COVID-19 Creates New Challenge for Alaskan Spill Prevention Program
Two years ago, a dock collapsed at a private facility near Kodiak, resulting in a 3,000-gallon Bunker C spill in critical wildlife habitat. It resulted in the highest-cost-per-gallon cleanup effort on record, and it prompted the Coast Guard to step up its enforcement efforts at hundreds of small fuel storage sites in Alaska's far-flung coastal communities.
In 2019, Sector Anchorage set up a statewide inspection initiative with the aim of reaching all sites, and it completed 60 percent of the goal by the year's end. According to the Coast Guard, many of these fuel facilities have some degree of deterioration, from fatiguing metal to eroding shorelines and tundra upheavals. In the 2019 inspection round, Coast Guard personnel identified more than 550 deficiencies at about 230 sites.
In addition to the usual challenges of mobility in remote Alaska, the initiative faces a new hurdle. Coast Guard personnel have to minimize the risk of bringing COVID-19 into remote Alaskan communities - including native communities that still remember the devastation of the 1918 flu pandemic.
"We are aware and remain sensitive to the devastation caused by disease in many of these isolated villages in the past," said Altendorf. "We expect and fully understand that the public will have concerns about our presence. We want to be 100 percent transparent about why we need to be in these communities and what we are doing to prevent virus transmission while we're there . . . The Coast Guard deploys to help communities by enforcing regulations that are in place to protect people and the environment. This season we will operate in a manner that will also protect people from COVID-19."
In order to minimize risk, the task force members will undergo a quarantine and testing procedure prior to departure. Personnel will be quarantined for up to seven days, and after the third day they will be tested. All members for a particular deployment will be tested simultaneously. When they reach the inspection site, they will wear masks and gloves and will practice social distancing.
"Salmon fisheries will be open this summer," said Altendorf. "People will be out fishing to feed their families. The fuel facilities aren't closed during this pandemic. The Coast Guard will continue to send teams of people and resources at certain times of the year to gain familiarity with this region, conduct our required missions, and to reach out to the residents here."