In addition to being one of the largest oil spills in recent memory, the explosion and collapse of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 led to a renewed emphasis on U.S. Coast Guard and national incident management procedures, many of which remain in place as the cleanup continues more than two years later.
Two elements made Deepwater unique, both stemming from the Clean Water Act of 1972 and an expansion of the National Contingency Plan (NCP) in the wake of spillage when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in March 1989.
“This was the first time ever it was declared a spill of national significance,” Rear Adm. Cari Thomas, the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for Response Policy, explained. “After Exxon Valdez, we realized we needed a national structure, so if there was a truly huge spill, you could issue a declaration to get people’s attention. There also was a designation of a national incident commander [NIC], which is the role Adm. [Thad W.] Allen [the then-recently retired Coast Guard commandant] played on behalf of the secretary of Homeland Security, to help de-conflict problem areas and coordinate efforts at all levels, local and national.”
The National Contingency Plan calls for the Coast Guard to be the federal on-scene coordinator (FOSC) for any hazardous pollution incident in the coastal zone. That authority was the basis for the Coast Guard’s role in Deepwater, which was to direct all response efforts to contain and clean up the oil spill.
With an oil or other hazardous material spill, the NCP also calls for the polluter, known as the responsible party, to pay the costs of that cleanup. The Coast Guard is responsible for overseeing the polluter’s efforts.
Allen dealt with the initial response in the Gulf by all involved federal, state, and local agencies. While he stopped performing the role of the NIC several months after the well was capped, oversight of the cleanup has continued. He was followed by a succession of senior Coast Guard officers. The post is currently held by Capt. Duke Walker, Coast Guard District 8 chief of Response.
The FOSC also has oversight of the Incident Management Team (IMT), a unified response structure that includes the designated incident commander and state on-scene coordinators – in the case of the Gulf Coast (GC) IMT, one from each of the four affected states (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) – a trustee from the Interior Department, who represents all federal land owners in the affected areas; contractors representing fish and wildlife protection; elements from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and staff drawn from the respective state and federal stakeholders.
The GCIMT is headquartered in New Orleans, with field offices and personnel in each affected state, including the operators and managers performing the recovery work. One additional field element is the Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique (SCAT) Team, whose role is to do preliminary investigations to assess which technique is appropriate to an affected shoreline, which varies from marsh to beach, and to provide quality assurance to the recovery effort.
“Without that expertise, we potentially could do more harm to the environment as we do recovery,” Walker said. “The actual role [of the FOSC and GCIMT] is to coordinate and manage the recovery of oil from the environment, as a very basic definition.
“As we approach the two-year anniversary, the scale of the effort has drawn down. And along the way, we have gained significant expertise, both in the on-beach recovery teams and the SCAT Team’s ability to see problems and know how to deal with those.”
The only industry member of the GCIMT is BP, the responsible party. Outside of response, industry is primarily involved at the Coast Guard field level, where area contingency plans are developed and response drills are carried out.
While drawing significant lessons learned from the Gulf effort, Thomas’ office is responsible for the Coast Guard’s response to all coastal hazardous material releases – including radioactive – across a broad range of environments. That includes not only warm semi-tropical areas with strong ocean currents and frozen expanses in the Arctic, but also major inland waterways, such as the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.
Thomas explained that major oil spills since Exxon Valdez – benchmarked to 1973 after passage of the Clean Water Act – have decreased by more than 37 percent. Small to medium spills also have declined, some due to regulatory projects – such as a requirement for double-hulled tankers, The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, additional expertise within the Coast Guard, a suite of improvements within industry, government, and industry, exercises, etc.
“So we’ve come a long way since Exxon Valdez,” she said.