HARWICH — The threat of an oil spill in local waters is a serious environmental concern, and state, county and local officials trained together in the Herring River on Monday to contain a simulated plume of pollution.
The daylong exercise was sponsored by the state Department of Environmental Protection and focused on training for Harwich and Dennis fire departments and harbormasters. But it also included Chatham harbor department staff, the Barnstable County Sheriff's Department and the Barnstable County All Hazards Incident Management Team.
DEP's Marine Oil Spill Prevention and Response Program conducts six full-scale response training sessions a year across the state as part of their Geographic Response Plan, which has identified 160 sensitive locations in the state in need of protection in the event of an oil spill. The Herring River is one of them.
The state program was developed in the wake of the Tank Barge Bouchard No. 120, which struck a rock south of Westport, when passing on the wrong side of a navigational marker, releasing an estimated 98,000 gallons of fuel oil in Buzzards Bay.
Shifting winds and rough seas in the days following the spill caused oil to wash ashore for more than two weeks, covering more than 90 miles of shoreline. The spill impacted a variety of natural resources, including wildlife, salt marshes, recreational beaches and many shellfish beds were closed for months.
Julie J. Hutcheson, Section Chief of the Marine Oil Spill Prevention and Response Program, said the state established the program in 2004 and has provided pre-positioned oil spill response trailers in 70 coastal communities, including Harwich and Dennis.
“The objectives of the training are to demonstrate the ability to deploy oil spill equipment utilizing common GRP [Geographic Response Plan] tactics, assemble a spill response organization utilizing the incident command system and demonstrate the ability of effective communication interoperability between multiple agencies,” Hutcheson said.
The day began with a two-hour classroom session in which the 30 to 40 participants were introduced to GRPs, booming tactics, incident command and control, spill management and safety procedures. They were also made familiar with the oil spill equipment in the trailer.
Shortly after noon fire department personnel, members of the harbor departments, state and county officials descended on the former fish house along the Herring River, which served as a command post for the boom deployment event.
“They asked me and I was glad to oblige,” fish house owner Francis Zarette said. “Any time they want to use it, I said they could. It's important to have a building like this in case of an emergency.”
“It's the perfect place to do this,” Deputy Fire Chief David LeBlanc, incident commander for the exercise, said of use of the site. The Barnstable County Sheriff's Department had their communications truck set up there and a county drone was operated from that location to provide responders with an aerial view of the site.
Harbormaster boats were located at Wixon Dock and the oil spill trailer containing the boom deployed from that location. The vessel stretched the boom across the river to direct a spill to a location where, in the case of an actual spill, they would remove oil. There were a few problems in the process, including getting an anchor to hold in the river bottom.
“It was excellent,” LeBlanc said of the training exercise. “Doing what we set out to do and how it goes in planning is not how it always goes in the real world.”
He said the original plan didn't work when the anchor did not hold, but responders came up with another plan, as they are trained to do. LeBlanc said it was a good learning exercise for the towns of Dennis and Harwich because they got to see what the resources and capabilities are when the two towns work together. LeBlanc also said it was good to have the Barnstable County All Hazards Incident Management Team there to see what resources they can bring to the table. That was a huge advantage, he said.
“I wouldn't hesitate to call for their assistance in the future,” LeBlanc said.
Hutcheson had great praise for the cooperation among the various departments, towns and county during this exercise. She said in some instances you don't see the engagement and support from different departments.
This is not the first time the Harwich Fire Department and Harbor Department have done one of these exercises. LeBlanc said they conducted one five or six years ago with the town of Chatham. This is also not the first time the department has had to deploy the oil spill booms. The deputy fire chief said they have used the equipment around boats in the harbors and when a vehicle has plunged into the harbor.
This exercise was a larger deployment of the boom system, extending the system over a 400-foot stretch. An oil surrogate material (peat moss) was released to test the effectiveness of the GRP tactic. LeBlanc said the boom system contained the peat moss, preventing it from flowing down the river.
“It worked exactly as advertised,” the incident commander said.