Report suggests how to prepare for Arctic oil spills

A new report is out on how communities can anticipate, plan for and build resiliency around oil spills. The report is the product of regional workshops in Anchorage, Alaska; Virginia Beach, Virginia; Santa Barbara, California; and Mobile and Bayou La Batre, Alabama.

Public domain photo from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Alaska Resources Library and Information Services reference
Workers prepare for oil dispersant testing at Quayle Beach, Smith lsland (Prince William Sound), after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

The Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Center and the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened the workshops starting in 2018. The goal was to identify regional needs for improving community preparedness for public health, social disruption, and the economic impact in the event of an oil spill.

Attendees included members from the oil spill response, public health, seafood industry, social science, and education sectors, as well as tribal citizens, elected officials and community leaders.

The Anchorage workshop was held February 20–21, 2019, drawing 56 participants.

The most pressing concern expressed by Alaska attendees was the need to better include the public in research and response efforts, particularly residents of communities most likely to be directly impacted by an oil spill. In addition, this communication and inclusion needs to occur in culturally appropriate and meaningful ways, the report finds. This collaboration is also critical so researchers understand the subsistence way of life in Alaska and the value of local and traditional knowledge.

“Residents of coastal Alaska feel a sense of urgency in being prepared for industrial accidents such as oil spills due to the dramatic changes that are impacting their way of life,” said Davin Holen, a coastal community resilience specialist at Alaska Sea Grant who wrote the report. “This is especially evident in the Bering and Chukchi Seas as sea ice dramatically retreats due to climate change, bringing with it new opportunities for ship traffic and oil and gas exploration.”

Illustration by Betsi Oliver
This easel pad page documents some of the discussions at the Feb. 20-21, 2019, oil spill workshop in Anchorage sponsored by Alaska Sea Grant and the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

Communities feel the pressure to be ready to respond to a technological disaster with few federal resources in the region for a quick response,” Holen said. “Yet at the same time, they feel unprepared.”

Holen is an anthropologist and assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

The report also identifies a need for more baseline studies on human health in coastal Alaska, along with more environmental monitoring and studies to adequately describe the subsistence way of life and its economic and cultural value.

Participants at the Anchorage workshop also expressed a concern that more vessel traffic in the Bering and Chukchi seas, as well as other parts of Alaska, could lead to a vessel adrift or spill that could impact subsistence resources.

Read the report “Setting Priorities for Health, Social and Economic Disruptions from Spills in Alaska”, a press release from National Sea Grant, and the other regional oil spill preparedness reports.