Coast Guard Criticized on Alaska Spill Response Capabilities

spill response
file photo: spill response exercise

Published May 4, 2017 6:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

Buddy Custard, President and CEO of the Alaska Maritime Prevention & Response Network has criticized the U.S. Coast Guard in his testimony before the Committee on Transport and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation this week.

The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) was enacted in 1990 after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. OPA, in conjunction with the Clean Water Act, requires an owner or operator of a tank vessel, or non-tank vessel over 400 gross tons to prepare a vessel response plan for spills of oil or hazardous substances. While many areas of the U.S. comply with the national planning criteria for oil spill response, there are still areas with low population and vessel traffic that cannot, and instead use alternative planning criteria (APC).

“The Coast Guard’s implementation of APC in Western Alaska is eroding oil spill response capabilities in the Western Alaska Captain of the Port zone,” says Custard. The zone comprises over one million square miles of ocean with little infrastructure.

“The maritime shipping industry is experiencing economic hardship, with container shipping lines likely to have incurred combined losses of over $5 billion in 2016. As a result, the industry is seeking ways to meet OPA 90 requirements at the lowest possible price and with the minimum needed to meet oil spill response readiness. The Coast Guard’s implementation of APC in Western Alaska is playing into this dynamic,” says Custard.

The Coast Guard has approved APC providers that cover only limited areas and with minimal equipment, allowing them to lower prices to take market share, he says. The situation has led to a large disparity of prevention and response capabilities among the Western Alaska APC providers.

“The Coast Guard claims there is now more response equipment in Western Alaska due to multiple providers. This is a mischaracterization of how equipment is allocated among holders of a vessel response plan. The only equipment available to a vessel planholder is the equipment provided in their specific APC provider’s program. Approximately 40-45 percent of the vessels transiting through Western Alaska have less response capabilities than they did 18 months ago.”

The Coast Guard has failed to hold APC providers accountable, largely because of the agency’s inability to enforce its own rules, says Custard. He also states that Coast Guard policy, as now administered, benefits foreign flag operators at the expense of Alaskans.

“New entrants entering the APC program market for Western Alaska have focused for the most part only on foreign flag vessels transiting the Great Circle Route where revenue can be collected with minimum investment in equipment. Under the Captain of the Port-wide model, APC coverage is provided to U.S. flag vessels providing most of the service to places along the vast coast of Western Alaska, in part with revenue derived from the high volume foreign flag traffic.

“As revenue is diverted away from the only APC provider covering the entire Western Alaska Captain of the Port, the U.S. flag vessels plying the coasts of Western Alaska must pay more. This, in turn, increases the cost of goods shipped on these vessels, which increases the cost of groceries, heating fuel, or fuel to generate electric power to remote and rural Alaska. 

“Unfortunately, the determination of the true cost of developing and sustaining oil spill removal equipment in an area the size, remoteness, and complexities present in Western Alaska has never been conducted. Additionally, the potential adverse economic impacts to the coastal communities that are dependent upon the maritime industry have never been considered nor assessed by the government.”

Custard says the Coast Guard’s implementation of APC in Western Alaska does not properly value prevention. “APC guidance needs to be viewed holistically within the marine environmental protection program – a balance of prevention and response. Driving down risk of an oil pollution incident, and thus preventing it, should be on par if not greater than response capabilities.”

A number of other testimonies were given at the hearing. More information is available here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.