On the Eastern Shore, preparing to prevent a disaster
By TAMARA DIETRICH | The Daily Press | Published: September 15, 2019
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The scenario is this: A Maersk container ship sailing up from Norfolk hits a submerged object that rips a hole in its hull and ruptures a fuel tank, spilling its heavy oil in the Atlantic just east of Hog Island off Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Winds are blowing toward the barrier islands. Rural coastal communities, sensitive marshes, fisheries and marine ecosystems are threatened.
What to do?
All this week, local, state, federal and military agencies have worked with industry and spill-management contractors to work out what to do in a simulation organized by the U.S. Coast Guard.
“We kind of set up a worst-case scenario disaster,” said Emily Hein, a coastal geologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary.
VIMS serves as marine science adviser in these drills, part of the National Preparedness for Response Exercise Program (PREP) under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Simulations and coordinated responses are mandated every few years to bring stakeholders together under the same big tent, often literally. The previous drill, in 2016, simulated a crude oil spill in the York River.
But the Eastern Shore presents very different challenges — spotty cell service, shape-shifting coastlines and the lack of emergency response companies and equipment.
In a real spill, the Coast Guard would oversee the response and subsequent cleanup by the “responsible party" — in their simulation, Maersk plays that role.
“It’s something industry is happy to do,” said Lt. Mitch Latta of the Coast Guard’s Hampton Roads Incident Management Division. “Working with everybody who would be involved in a real situation is a huge benefit to learn the ins and outs and know everybody prior to. You don’t want to figure out how things need to go when you’re in the middle of a real spill.”
A tent city was set up at the Eastern Shore Community College housing a unified command center to develop strategies and tactics. On Thursday, Verizon brought in disaster response equipment, including drones, to build a reliable cellular network and live feeds to the barrier islands.
On Friday, contractors were set to deploy booms on the water, but a forecast for strong winds caused the Coast Guard to postpone that operation. Booms are floating barriers used to contain and concentrate oil for cleanup.
Where to place such booms or what natural resources to consider when doing so is where VIMS comes in. Its researchers’ extensive work in the region and at their Eastern Shore Laboratory give them extensive firsthand knowledge of the varied landscape.
“The little marsh channels change so quickly,” said Hein. “A NOAA chart — you can’t rely on it because it changes month to month, let alone year to year.”
VIMS experts know where the sensitive underwater grassbeds are, where the oysters and hard clams grow, where shorebirds are nesting and when.
And, while this particular PREP scenario involves a container ship, the crisis response is applicable to other scenarios, as well — an oil tanker accident, for instance, or an oil rig disaster.
“It’s sort of preparedness in general,” said Hein.
Practicing spill management
An oil rig scenario isn’t merely academic. The Trump administration is pushing a plan to open federal waters off Virginia and along nearly all U.S. coasts to potential oil and gas drilling, claiming it’s critical for greater energy security and jobs.
But on Thursday the U.S. House approved measures that would permanently ban expanding offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific and Florida Gulf regions. Those measures, however, stand no chance in the GOP-controlled Senate or against a presidential veto.
A cargo ship accident isn’t academic, either. Early Sunday, a 71,000-ton cargo ship capsized off the Georgia coast. The crew was rescued, but some fuel and oil was released into the water, where spill management crews used booms to contain it. Coast Guard Cdr. Norm Witt told reporters the environmental impact was “limited in scope.”
That particular accident had nothing to do with designing the container ship scenario on the Eastern Shore, which was planned many months in advance.
“It is quite a coincidence,” said Latta. “But it does bring to light that these situations are realistic.”