Mobilizing for Regional Response

            On Tuesday, a group of some 25 first responders from Fairhaven and Mattapoisett along with representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, Nuka Research and Planning Group and Moran Environmental Recovery gathered in the Mattapoisett Fire Department training room to learn about the latest techniques and equipment available when facing a hazardous waterside spill.

            What has precipitated this type of structured regional emergency preparation was the 2003 Bouchard oil spill just south of Westport. Navigational errors that resulted in a Bouchard tank barge passing on the wrong side of navigational markers at the entrance of Buzzards Bay resulted in the barge colliding with submerged rocks. A gash on the bottom of the hull released an estimated 98,000 gallons of Number 6 fuel oil into the bay.

            Seaside communities and shores were heavily impacted across 91 miles. Sea birds, shellfish and other marine life were not spared. It would take months of laborious cleaning to remove much of the clotted oil from shorelines.

            The entire impacted area would suffer major losses to wildlife, and formerly pristine oceanside features would remain spoiled for several years. Cleanup efforts did not terminate until 2008. Cleanup costs were in the tens of millions of dollars, and some lawsuits weren’t resolved until 2011.

            Since 2009, coastal cities and towns have immediate resources available to them in the form of spill-response trailers, and, if necessary, regional teams and equipment can be mobilized.

            Coming before the group were members of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, led by Section Chief of the MassDEP Oil Spill and Prevention Program Julie Hutcheson. Hutcheson and the MassDEP team gave a full-day training session that contained three distinct segments: Demonstrate the ability to deploy, the ability to assemble a spill-response organization, and the ability to effectively communicate across multiple agencies during a one- or two-day window after a spill. Hutcheson talked about the need to have strike teams trained for this type of emergency response.

            Mattapoisett Fire Chief Andrew Murray said that all Buzzards Bay coastal communities now have a spill trailer in their respective towns. Hutcheson stressed the importance of keeping the trailer fit for immediate deployment at all times. Communities are also trained in mutual aid in the event more equipment is required by a neighboring community.

            Members of the Coast Guard added to the discussion, saying a full description of the spill including any real-time notation of smells, spill colors and sheen help to identify the type of spill and therefore necessary response required. The more details, the better the DEP can assess the situation as it’s being reported by the first responders and begin to determine if the material being reported in the water is collectible or non-collectible. Team members commented that they have a short time to respond.

            Geographic Response Strategies designed by the DEP for each municipality have been set forth. They deal directly with the “how to” methods for spill containment – diversion, deflection, and exclusion.

            Sometimes nature provides the solution. It was noted that peat moss with its absorbent qualities is sometimes used especially for smaller spills.

            Time and again during the presentation, the DEP team impressed upon the emergency responders the importance of knowing the tides and currents, along with wind speeds once a spill is reported. Those natural rhythms can severely impact recovery efforts as the fluids move with the current or are pushed by the winds. Short videos demonstrating containment techniques helped to drive home the point.

            After the classroom portion concluded, the participants assembled outside to cover the contents of the spill equipment trailers and then went to Brandt Cove to engage in a spill simulation using peat moss in lieu of oil.

            The Mattapoisett Fire Department boat and Harbormaster boats from Mattapoisett and Fairhaven were deployed in the exercise, their staffers anchoring a 600-foot exclusion boom that was extended into the harbor from personnel stationed at the shore. Peat moss was then spread along the waterside path of the boom so that the boom’s effectiveness protecting coastal wildlife could be monitored.

            According to Murray, the regional exercise is done with the DEP on a periodic basis, introducing the tactic to newer staff while offering a refresher to those locally experienced.

By Marilou Newell

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