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Regional oil-spill response team considers looser dispersant policy in Alaska

Yereth RosenAlaska Dispatch News
Spill workers hose a beach down after a Corexit oil dispersant test in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill. Courtesy Alaska State Archives

A large swath of marine waters off Alaska would be preauthorized for dispersant use, under a proposal being considered by the Alaska Regional Response Team, the federal-state multiagency cooperative that plans oil-spill responses and snaps into action when marine oil spills occur.

If approved, it would change dispersant policy in Alaska from a practice of on-and-off authorizations in small geographic zones to a streamlined system for marine waters that are heavily trafficked by oil tankers and large fuel-laden ships.

The proposal is being discussed at a series of public meetings held by the Alaska Regional Response Team. Meetings were held last Wednesday in King Salmon and Friday in Anchorage. Others are scheduled this week in Kodiak, Valdez and Dutch Harbor. The response team is soliciting written comments, too.

Preauthorization 'will trigger preparation'

Preauthorization does not mean pre-approval, a response team official said at the Anchorage meeting. It means, instead, that the federal on-scene coordinator in charge of spill responses will have power to allow dispersants, knowing that support is already granted by relevant government agencies, said Coast Guard Captain Dan Travers, chairman of the response team’s dispersant task force. “We’re trying to put the tool in the FOSC (federal on-scene coordinator) toolbox,” Travers said. Preauthorization will trigger preparation for dispersant use, he said. “We really need to have that capability up here,” he said.

But critics are suspicious of the proposed change.

Friday’s Anchorage meeting was preceded by a small street protest staged by activists who say dispersants are dangerous chemicals that, if applied to spilled oil, make things worse for the environment.

It's unclear which would cause more damage -- allowing spilled oil to reach shore, or allowing it to be dispersed into the Alaska water column, said Carl Wassilie, a biologist and activist with a group called Alaska’s Big Village Network.

“There’s no information on the toxicity of the dispersants that would be preauthorized,” he said. “Here we’re dealing with the unique characteristics of the marine environment of the North Pacific and the subarctic.”

He pointed out that tribal groups have already passed about a dozen resolutions against dispersant use. “I see this as a two-fold attack, not only on subsistence resources but also an attack on tribal sovereignty,” he said.

Dispersants more useful in warm water?

Though heavily used in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill -- where the blown-out Macondo well spewed crude oil into relatively warm water miles from shore -- dispersants are widely considered a flawed spill-response tool, at best, for Alaska.

Tests and studies by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council have found that dispersants do not work well in the sound’s cold waters, currents and salinity conditions. The RCAC has consistently opposed dispersant use in the Exxon Valdez region; the Regional Response Team’s plan for preauthorization pointedly omits Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.

Instead, the area proposed as the preauthorized zone is in the Gulf of Alaska and part of the Bering Sea, at least 24 miles offshore and as far out as the 200-mile exclusive economic limit. The areas chosen are those used by oil tankers after they have left Prince William Sound, and by large vessels crossing through the Aleutians area on their voyages over the Great Circle route between North America and Asia, officials said. It does not include Southeast Alaska, the Arctic or Bristol Bay proper.

Areas outside of the preauthorized zone would be considered “undesignated.” Dispersants could be used in those areas, but all agencies would have to endorse it, and use would be evaluated case by case, under the proposal.

Dispersants have a rocky history in Alaska. Though long allowed if all responsible agencies consent, they have been used on only one spill, the Exxon Valdez disaster, Travers said. That use proved controversial. Exxon claimed the state dithered and delayed approval, while state officials said that Exxon lacked materials and equipment to use dispersants effectively.

Though some dispersants wound up being sprayed in the Prince William Sound, federal managers concluded that they did not work as intended. One application wound up spraying people -- members of the Coast Guard’s Pacific Strike Force responders -- instead of the oil in the water.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)alaskadispatch.com