Coast Guard gains hands-on skills for responding to oil spills on ice

Inside the Gates
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard gained hands-on experience responding to oil spills on a lake at JBER in February.
Published: Mar. 1, 2023 at 6:27 PM AKST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - From glaciers to the abundance of million of acres of open land, Alaska is home to 57.5 million acres of designated wilderness owned by the government.

The state houses over 1,000 invertebrate species and the vast array of rivers and lakes make up more than 40% of the nation’s surface water resources. Protecting the wilderness, which plays an important role in both the state’s economy and people’s lifestyle, is critical.

One of the focus points of those conservation efforts is on preventing the spread of oil during an oil spill, which military organizations have a big hand in.

“It can do a lot of environmental, severe damage,” base supervisor with the Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage‘s Scott Partlow said.

On Feb. 1, the US Coast Guard partnered with the Supervisor of Salvage crews and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Together, the trio of teams underwent an oil spill-on-ice exercise on Otter Lake at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson.

“The whole purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate different tactics, to be able to recover and skim and locate oil, or fuel —whatever might be leaking,” Partlow said.

Coast Guard members underwent a brief before being given a scenario to which they had to react. It’s necessary preparation because according to Lt. Andrew Ratti with the U.S. Coast Guard, they get a few several hundred calls regarding spills.

The Coast Guard doesn’t respond to every spill, but Ratti said making sure that some type of reaction — whether that be assisting through telecommunication to keep updated on the spill condition, or responding to the spill themselves on behalf of the responsible party — is critical.

According to Partlow, spillage can have devastating environmental impacts. This can include, Partlow explained, birds being unable to fly due to oil contaminating their wings, oil or fuel contaminating fish feeding grounds, and the potential of the oil contaminated soil and impacting humans.

Finding where the oil is in the ice is critical to ensure environmental safety.

“Definitely critical, just so it doesn’t spread through and do more damage than it actually can,” Partlow said.

The Alaskan elements provide an additional layer of difficulty when it comes to responding to a spill, according to Ratti.

“It takes specialized equipment and training in order to recover oil that, in a different situation without that ice presence, might be easier to contain and recover,” Ratti said. “In the Artcic when there is a significant ice buildup on the water, it creates another dimension of difficulty.”

In addition to figuring out how to get equipment to rural areas of the state, Ratti said that exercises like this allow them to work with experts and gain hands-on experience.

“Building out our training capacity and spreading that knowledge — lessons learned and experienced — from the people in the field who have years of experience doing that, it’s really valuable for us,” Ratti said.