Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Will it be return to form or a new norm for Washington’s drill program?


As a spill preparedness manager for Ecology, this phrase may seem a way to lower tensions. But in a worst case oil spill preparedness drill, they are serious, high-energy words. About 10 times a year, we say and write this four-word phrase hundreds of times. Oil handling companies and vessel shipping firms in Washington must develop special “oil spill contingency plans” that describe the “who, what, when, why, and how” the firms will respond to an oil spill. We review and approve the plans but they don’t just gather dust. We conduct drills to test individual plans so we know each company is ready to effectively respond.

Our worst case drills simulate how a company would respond if a large oil spill happened during their operations. We also conduct tabletop drills, smaller in size and scope that focus on specific response readiness activities and equipment.

Our drills are critical. We get to see the strengths and weaknesses of each plan. Drills allow us to help companies improve their spill readiness. We get to work with private cleanup contractors and our local, tribal, state and federal partners. And it all works. The companies we regulate transfer over 12.5 billion gallons of oil over Washington waters annually. In five years, none have had a serious spill.

Unfortunately we also must say, “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Ecology is facing financial challenges. Our spill prevention and preparedness budget was reduced by $2 million. We had to cut 8 full-time positions. Our drill program has been hit especially hard. Worst case drills are expensive, complicated, and take a lot of resources. We coordinate with hundreds of people and manage tons of information. We have fewer qualified people to carry out our preparedness work. For the foreseeable future we won’t be able to plan for, participate in, or evaluate worst case spill drills.

It’s a tough decision but we had little choice.

On the bright side, Washington’s oil handling and shipping community and our public partners have a decade of carrying out a strong drill program. This track record means our temporary, short-term withdrawal hopefully won’t lower industry’s spill readiness and response capabilities.

What will Ecology do instead?

We are focused on keeping and improving readiness activities in the earliest hours of a spill. Actions in those initial hours can make or break a response. Although we’re reducing our role in worst case and tabletop drills, we are increasing our presence at deployment drills. These test response equipment readiness and effectiveness, equipment operator training, and equipment maintenance. Although we’re shifting resources, Ecology will still be meeting with our regulated community and conducting drills. To find out more details about changes to the drill program, please see our drills Q&A page.

It’s important we develop solid preparedness tools and keep our cool if an incident happens. My hope is that we will return to our old way of business soon while still enhancing Washington’s spill readiness. However, I want to hear from you about how future drills can best serve Washington’s spill readiness needs now – and in the future.


Disey said...

I am in public health and we also do emergency planning and have had to face cuts. Disaster planning is often the first thing to be cut because it is hard to justify a "what if." But it is also a public duty to plan for and protect the citizens by engaging in disaster planning. I have a question and a comment. How will you minimize risk from this decision (ensure that industry is ready for a disaster without your oversight)? And my comment is that change is also an opportunity to adapt and envision a different way of doing business. Already planning to go back to the norm might keep you from identifying a better way to do things in the future.

Sonja Larson said...

Thank you for your comment and question. The question is a fair one. During this time we have chosen to focus on activities that would support and improve initial response actions after a spill. Getting off to an aggressive start after a disaster is crucial for long term success. Additionally during this time we are focusing internally on strengthening our systems and processes. We are managing the risk in the best way we can. In terms of adapting for the future - that is very much on our minds. We are proud of our reputation as a leader in spill readiness in Washington. Adapting and staying flexible for changes in an intergral part of that reputation.

Unknown said...

Some things are really tough to adapt to and overcome. Exercises generally are conducted to validate and seek ways to improve existing plans. These are very tough economic times, and some really tough decisions have been made. I am pretty sold on the Good/Quick/Cheap model which states you can have any two. Right now cheap is a given. Good is what we need. What is left is accepting that any solution won’t be quick in being developed or implemented.

As an emergency planner I find the idea of doing nothing an unacceptable alternative, yet have to deal pragmatically with reality. Perhaps a quarterly communications drill would provide a minimum assurance that the right people are answering the phone. Perhaps requiring a letter from (pick a cut-off number) size operator listing what equipment they have on hand, when it was inspected/inventoried (web site? May be too costly) is possible under existing Public Law. Requiring them to certify they conducted an exercise even if the State’s participation is limited at this time. In other words, finding what can be done to leverage participation in what exercises can be done with the current resources until times get better.