[Editor: Commentary received in an email from Dr. Fred Millar – “Reporter John Ferro in Poughkeepsie has relentlessly dug up the almost always hidden ‘after action’ documents from agencies which participate in emergency drills. The reports are supposed to show gaps in preparedness revealed by the drills, but are usually whitewashed, scrubbed all together to get an official version of what happened that makes no one look too bad, with overall aim re ‘public perception’, as Ferro indicates, of reassuring the public. ¶ Unlike oil-loaded ships and storage facilities [under the Oil Pollution Act mandates], crude oil-shipping railroads have offloaded all the responsibility for ER capabilities and planning onto local and state officials.” – RS]
‘Flawed’ oil spill drill offers lessons to state, feds
Poughkeepsie Journal investigation offers the first detailed account of largest multi-agency drill along the Hudson River in at least a decade.John Ferro, September 15, 2014
In the aftermath of a high-profile, multi-agency oil spill drill in New Windsor last year, officials were pleased by the mostly positive news coverage.
“Thank goodness,” wrote one official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in an email.
“It was basically lucky that things turned out as well as it did for the public perception,” said a follow-up report from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
But beyond the relief, there were concerns about how the drill came together, communication during it, as well as other issues, a Poughkeepsie Journal investigation has found.
At a time when Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has repeatedly sought to reassure the public about the state’s handling of the sudden rise in crude oil transport, the Journal’s report offers the first detailed account of the most comprehensive oil spill drill on the Hudson River in at least a decade.
“The drill was flawed, no question about that,” said Charles Rowe, a spokesman for the local Coast Guard sector. “The areas where it was flawed were planning and communication. However, it was flawed for all the right reasons.”
Indeed, experts and officials say drills are successful when they identify areas of improvement, as this one did. And no glaring deficiency in the local response capacity was identified, they said.
The drill was held Nov. 12 and involved railroad and in-river simulations, as well as a tabletop exercise. It was co-sponsored by the DEC and Global Companies, the private company that owns the New Windsor terminal.
“In our experience, drills do not turn out well by luck, but rather are based on sound preparation and planning,” DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said. “DEC believes that this drill provided an effective test of response activities.”
Still, the lessons learned from that test have gone largely unreported even as the public is being asked to comment on an update of the local area contingency plan. In fact, the DEC released its final report on the drill on Saturday, 10 months after the drill and nearly eight months after the Journal first requested it under the Freedom of Information Act.
Area contingency plans were mandated by federal legislation passed in 1990 following the Exxon Valdez accident. They define roles, responsibilities, resources and procedures necessary to respond to spills and are updated every three years. The deadline for public comment on the local plan is Oct. 10.
Drill grew larger
The emails, reports and interviews paint a picture of a drill that began as a small exercise and grew into something much larger.
Owners of oil terminals such as Global Companies must conduct drills every year. They can range from tabletop exercises to much larger drills involving role-played scenarios.
The New Windsor drill came about a year after crude oil began moving down the Hudson River in large quantities by rail and vessel. And it followed an accident involving the very first oil tanker to leave Albany.
The Stena Primorsk ran aground about 6 miles south of Albany on Dec. 20, 2012. Though the ship’s outer hull was gashed open, the inner hull kept any of its 11.7 million gallons of crude from leaking.
In 2013, the DEC and the Coast Guard approached Global to request an expanded drill. The original drill called for a simulated leak of crude oil. It was changed to a catastrophic failure of a 50,000-gallon heating oil tank that leaked into the river.
DEC officials then added a train derailment to the scenario.
More participants added
The initial planning included representatives of the Coast Guard, DEC, the New Windsor Fire Department, Global Companies and oil-spill recovery organizations contracted by Global and DEC.
But in the end, more than 20 public and private entities either observed or took part in at least one of the simulations, including emergency response officials from Dutchess, Ulster and Orange counties.
The additions created some headaches for drill planners. A DEC memo obtained by the Journal described the planning phase as being “pieced together in a Frankenstein-ish manner.”
“The increased level of participation led to last-minute changes in the scenario and to ad-hoc planning,” Rowe, the Coast Guard spokesman, said. “This complicated the exercise, but is good news for the Hudson River. It shows that agencies recognize the potential for an incident and that those agencies are willing to commit resources and assets to preparation and training.”
Constantakes, the DEC spokesman, said the decision to use fuel oil instead of Bakken crude was made because the New Windsor facility did not store Bakken crude in any of its tanks. The tank used in the drill was the largest in the Global facility, and stores fuel oil most of the time, he said.
“The physical properties of Bakken crude oil and diesel oil are similar, so this change did not significantly alter the simulated response actions,” he said.
Problems with hardware
Participants were hampered by a lack of simple hardware such as enough electric outlets, consistent Internet access and computer printers, the documents say. And a sudden overnight drop in temperatures caught some by surprise.
Experts say that these snafus can be a blessing in disguise, however, since they can mirror real-world situations.
“I thought that was a really interesting comment, that folks were cold,” said Brian House, chief executive officer of Moran Environmental Recovery LLC in Randolph, Massachusetts. “If this had been a real event, folks would have been a lot colder.”
House is a past-president of the Spill Control Association of America and was the spill-recovery industry’s representative on a federal review of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. Neither he nor his company was involved in the drill.
At the Journal’s request, House reviewed a detailed, bullet-point summary, called a “hot wash,” that was sent by a DEC’s regional spills engineer to about 15 private and public entities a few days after the drill. The military term has been adopted by first responders to describe a post-event debriefing. It is derived from the practice of soldiers who used hot water to clean weapons of dirt and residue.
“Nothing jumped out at me as being a catastrophic flaw,” House said. “I think any time you have a drill with a mix of public and private sector resources, it is a learning experience. I think the issues, for the most part, revolved around ways to enhance communication.”
Communication between commanders and the teams at the rail car was initially hampered because of the use of different radio frequencies, the hot wash summary said. The problems were quickly resolved.
The hot wash summary also highlighted concerns over whether private railroad officials from CSX were moving out of sync with the incident command system, or ICS. An ICS is a standardized, uniform response structure that allows people or departments to respond to incidents regardless of size.
“That can be as simple as five guys in a tent, or on large events, it can be hundreds of people,” House said.
‘Chaos’ within command system
The DEC memo indicated there was a “good deal of chaos” within the ICS.
“Emergency response events and drills are by their very nature chaotic and cannot be perfectly organized,” Constantakes said. “These situations are somewhat similar to hospital emergency rooms.”
Constantakes said that in the agency’s view, ICS staffing came together quickly, with people assigned to each of the units necessary to perform their assigned tasks.
Within an ICS are sections, or departments, such as planning, logistics and operations. At New Windsor, communication issues arose between the sections. In one instance, the planning section lacked information on what equipment had been deployed, making it difficult to plan the next operational phase.
There were smaller issues, such as responders not having the right tools when they performed an initial reconnaissance entry to the train.
Participants also expressed frustration that too many media representatives and other observers distracted them from doing their jobs.
Under a section headlined “Positives,” the hot wash summary indicated that public perception was good; the initial confusion took a while to clear but started to work at the end; and that there was a great deal of coordination between multiple agencies.
But the summary also indicated that some felt the drill may have been too big.
The DEC says all of those lessons, as well as others, will be incorporated into future drills. One lesson: Seek help when planning a comparatively complex event.
“The overall review of the drill indicated that the use of both a professional planner and professional facilitator would have been helpful for a drill of this magnitude,” Constantakes said.
Rowe said the drill was “not perfect by any means,” primarily because the total number of agencies that participated was considerably larger than was initially planned.
But, the Coast Guard spokesman said it revealed that the Hudson River has a larger response capability than initially had been thought, that responders “are serious” about the potential for oil and hazardous materials spills and that all participants understand the necessity of working together under an organized command structure.
“Obviously, there is work to be done,” Rowe said, “but there are many willing hands to do that work.”