At 4:30 in the morning, a worker unloading number six oil from a barge at the Sprague River Terminal in Newington, smells fumes. He finds a leaking pipeline, and radios to stop the pumping, but already there are an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil in the river.
It sounds scary, but as the crackling voices over the radio in the boat supervising the cleanup make clear, there’s nothing to fear. Before every transmission, they declare, “This is a drill, this is a drill.”
What would happen if oil leaked into the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth? That’s what the states of Maine and New Hampshire, multiple town fire departments, the Coast Guard and private companies were trying to prepare for when they conducted a training exercise Thursday.
The drill shows that while the state prepares as best it can, the particulars of Portsmouth harbor make for a tricky cleanup.
"A Different Animal"
“We have these oil terminals and the fast tides, and we have this sensitive place, so we spend a lot of time to try to figure ahead of time to pre-plan,” explains Ray Reimold with the Department of Environmental services, who manages the on the water portion of the drill.
He lays out the challenge: a couple of oil importers – Sprague, Irving, and PSNH’s power plants – are just around the corner from the Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
And the area is much more complicated than the placid Gulf of Mexico.
“The tides out in the Gulf, the tide doesn’t fluctuate that much,” says Reimold, “Here the currents rip, so it’s a much different animal.”
Tidal currents in Portsmouth Harbor are some of the fastest in the Northeast, and can reach 6 knots.
Depending on which way the tide is flowing, the response teams would protect areas in a different order. For this drill, the tides are on the way out, so the team works to protect the harbors, river mouths and marshes that lie between the Harbor and the Ocean.
They spool out strings of buoys called oil booms, deployed from massive reels on barges or trailers. “All the boom does, it’s going deflect the oil to an area where it can be collected from the shore with a vacuum truck,” says Reimold. Oil can also be gathered by skimmers, or boats equipped with vacuums and tanks.
Protecting the Great Bay
There’s one scenario that the state has drilled relentlessly.
Back at the faux unified command center at the Pease Tradeport, around 100 people from the various response entities answer simulated calls from the public, and monitor reports from imaginary helicopters monitoring the simulated spill.
Jim Martin, Public Information Officer at the DES lays out the plan to keep oil out of Great Bay.
“This is all boom deployed, this is boom deployed to try to keep oil from going into the Great Bay,” he says pointing to lines that indicate an array of cascading booms, overlapping like shingles across the entire mouth of Little Bay. Black boxes represent skimmer boats on patrol behind the booms to gather any oil that slips through.
The state says if a spill happened in the middle of the day and was noticed quickly, it would take around two hours to lay out the defenses. It’s not quite fast enough to catch all of the oil in a worst-case spill, but it’s pretty darn close, says Carroll Brown, who’s overseeing the entire drill.
“It’s important that there’s some expectation management on that,” says Brown.
DES is unequivocal about this, if there is a spill, the complicated Piscataqua would mean there would be a mess.
“There’s going to be some damage from every oil spill, the idea is to minimize that by knowing where the sensitive areas are, getting out there ahead of it and protecting those most importantly, and trying to collect the oil before it gets to them,” Brown says.
Funds Spread Thin
Whoever spills is ultimately required to pay for cleanup, so contractors hired by the oil importers all participate actively in these drills.
The state’s preparation is paid for by an 1/8th of a cent tax on oil imports. This pollution control fund would top out at $5 million, but it is rarely close to doing so.
And the demands on this fund are about to be spread more thinly. This year the legislature voted to take authority over spill preparation for an oil pipeline that crosses the North Country, but the fund will not be taking on new revenues. In fact, a proposal to bolster the fund by imposing a fee on pipeline operators (which currently doesn’t contribute to the oil spill fund because the oil merely passes through the state) was nixed in the negotiations over the law.
And critics contend that there isn’t the same preparation for a pipeline spill.
“Although the pipeline company does some table-top exercises, and they once and a while do a drill on the Connecticut river, there’s not the same level of robust preparedness in the North Country,” notes Sheridan Brown, who handles Government affairs for the Audubon society.
A legislative committee is working on a report looking at safety in the transportation of oil and gas by truck, train, barge, rail and pipeline statewide, due out in May. Regardless of what that report says, the state will likely keep doing drills like this one, every year.
And the drill simulates the real thing in more ways than one. “It’s extremely stressful,” notes the DES’ Jim Martin, chuckling.