Every year, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company trains over 2,000 fishermen from Valdez to Kodiak how to respond to an oil spill in Prince William Sound and surrounding areas. Homer residents can see a mock response every spring just off shore in Kachemak Bay, but on Saturday, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council gave the public and local decision makers a chance to get a first-hand look. The demonstration is part of an effort to help Alaskans better understand what goes into planning for a potential oil spill.
Advisory council volunteer Jim Herbert is giving Homer residents a play-by-play as local fishermen run through oil spill response drills in Kachemak Bay.
“The reason these boats are involved is not necessarily to gather up all the oil at the very beginning of a spill, but in order to protect shorelines and gather up oil that’s formed in sheens in different areas,” he explained to passengers on the Rainbow Connection.
Boats are towing and pushing several booms. They’re targeting orange buoys that represent oil sheens on the water as several Homer residents, students and local decision makers watch from two boats.
Advisory council spokesperson Lisa Matlock said the non-profit has put on these narrated trips in Valdez and Cordova over the last two years. Matlock explains the initiative is cycling through each of the six communities required to respond spills in Prince William Sound.
The idea is to inform the public about oil spill response, but also to get local decision makers on board.
“We specifically invite some folks out from the city. We have onboard today the mayor, we have a Kenai Peninsula Borough assemblyman,” Matlock said, “so that we have decision makers that may or may not have seen oil spill response equipment. Because when they’re asked to provide input on part of the public about contingency planning and prevention of oil spills, they have a better understanding of what it looks like on the water as well.”
Willy Dunne sits on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. Dunne responded to the Exon-Valdez spill in 1989. He said he spent about a month and a half capturing wildlife on the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula.
While Dunne has not been on the assembly while it’s given input on spill response contingency plans, he said giving local officials a chance to watch training in action is valuable.
“I know the borough has an interest in oil spill contingency plans. Our borough is vulnerable to oil spills. A lot of our borough is coastline: Kachemak Bay, Cook Inlet, the outer coast and areas that were harmed by the Exon-Valdez oil spill,” Dunne said. “It’s in our interest to protect the fisheries and the industry that could be impacted by the oil spills.”
Alyeska contracts with about 450 boats total in order to make sure enough vessels are on hand for any given scenario. Boats in Cordova and Valdez are required to respond faster than others.
Homer has about 60 boats in the program, most of which are required to respond within 24 hours. In the case of a spill in Prince William Sound, local boats would most likely be sent to the outer coast of the peninsula or into the sound, but there are some plans to protect local sites.
The advisory council took residents across the water to Peterson Bay. Matlock outlined plans to protect water fowl, fisheries and aquaculture operations in the area to passengers.
“So, there’s three red lines. Those represent what we call exclusion booms,” Matlock explained. “So, there’s this boom that would be anchored, whether that would be with rocks or trees. They would anchor that boom – often across a salmon stream is a real common one.”
One of those passengers is Homer Flex High School senior Mckenzie Hill. Hill and other students are wrapping up a program with the advisory council. Students learned about the Exon-Valdez spill, but they’ve also learned how spill response technology has changed since and about potential job opportunities.
“I really appreciate being educated about it because if it ever did happen, I would want to be able to help as much as I could,” she said. “But it was nice to be able to learn how they use the skimmers and how the boom works and everything. It was really a good experience.”
Matlock said Saturday’s trip won’t be the last time Homer residents can watch the training up close. The advisory council plans to host trips in one of the six communities every year, returning to Homer in 2025.