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Coast Guard gears up for summer's Arctic operations

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
PRENTICE DANNER

With the ever-increasing activity and security concerns in the Arctic, the U.S. Coast Guard is preparing for an Arctic operation this summer across northern Alaska.

The Coast Guard plans to conduct air, water and shore-side operations to meet mission requirements from July through October, and in future years to support ongoing Arctic goings-on.

"The Coast Guard is committed to having a presence in the Arctic and kicked off Operation Arctic Shield 2014 in January with outreach efforts to local governments and tribal leaders in Nome, Kotzebue and Barrow," said Coast Guard public affairs officer Veronica Colbath on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, the Coast Guard released its draft environmental assessment, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, to evaluate possible effects on the natural and human environment from the boost in activity.

Public meetings are slated for this week in Nome, Kotzebue and Barrow so that community members can ask questions and raise concerns around the impacts of the operation.

There are four main objectives for the summer operation, Colbath said. The first is to seasonally perform select Coast Guard missions and activities in the Arctic; the second is to advance Arctic maritime domain awareness through operations, intelligence and partnerships; the third goal is to improve preparedness and response capabilities; and the final aim is to test capabilities and refine Arctic resource requirements.

In its sea operations, the Coast Guard will be available to help search for missing vessels or boats in peril by using satellite emergency position-indicating radio beacon locators, cell phones, satellite phones, distress flares, and search patterns in last known locations of missing boats. Also in the water, up to two icebreakers would operate to support oceanographic and meteorological research, SAR, and law enforcement missions.

Shore activities include setting up temporary bases for sea and air support. One is planned for Barrow, with another possible site in Kotzebue. Also on land, the Coast Guard would conduct inspections of commercial and noncommercial vessels in major ports in Alaska to ensure all is lawful. They would also discuss boating safety with recreational boaters during port facility inspections or in a school setting.

In the air, the Coast Guard would plan searches for missing vessels or people, and routine patrols to locate, identify, and document human contacts north of the Arctic Circle. The flights would gather data on coastal erosion, ice observation, and other scientific data requests.

"Arctic domain awareness flights provide an opportunity for pilot and crew familiarization with the Arctic Circle and provide a safe opportunity for media coverage of events," read the draft assessment.

The agency also plans training exercises and community outreach efforts, with 200-plus Coast Guard personnel in the various regions throughout the summer, Colbath said.

According to the draft assessment, the purpose of the operations is to provide consistent and reliable Coast Guard presence in the Arctic to fulfill the Coast Guard's Arctic Strategy, guided by the president and host of national military and security policies.

"The need for the proposed action is to meet the Coast Guard's mandated mission in the Arctic where, to date, except for the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, there has not been a consistent, established Coast Guard presence," read the assessment.

"The increased levels of human activity in the Arctic will result in an increase in maritime activities, particularly during the mid-March to mid-November seasonal surge."

According to the assessment, the impacts on the land and its people are small.

"No significant impacts to water quality as (best management practices) would be in place for Coast Guard activities and Incident Control Centers would be established to handle environmental emergencies," reads the assessment.

The report goes on to declare that there would be no significant, damaging impacts biologically, socioeconomically, or otherwise, but would boost the economy with the added presence. Also, it states that without the Coast Guard there, a lack of enforcement against poaching, delays in environmental cleanup, and longer waits for rescues would be imminent.

The preferred alternative consists of five main elements: shore, air, and sea operations, training exercises, and tribal government engagement.

"Safety zones may be established around offshore oil exploration vessels engaged in drilling operations in agreement with the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act," the report reads.

Crews would establish safety zones to protect divers and prevent interference for salvage workers, as well as patrol waters to detect and deter subversive acts such as terrorist attacks or violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Training exercises would include practicing towing distressed vessels and simulated evacuation of a ship.

"Oil recovery training exercises would use simulated spill products that include buoyant, organic, and biodegradable items such as moss or fruit or fluorescein or rhodamine water-tracing dye," notes the assessment.

The fifth aspect of the report is building relationships with local and tribal governments by engaging the community, implementing safety campaigns like the Kids Don't Float project, and utilizing local knowledge of the land and water to help with exercises.

"We have a long history of working with our Alaska Native partners that ensures we are successful and that there are no conflicts ..." Colbath said. "Our goal is to have open communication and identify any concerns while gathering local knowledge."

Equipment that will be used for the various details includes a couple of Jayhawk helicopters, the cutter Healy, a national security cutter with a helicopter onboard and a seagoing buoy tender, Colbath said.

The draft environmental assessment is available for review online at www.uscg.mil/D17, or copies may be requested from Mike Dombkowski, Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit Juneau, P.O. Box 21747, Juneau 99802-1747; by email to michael.g.dombkowski@uscg. mil; or by phone at 1-907-463-2421. Comments on the draft environmental assessment should be submitted to Mike Dombkowski in writing or via email by May 28.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

 


By JILLIAN ROGERS
The Arctic Sounder