes of up to approximately 11 feet,” said Brown. “The currents make the placement of oil spill booms very difficult, particularly the placement of anchors to hold oil boom in place. Tidal changes can create gaps in oil boom protection and necessitates tending the boom and adjusting its position during all tide cycles. The task of deploying oil spill response equipment and picking up oil on the water is not only very difficult, but potentially dangerous for responders. Any oil spill in the river will be extremely challenging to capture and collect effectively.”
In the Portsmouth and Southern Maine area, there has always been a commitment to conduct a large exercise every year including both a Command Post and an on-water portion. Next year, there is a planned large exercise in Portland, Maine. NH DES will be assisting in the planning of that exercise along with many of USCG partners; therefore, next year’s full scale exercise may be bypassed or lessened. NH DES does a number of small boom deployment drills/practice sessions over the course of the boating season. This year, the department practiced the Oyster River strategy and tested out some new strategies up north in Gorham near the Portland Pipeline.
In addition to all the drills done by state and local agencies, larger oil transport facilities and terminals have requirements under the Federal regulations to conduct a certain number of exercises. Because approximately 310,000,000 gallons of petroleum products come through the port each year, in addition to tallow and other types of used/rendered fats, these drills are critical for preparedness of response. No gasoline is shipped through Portsmouth.
The most recent important local event was this past June, when the outbound Chem Venus tanker struck the bottom of the river and grounded. There was damage to the hull and although an actual spill didn’t occur, the NH DES Oil Spill Response Preparedness team stood up a small command and began planning for the potential. The last spill of significance in the Piscataqua River was in 1996 when 800 +/- gallons of heavy #6 oil was released at the PSNH docks due to a tanker accidentally coming loose at the dock.
2016 Oil Spill Full Scale Exercise
The simulated scenario for this year’s Full Scale Exercise involved an oil tanker running aground off the Isles of Shoals. Each agency or organization had specific roles to play, from launching boats and oil containment booms to notifying law enforcement and staging rescue operations.
Seacoast Science Center staff participants, who all hold ICS certification, were coordinating response to any wildlife affected by the spill, along with colleagues from US Fish and Wildlife and Tri-State Bird Rescue. They were tasked with setting up an oiled wildlife rehabilitation station and fielding phone calls about a variety of animals from tiny terns to a giant orca!
All of the SSC staff in attendance at the drill are also members of our Marine Mammal Rescue Team so they have a great deal of knowledge already, but had other resources at their disposal to determine response actions. By collaborating with colleagues, they were able to execute a timely response and identify areas to tighten up in the future. The exercise ran for six hours and concluded with a debrief of all processes.
This is the third year that our Marine Mammal Rescue Team has been invited to participate in this and other regional exercises. Our team members are proud to be part of response efforts to mitigate the effects of an oil spill or other environmental incident and are continuing their training in the ICS Response Management protocol.
*Participating agencies and organizations included: NH Department of Environmental Services, US Coast Guard First District, US Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, US Coast Guard Auxiliary, US Fish and Wildlife, US Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Navy Facility Response Team/Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Newmarket Fire Department, Rye Fire Department, Portsmouth Fire Department, Greenland Fire Department, Seacoast Chiefs First Officers Mutual Aid Association, NH Homeland Security and Emergency Management, NH Fish and Game, NH Port Authority, ME Department of Environmental Protection, ME Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, ME Marine Patrol, ME Department of Marine Resources, Portsmouth Oil Spill Response Workgroup, NH Marine Mammal Rescue, Tri-State Bird Rescue, Irving Oil, Sprague Energy, Eversource, Seabrook Station, and NRC Environmental.