Harbor safety committee suggested for Cook Inlet

On Wednesday, Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler began his speech at the Cook Inlet Harbor Safety Committee Informational meeting by saying “Let’s be up front — we don’t have a Harbor Safety Committee yet. You might ask: if it’s not broke, what do we have to fix? But there is a point to trying to work smarter, trying to be efficient as we can, trying to open communications.”

Mehler was speaking of the possibility of a formal, dedicated group to reduce the risk of marine accidents — specifically, of oil spills — in Cook Inlet. Although such a group doesn’t presently exist, its creation is one measure recommended by the Cook Inlet Risk Assessment, a report commissioned in 2011 by the Cook Inlet Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

A draft of the report was presented at Wednesday’s meeting, preceding a Coast Guard presentation advocating for a Harbor Safety Committee. The meeting was attended by nearly 50 people, including harbor operators, oil-spill responders, and representatives from fishing, conservation, transportation, and oil and gas concerns.

According to its executive director, Mike Munger, the Cook Inlet Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council is one of two advisory groups formed under the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to represent citizen’s interest in policy-making related to crude oil transportation. The council commissioned the Cook Inlet Risk Assessment report in order to answer two questions: what is the risk of an oil spill in the Cook Inlet? And what can be done to minimize the risk or impact of an oil spill? The council selected the consulting group Nuka Research to carry out the report, in part because Nuka had previously created a similar report for the Aleutian Islands.

Tim Robertson, project manager for Nuka Research and one of the report’s authors, presented the findings.

Nuka’s survey of vessel traffic in the Cook Inlet discovered that 80 percent of the inlet transits made that year had been done by only 15 vessels, which Robertson referred to as the Inlet’s “frequent flyers.”

“That is a huge advantage to safety in the environment that we operate in, because we have people that are working here and coming back time and time again,” Robertson said.

Other elements of the study included a survey of spill cause and frequency, a simulation of response times to drifting vessels in danger of running aground, and an estimation of the impacts of seven hypothetical disaster scenarios involving different volumes of different spilled material in different locations of the inlet.

The report concluded with recommendations for oil spill prevention and mitigation. These include enhanced training for ship crews, the expansion of cellular coverage, and greater emergency towing capacity in the southern region of the inlet, where the report concluded that such capacity was lacking.

A larger change, intended to reduce the risk of oil spills by reducing the number of oil tankers, is the creation of a pipeline across Cook Inlet from the Drift River Oil Terminal to the refinery in Nikiski. Although RCAC is strongly encouraging these measures, it has neither the authority nor the budget to implement them,

“These are recommendations, and it’s up to industry to take those recommendations,” Munger said. He noted, however, that the RCAC will promote its recommendations by encouraging organizations operating in the Cook Inlet to band together for the formation of a Harbor Safety Committee.

“This will be the vehicle to move a lot of those recommendations forward,” Munger said, of the proposed committee.

Laying a foundation for that committee was the purpose of the Coast Guard presentation that followed Robertson’s report. The Coast Guard sent three members to the meeting to host this discussion.

Coast Guard Lt. Eugene Chung outlined a possible structure for a Harbor Safety Committee made of voting and non-voting members, in which the Coast Guard would belong to the latter category. In the former category he listed “port authorities, vessel owners, pilots, shipyards, labor, state and local agencies, recreational boaters, and the general public.”

“It’s not another regulatory body,” Chung said. “It’s industry players, as well as the public, getting together with state and federal agencies, to come up with non-regulatory solutions.”

During the comment period following the Coast Guard presentation, state Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, asked what the specific purpose of the group would be.

“We’ve got the RCAC, we’ve got many NGOs (non-governmental organizations), agencies, various independent groups in various stages of organization, a lot of committees, a lot of things we have to do,” Micciche said. “What’s the goal? We’re all interested in safely operating our waterway … but is there potential for a group to be somewhat counterproductive?”

In response, Mehler emphasized the flexibility of the Harbor Safety Committee’s collaborative framework, saying that it would suit the specific needs of its members. Having an organized group such the Harbor Safety Committee, Mehler said, would improve the Coast Guard’s ability to serve Cook Inlet users.

“When you can justify a regulatory change or implementation based on the needs of a community that is going to be served by it, it makes my job easy,” Mehler said. “As the result of marine casualties, lawmakers want to put regulations out and make change. Accidents are going to happen, and if we, as users of the waterway, can have a bigger impact on mitigating and preventing those accidents, to come in with good standards instead of knee-jerk reactions and policies that are overarching over the entire industry … we can move forward with being smart, and say what are the most important priorities for Cook Inlet.”

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.