Last week Los Angeles got a test of what would happen during a major oil spill. Every three years there is a National PREP (Preparedness for Response Exercise Program) exercise to fully test the Los Angeles/Long Beach Area Contingency Plan. Avoiding a world of acronyms and jargon, basically the exercise tests the oil spill response plan that covers ocean waters from Orange County in the south and includes San Luis Obispo County in the north (including the islands). The best way to protect our local marine life and coastal communities is of course to prevent oil spills in the first place. If an oil spill becomes a reality, then it is imperative that our response systems are as fast and effective as they can be.
Drills and exercises are a good thing!
There is often a misunderstanding about responding to major oil spills, with some believing that disappointing responses are often due to a lack of resources (such as recovery boom). It is more often the case that mismanagement or human error are to blame for mistakes. Full scale exercises are useful because all response parties (Coast Guard, State Fish and Wildlife, response contractors, agencies, and the responsible party) get to know each other and work with each other in a pressured environment. The protection of our environment and coast depends on these groups working together in the most efficient and effective response system possible.
Who let in the Environmentalist?!
I was privileged to witness the oil spill exercise that tested a worst case discharge from the Chevron El Segundo Marine Terminal flowing into the Santa Monica Bay. To their credit it is important to note that Chevron volunteered to participate in the exercise. I had previously been working with the Coast Guard, State Fish and Wildlife, contractors, and Chevron on the planning team for the exercise. I learned a lot from them and they in turn invited me to play on the volunteer unit during the exercise, enacting a scenario where volunteers serve as spill observers on Los Angeles beaches. It is rare for an environmental NGO to observe and participate in a large drill where this is a risk of misunderstanding, and I want to thank them for including me.
I’m glad Chevron volunteered because practicing the response at an open ocean terminal can only yield future protections in the event of a spill. Unlike a ports or harbors where it is easier to contain and recover oil, the open ocean environment presents formidable challenges to even the best responders with potentially disastrous winds, waves, and currents. Environmentalists, Chevron, the government and the public can all agree on one thing: nobody wants a spill at the El Segundo Marine Terminal. Chevron has avoided a catastrophic spill to date [knocking on wood], but if there ever was a spill in the Santa Monica Bay, hopefully it occurs in calm ocean conditions.
Dispersants are a Hot Topic!
At the oil spill exercise I was an observer but was able to represent the concerned public and submit my concerns of environmental impacts of oil to the Liaisons of the exercise. Those representatives of the Coast Guard, State Fish and Wildlife, and Chevron were very professional in dealing my concerns. I worked with them, circling areas of concern on nautical charts, especially regarding the deep rocky habitats of Santa Monica Bay that we believe may be affected by chemical dispersants combined with oil. Many effects of dispersants are not as well known as the effects of crude oil on birds and mammals, but are continuously being uncovered in the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill. Local fish and invertebrate communities of Short Bank, Point Dume, and Rocky Point could be impacted if there was an oil spill and chemical dispersants were applied. By applying dispersants you force a tradeoff scenario, often reducing impacts to birds, marine mammals, and the coastline, but increasing impacts to open ocean and deep sea communities.
Major oil spills are a no-win scenario and must be avoided at all costs. If they do happen we want to make sure that the response is effective, and that if appropriate, the concerned citizens can help the response effort according to their prior training. Watch LA Waterkeeper’s website for future information on this important topic. http://www.lawaterkeeper.org
-Brian Meux, Marine Programs Manager, Los Angeles Waterkeeper