When it comes to oil spills, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Matthew Mitchell says it’s not a matter of if, but when.
“As long as you have ships on the ocean, trucks on the roads, and oil being stored in man-made tanks, someday the bad thing is going to happen,” Mitchell said. “You’re going to have some type of an incident. So if the bad thing happens, what do you do?”
For the Bering Strait region, that question is answered in the northwest Arctic subarea plan, an oil spill contingency plan that covers lands owned by the Northwest Arctic Borough and the Bering Straits Native Corporation — from Kivalina to St. Michael, and from St. Lawrence Island to the source of the Kobuk River.
But the plan is in need of an update. And last week, the Coast Guard — along with Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — held a meeting at Nome’s Northwest Campus to get the community involved.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Todd Bagetis would be on the ground in the event of an oil spill or the release of other hazardous materials. And he said local knowledge is vital to keeping the plan current — especially with shifting shorelines and other changes to the environment.
“We don’t have Coast Guard personnel in a lot of the communities in Alaska. We don’t have state personnel. So we rely on the community and the expertise that the community brings to the incident,” Bagetis said. “You’re the eyes on. We need you to report what you see.”
Those reports get factored into the plan, which is the primary resource when responders come to clean up a spill. But the northwest Arctic plan — which includes information from community profiles and emergency contacts to cultural and subsistence resources — has not been revised since 2012.
While it wasn’t due for another update until 2017, Mitchell said he’s fast-tracking the project and making it the priority for 2016. He said the next step is to form work groups to pour over the existing plan and identify which sections need work. The groups will be made up of local people and agency representatives, and Mitchell said they’ll tackle one section at time — starting in March and likely taking a year to update the entire document.
Attending the meeting were organizations and businesses — including Nome Eskimo Community, Kawerak, Bonanza Fuel, and Crowley, as well as harbormaster Lucas Stotts and Mayor Denise Michels — many of whom expressed interested in joining the work groups and providing input.
But it’ll be more than just meetings and paperwork. Alaska Chadux is a non-profit response organization that partners with the Coast Guard and would also be on deck if a spill occurred. Chadux observed a small training exercise run by the ADEC in the Snake River the day before the subarea committee meeting. Matt Melton — Chadux’s general manager — said they’ll be back in Nome next year to actually get hands-on practice.
“This year was just a classroom and a little bit of field stuff, but next year, we’ll be doing some actual on-water deployments with local fishermen from this area that we would hire in the event that there’s a spill,” said Melton.
Rhonda Sparks said she’s excited about the local involvement but wishes more people from around the Bering Strait region could attend the meetings and trainings in person.
“I know we need to work more on building this outreach for the surrounding communities to ensure that their voices are included in the northwest Arctic plan,” said Sparks, the Arctic community liaison for Defenders of Wildlife, a non-profit working for habitat conservation.
She said it may be unrealistic to fly residents in from all over the region, but there are options for bringing in their voices.
“We should just be smart about how we have future meetings here — maybe tacking on to other gatherings that happen here in Nome, such as Kawerak’s regional conference or board meetings,” Sparks said. “I know NSEDC has board representatives that meet here in Nome. If we just plan better, we should be able to have a better outcome for updating these plans.”
When working groups wrap up after a year, the updated northwest Arctic subarea plan will be open to public review before final approval by regulatory agencies.