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Barrow to see summer influx of Coast Guard personnel

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

By the end of the second week of July, Barrow will be temporary home to some 40 U.S. Coast Guard personnel, as well as two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters, all part of Operation Arctic Shield, which is poised to provide expanded support for the anticipated increases in summer Arctic activity.

Crews should begin to arrive this week, along with the two helicopters, said Lt. Veronica Colbath, public affairs officer for Coast Guard District 17. Barrow residents can expect to see increased activity in the air, as helicopter pilots begin flying to familiarize themselves with the area. In addition, a communication center will be set up to support the air traffic. Coast Guard personnel will use space at the Barrow Army National Guard Armory as an office for administrative and community outreach. The helicopters will be housed at the aviation hanger, Colbath said.

The estimated 40 Coast Guard personnel will stay at commercial lodging facilities this year, Colbath said, split between several of the area's hotels.

The increased focus on the Arctic region is due in large part to the increased oil development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Shell Oil is currently moving forward with plans to drill five exploratory wells this summer in the region, and has said it will be moving as many as 300 personnel to and from their off-shore infrastructure each week. In addition, shipping and tourist traffic in Arctic waters have increased in recent years, further drawing the area into the spotlight. This winter, the Coast Guard announced plans to expand its presence in the area seasonally to provide a quicker response in the event of a search-and-rescue mission or other disaster response. Currently, the closest Coast Guard station is thousands of miles away in Kodiak.

Operation SORS set for end of month

While the Coast Guard presence in the Arctic will increase this week, it may be most noticeable at the end of the month, when the Coast Guard, along with U.S. Northcom and Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving as well as other agency partners, will deploy Spilled Oil Recovery System equipment from a Coast Guard buoy tender.

That operation, which is scheduled from July 31 to Aug. 30, will draw in some 60 people, Colbath said.

"It's the first time (Coast Guard oil spill response capabilities) have been tested off of Barrow," said Colbath.

Colbath said the purpose of the upcoming exercise is primarily to test equipment, not coordinate a full-scale test of the logistically needs of a Coast Guard response. The guard said it already knows that in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic, infrastructure will be challenging. Issues like fuel needs — Coast Guard cutters must return to Unalaska to refuel at this point — are major stumbling blocks for a large-scale response.

"Right now, it's manageable based on what we are going to be doing there, but in the event of a large-scale maritime incident, the local infrastructure wouldn't really be viable," she said, noting that there is no place currently set up to house the thousands of people needed to carry out a large-scale response out of Barrow.

"The local infrastructure just can't absorb those kinds of numbers," she said. "How do house them? How do we feed them? How do we manage our cutters and our air craft?"

This upcoming exercise won't answer those questions, but rather allow the Coast Guard and its partners, including local residents with vital knowledge of the area, to test their ability to communicate and deploy equipment efficiently.

Colbath said a local public relations representative will be on hand in Barrow starting next week to field input from the community and explain the Coast Guard's operations. Anyone in the community is welcome to share local knowledge or concerns with the guard, Colbath said, adding that pilots intend to conduct operations within parameters that are the least disruptive possible for area residents.

The Coast Guard plans to conduct operations in the Arctic through October.

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