Black ops: Largest-ever oil cleanup exercise in Svalbard tests new equipment, eyes increasing likelihood of spills

It was a great day for a massive oil spill in Svalbard.

If that statement seems at odds with reality, then so was the largest-ever exercise deployed here to clean up the simulated spill from a cruise ship last week – in some aspects, at least. The weather was unseasonably warm and calm, and a few ships equipped to handle spills just happened to be in the area.

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But in this instance, participants said, doing it right was far more important than doing it real.

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Norwegian Coastal Administration officers monitor the area of a simulated sea oil spill Wednesday aboard the Barentshav in Isfjorden. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople

“It’s nice to have an exercise in these conditions, but in real life when (something) happens it’s probably not in this weather,” said Alf Arne Borgund, an operations manager for the Norwegian Coastal Administration who co-led the simulated cleanup at sea aboard the NCA’s Barentshav during the main part of the exercise. “If you do enough exercises you are ready and prepared when conditions are bad.”

Not everything was put to the test under emergency conditions – the Barentshav, for example, deployed to the scene at half its maximum speed to avoid taxing the engines. But there were plenty of perilous moments with key pieces of equipment – some of it being used in such an exercise for the first time – the crew might have to deal with in much worse circumstances. There was difficulty starting the engine of a beach cleanup device and an ATV carrying the heavy device nearly tipped over in rocky waters while trying to get from one beach to another.

“We learned there are a few minor defects with our equipment,” said Raymond Isehaug, an NCA executive officer aboard the Barentshav. “That’s a part of the reason for these exercises.”

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An oil spill exercise participant sprays specially treated bark chips designed to soak up oil over a shoreline in Isfjorden as equipment is unloaded from the Bøkfjord, a new hybrid ship designed with Arctic cleanup operations in mind. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The scenario involving a large container ship running aground and leaking heavy oil (simulated with foam for portions of the exercise) into the sea was based on what officials see as an increasingly likely possibility as commercial ship traffic in Svalbard is expected to rise sharply as the sea ice continues to shrink.

One of the most significant parts of the exercise involved the deployment of the NCA’s new  Bøkfjord hybrid vessel, which is powered largely by rechargeable batteries is designed to allow the unloading of equipment in shallow water where no port facilities exist. The 44-meter ship – the NCA’s first hybrid vessel – features the largest battery bank of any such vessel in Norway and has the ability to recover 170 cubic meters of oil.

“Now we can go in with one ship instead of two,” said Kjersti Dale, a senior advisor for the Norwegian Coastal Administration. “In Svalbard, where there is limited equipment, that’s very important.”

Participants in the exercise – including local and regional government agencies, as well as private entities – also learned to cope with the lack of internet and mobile communications generally available during emergencies elsewhere in Norway.

“We had to take special safety considerations there, as well as other communication channels had to be used,” said Rune Bergstrom, a former leader of The Governor of Svalbard’s environmental department who coordinated efforts with local officials during the exercise, in a statement issued subsequently. “We had the great advantage of the governor’s own digital communications network.”

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Workers bring an ATV ashore using one of the Norwegian Coastal Administration’s auxiliary boats. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The first day of the live containment exercise focused on containment at sea using the only the governor’s resources, with the Polarsyssel and auxiliary vessels deploying booms to contain a supposed 60 cubic meters of oil along a stretch of a few kilometers, Isehaug said. The NCA took lead command on second day when the focus was on removing a smaller – but often much harder to access amount – from both the sea and shore using people from multiple agencies.

The governor’s Polarsyssel vessel was used as the command center for the shore cleanup on the second day, which involved the transport of workers using smaller boats from several agencies. There was also the real-life need to watch for polar bears – another factor that might have been a seriously limiting factor in less favorable weather.

“In dense fog, for example, we would have had to wait to work from the beaches, Bergstrom said.

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A crew uses a skimmer to suck foam representing spilled oil from the water near shore. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“Today we know where the oil has hit the shore,” he said. “We also know that the ship that grounded yesterday is empty so there will be no more oil from there. Now it’s about saving the beaches.”

Plus, with luck, improving some actions from previous exercises.

“It’s been a while since we put out our oil booms, so maybe today we can do it a few minutes faster,” Isehaug said.

A plane conducted an areal survey shortly after the ships reached the “spill” site, but much of the overhead observation was done using a large helium balloon fitted with a specialized camera – yet another piece of equipment especially useful in Svalbard.

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At right, a helium ballon fitted with a specialized video camera is launched from the deck of the Barentshav. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“This we can have up for ten hours,” said Morten Bøe, an Ocean-Eye operator for the Norwegian Clear Seas Organization, which is jointly owned by all oil companies drilling in Norway. “When you have a long operation it’s a lot cheaper than if you have an aircraft.”

The balloon, deployed about 120 meters high during the exercise, can also be relaunched after a 30-minute period to recharge the batteries of the camera, which has capabilities such as time-lapse and infrared imagry.

“If there’s a man overboard we can lock the camera on that position,” Bøe said.

On shore, a couple of workers poured specially treated foam into a blower, with another person spraying it until the rocks on shore were covered. A large rotating brush was then used to scrub the bark into the rocks, which in real life would soak the oil from them.

“It’s like a raincoat” in terms of preventing the oil from contaminating the sea if the bark is drifting in, Dale said.

The final day of the exercise was used to assess the cleanup effort. Johan Marius Ly NCA’s emergency preparedness director, said in a prepared statement afterward the initial indicators are positive.

“We conclude that we reached the goals we had set for ourselves for the exercise, and now we will go through the learning points and what we should practice more,” he said. “This will make our emergency preparedness stronger before any major events affect the particularly vulnerable natural areas on Svalbard.”