Imagine if an accident at the V.I. Water and Power Authority ended up spilling 2,000 barrels of No. 6 oil into Christiansted Bay. Some three dozen people from WAPA, the U.S. Coast Guard, federal and local emergency responders had to do just that Friday, in excruciating detail, and clean it up.
That scenario was played out at the VITEMA headquarters in downtown Christiansted, where WAPA and the Coast Guard led a multi-agency joint oil spill tabletop response exercise as part of the National Preparedness for Response Exercise Program (PREP), required under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The goal was to evaluate the ability of the response organization in utilizing the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Incident Command System (ICS) as a response management system to form a Unified Command, and provide a competent response and initial assessment of the potential impacts of an oil spill.
The simulated oil spill was said to occur at 6 a.m. Friday, and about 35 people donned emergency vests and gathered in the Incident Command Center with laptops, phones, and response checklists to play out the scenario.
There were four main stations set up to coordinate the simulation: planning, operations, logistical/financial, and command staff. Each station had a role to play to ensure the success of the emergency response.
The phone rang throughout the day with simulated information being fed to them, and at each stage, the stress level seemed to go up. Shortly after 10 a.m., Cassandra Dunn, WAPA’s spokeswoman, simulated a press conference, during which she addressed the media about the ongoing attempts to contain and clean up the oil spill.
“So far we have already cleaned up 20,000 gallons of approximately 84,000 gallons of oil,” Dunn said during the fake conference.
Precision, Planning, and Simulations owner Tom Marquette was on hand conducting the simulated live spill via computer. The laptops and big screen TV displayed nautical map overlays using algorithms to predict the trajectory of the oil’s path based on weather patterns.
“These computers act like a big gigantic video game, and they show a real-time simulation of the oil flow,” Marquette said. “This is the only tool that we know of that will let you conduct a scenario like this in theoretical real time.”
In order to contain the oil, they used simulated oil containment booms, which corals the oil and keeps it from spreading. However, despite the 8,000 feet of boom, the oil still seemed to rapidly spread, and by 3 p.m., the oil had spread all the way to hotel on the Kay and Gallows Bay.
Despite the hiccups and simulated stress levels, the response went well, according to Lt. Kristen Preble, U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Juan Chief of Incident Management.
“Everyone learned a lot,” Preble said. “People took a lot out of it and now everybody seems familiar with the different agencies response plans, capabilities and agency roles.”
“The reason we conduct these scenarios is to bring together all emergency responders in the Virgin Islands that would be responsible for this type of incident to ensure that we understand each other’s capabilities, and to improve coordination in disaster planning.”
John Woodson, who acted in the role of incident commander, agreed. “It was successful and it’s a good thing to get everybody prepared in the event something like this happens. It really showed the importance of organization and teamwork.”
The exercise also validated WAPA’s Facility Response Plan, and the Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands Area Contingency Plan (ACP) that have to be followed by emergency responders during an oil pollution incident in the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico.
“We have had a plan in place for many years, and yearly we conduct our own training scenarios, Dunn said. “However, we’ve never conducted one on this scale using all the agency players. We want to continually make sure our Facility Response Plan stays valid and we’re always reviewing it for different crises.”
The PREP table top exercise involved approximately 11 federal and state agencies, industry partners and non-government organizations in the area including U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Juan, Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Virgin Islands Department of Natural Resources, Virgin Islands Emergency Management Agency, Nature Conservancy, WAPA, FR Consulting and Hovensa LLC representatives among others. Ecoelectrica Liquefied Natural Gas company representatives from Puerto Rico will also participate in the exercise.
“As a response community, it is our duty to exercise our joint capabilities to maintain proficiency and improve our interagency coordination to major oil spills and natural disasters,” said Capt. Drew W. Pearson, the U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Juan commander.