SONS 2010 – Spill of National Significance Exercise in Portland, Maine; Day One

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March 23, 2010

 Article by Maya Cohen – Photos by Sandra Konigmacher (Monkey Fist) – Day Two »

Incident scene: Portland Harbor (full size)

Day One; March 23, 2010

imageEvery three years, since 1994, the United States Coast Guard, in conjunction with 50 other federal, state, local and private organizations performs a Spill of National Significance, Full Scale Exercise or SONS. This term was born out of the 1989 EXXON Valdez, where 10.8 million gallons of crude oil was spilled in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

The SONS is defined by the severity, size, location efforts and assets that  would require extraordinary coordination efforts on a federal, state and local level. This year’s site, Casco Bay, located in Portland Maine, was selected in November of 2008 based on information learned from previous exercises as well as what was learned from the 2007 Cosco Busan incident in San Francisco. Additionally, 600 participants will be taking part in this exercise from federal, state, local and private organizations.

The objectives of an exercise of this magnitude is to establish preparedness in the field to the regional and national level, provide an opportunity for cooperation throughout all levels of the government, private sector and non governmental organizations and finally, to have the ability to improve procedures for the future.

Captain’s Q & A, Bridge of the Marcus Hanna – way too many soaking wet media monkeys crammed on the sauna-like bridge (full size)

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The Scenario: March 21, fifteen miles from shore in the Gulf of Maine, a tanker, transporting 430,000 barrels of crude oil and a car carrier collide, with a loss of 69,000 barrels of crude oil, while sinking at the harbor entrance of Portland, Maine. The sea conditions are marginal, at best, with 40 knot winds and 20 foots seas.  Throw in sideways blowing snow, and the day was made to order.

Once the USCG receives a report that there has been a collision and a crude oil spill has occurred, the USCG begins an assessment of the affected area. A VOSS (Vessel of Opportunity Oil Skimming System) is arranged to be deployed. These systems are pre-staged and packaged ready to be loaded on to a truck for delivery to a response. In the case of this years exercise, this VOSS system is located in New Hampshire, and trucked to Portland. Upon arrival, the system is loaded onto the 175 foot USCG buoy tender, Marcus Hanna, which is ideally suited for this system due to the design of the forward working deck of the Marcus Hanna. (data sheet)

imageLoading of equipment & assets aboard forward deck of the USCGC Marcus Hanna

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VOSS has a system of containment booms as well as a pump that separates oil from water without emulsifying the oil. Once the oil is recovered, it is pumped into accompanying barges. Depending on ocean conditions, an oil recovery rate of over 90% can be achieved while processing 190 gallons of contaminated water per minute. Other state, local and private entities would also work at spill recovery, and shore clean up using response equipment such as aircraft, skimmers and containment booms.

If there is a SONS, other issues must be addressed along with spill clean up. As Portland is a major commercial port, decisions would need to be made about whether the port must be shut down or whether marine traffic is restricted. Only a USCG Port Captain has this authority to close or restrict a port, and careful consideration would be made when a decision of this magnitude is made.

Were a SONS was to occur doing Maine’s summer and fall, where the fishing fleets and recreational boating is at its busiest, the USCG would issue a Broadcast Notice to Mariners about spill areas, restricted areas and information on where to report with your vessel for decontamination if necessary. Additionally, the USCG would carefully monitor restricted areas and ensure that vessels not enter those areas until safe to do so.

USCG Commander Captain James B. McPherson, Sector Northern New England stated, ”Our Goal, through this and other exercises is to improve our collective ability to give the public swift, safe and well-coordinated response to this type of disaster. The relationships forged and the lessons learned from thee SONS2010 will carry far into the future in our constantly evolving plans for oil spill response.”

image The USCG Coastal Buoy Tender Marcus Hanna; a 175ft Keeper Class Coastal Buoy Tender assigned to Station South Portland and is named for Marcus Hanna, a lighthouse keeper who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his Civil War service and the Gold Lifesaving Medal in 1885 for saving two sailors wrecked at his lighthouse. (full size)

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