Coastal Resilience to Oil Spills in Cook Inlet

Coastal resilience is important to coastal communities. Coastal resilience can be defined as the capacity for a coastal community to absorb a disturbance while at the same time undergo changes that help retain that community’s services, structures, and sense of identity. Hazards that would require coastal resilience include natural and man-made disturbances such as tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, flooding, and oil spills.

ABSTRACT

Coastal resilience is important to coastal communities. Coastal resilience can be defined as the capacity for a coastal community to absorb a disturbance while at the same time undergo changes that help retain that community’s services, structures, and sense of identity. Hazards that would require coastal resilience include natural and man-made disturbances such as tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, flooding, and oil spills. With Alaska being such a huge producer of oil, and petroleum products being such an important part in everyday life, Alaska is at risk for oil spills and the potentially devastating impacts that come with them. Understanding what an oil spill is, and how it affects the environment, is a key part in being able to build up coastal resilience to this kind of hazard. The coastal resilience of Alaska’s Cook Inlet is examined in detail. Alaska’s Cook Inlet has been classified as having a relatively high potential for an oil spill with a correspondingly heavy impact. Having a resilience plan in place, and having the general public informed of the risks and hazards of an oil spill, are essential to creating a high level of coastal resilience in the Cook Inlet region, as well as in the rest of Alaska.

DEFINITION

Oil and oil products are a necessity to everyday life. In Alaska, the Cook Inlet alone produces sixteen thousand barrels of oil a day (AOGA, 2015), increasing the probability of oil spills as a coastal hazard. Coastal communities in general are at risk and vulnerable to such hazards. Resilient communities are communities with “the ability to anticipate disruptive events, the capability to respond to them effectively, the mechanisms to recover from them equitably and efficiently, and [the ability to take] steps to reduce vulnerabilities to future events” (Wilbanks, 2008). Coastal resilience is important to communities at risk for coastal hazards.

An oil spill is the process of oil entering the environment in an uncontrolled manner. It is estimated that 80% of oil spills are caused by human error (Ornitz & Champ, 2002). Human error can be due to fatigue, morale, motivation, environment and training (Ornitz & Champ, 2002). A decrease in maintenance can also be a cause of an oil spill (Ornitz & Champ, 2002). Because oil products are such a necessity in today’s society, oil spills are a fairly regular occurrence (Fingas, 2013). The cost to clean up an oil spill can range anywhere between $40-50 per liter of oil spilled (Fingas, 2013). The source of the spilled oil can be from tankers, pipelines, coastal facilities, or from other watercraft carriers (Fingas, 2013). The type of oil that has been spilled has a direct impact on the severity of the spill. The main components of oil include hydrogen and carbon as well as sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, nickel, vanadium, and chromium (Fingas, 2013). Common types of petroleum products include gasoline, diesel fuel, crude oils, intermediate fuel oils, bunker fuel, and crude oil emulsions (Fingas, 2013).

Physical properties of the petroleum products effect how harmful they can be to an environment (Fingas, 2013). Chemical makeup of oil also impacts the various environmental settings in which the oil is spilled. The effect of the oil can have acute short term effects or chronic long term problems (Fingas, 2013). Oil can directly impact the organism affecting the food sources, reproductive behavior, or habitat (Fingas, 2013). Biological damage to the commercial fish grounds can make the fish unsuitable for consumption (Fingas, 2013). Marine mammals such as seals, sea lions and walruses can be affected when the oil coats their fur. This can lead to loss of insulation, impaired movement, hypothermia, and death (Fingas, 2013). Polar bears are also moderately at risk for being affected by an oil spill. Polar bears can accidentally ingest oil by grooming themselves after swimming or hunting in oiled waters (Fingas, 2013). While polar bears aren’t a species that would be directly affected by an oil spill in the Cook Inlet, they would be affected if there were to be an oil spill in Alaska further up north. Birds are possibly the organism most obviously affected by oil spills. Similar to marine mammals with fur, the oiling of a bird’s feathers can negatively impact birds causing similar damage as marine mammals (Fingas, 2013).

DESCRIPTION OF STUDY AREA

Alaska’s Cook Inlet is a region that is at risk for an oil spill due to different oil pipelines in and around the inlet. The Cook Inlet is divided into three different zones: the maritime zone, the continental zone, and the transition zone (EPA Region 10, 2013). The maritime zone includes the coast and the islands of the Cook Inlet (EPA Region 10, 2013). This section of the Cook Inlet has precipitation levels of about 60 inches per year (EPA Region 10, 2013). The continental zone, which is further inland from the coast of the Cook Inlet, is drier than the maritime zone, with average annual rainfall of about 15 inches (EPA Region 10, 2013). The transition zone is the area between the continental zone and the maritime zone, with the climate being an average between the continental and maritime zones (EPA Region 10, 2013).

Each zone in the Cook Inlet has unique environmental characteristics. Impacts to the environment would vary depending on the zone. For example, the salinity in the upper Cook Inlet is much lower, around 10 parts per thousand, than the salinity in the lower Cook Inlet, near the mouth of the inlet, with salinity levels around 32 parts per thousand (EPA Region 10, 2013). Temperature in the lower Cook Inlet can be highly variable. The maritime zone, has average temperatures of 50°F in the summer and 20°F in the winter (EPA Region 10, 2013). The continental zone has a more broad temperature range with the summers averaging around 60°F and the lows averaging around -20°F to -30°F (EPA Region 10, 2013). The following map, courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency Region 10, displays the Cool Inlet region of Alaska.

Figure 1: Map of Alaska’s Cook Inlet (EPA Region 10, 2013)

Primary production in the Cook Inlet takes place in two different categories of algae, microalgae and macroalgae (EPA Region 10, 2013). Macroalgae generally grow near the shorelines of the Cook Inlet, while microalgae are located further away from the shoreline and deeper in the water (EPA Region 10, 2013). Microalgae is the food source for various animals such as amphipods, copepods, worms and fish.

Marine mammals found in the Cook Inlet include various whales, porpoises, and seals. The Gray Whale, the Killer Whale, the Harbor Porpoise, the Dall’s Porpoise, the Harbor Seal, and the Stellar Sea Lion all live in the Cook Inlet (EPA Region 10, 2013). The Gray Whale does not live in the Cook Inlet, however, they are found in the Inlet uncommonly and they are generally passing through the Inlet when they are found there (EPA Region 10, 2013). While Killer Whales are commonly found among the shores of almost every Alaskan coast, they are still considered fairly uncommon to be found in the Inlet (EPA Region 10, 2013). The Harbor Porpoise is more commonly found in the Cook Inlet, compared to the whales (EPA Region 10, 2013). They are most commonly found in the upper Cook Inlet (EPA Region 10, 2013). The Dall’s Porpoise is most commonly found in the lower Cook Inlet, the opposite of the Harbor Porpoise (EPA Region 10, 2013). The Harbor Seal is found commonly in the lower Cook Inlet and are considered mostly nonmigratory (EPA Region 10, 2013). The Stellar Sea Lion, found in the Cook Inlet and in other waters along the Pacific Rim, is an endangered species (EPA Region 10, 2013). Factors such as prey availability, human involvement, and disease are things that can affect the numbers of marine mammals found in the Inlet (EPA Region 10, 2013).

Birds are an important and significant part of the Cook Inlet’s ecosystem, with approximately 100 different types of birds found in the Inlet, they make up a significant portion of the organisms found in the Cook Inlet (EPA Region 10, 2013). Important seabird species include the Short-tailed Shearwater, the Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, the Northern Fulmar, the Tufted Puffin, and the Black-legged Kittiwake (EPA Region 10, 2013).

The Cook Inlet contains many varieties of fish including several species that comprise important fisheries for the state of Alaska (EPA Region 10, 2013). The various species of marine fish that can be found in the Cook Inlet include the Pink Salmon, the Chum Salmon, the Sockeye Salmon, the Coho Salmon, the Chinook Salmon, the Steelhead trout, the Cutthroat Trout, the Bering Cisco, the Dolly Varden Char, the White Sturgeon, the Eulachon, the Saffron Cod, the Pacific Herring, the Pacific Sand Lance, the Capelin, the Pacific Halibut, the Sablefish, the Starry Flounder, the Pacific Hake, and the Walleye Polluck (EPA Region 10, 2013).

TOOLS FOR RISK ASSESSMENT

What tools could be used to assess the risk to the Cook Inlet for an oil spill? In 2014, the Cook Inlet produced approximately sixteen thousand barrels of oil a day (AOGA, 2015). Even if a fraction of that product were spilled into the Cook Inlet, the consequence would be detrimental and devastating for the three ecosystem zones and communities. How vulnerable is the Cook Inlet to this kind of catastrophic oil spill?

The definition of oil spill risk and vulnerability can be calculated using the following formula: Risk = Probability of the Spill x Impact of the Spill (Reich et al., 2014). This formula is a tool for assessing environmental risk.

Another tool or method of assessing the probability of an oil spill in Cook Inlet is to examine the history of past spills. Has this region been affected by oil spills before? This can be referred to as a regions incident rate (Reich et al., 2014). Table 1 lists the incident rate scores of various Alaskan regions (Reich et al., 2014). The recorded values were based on observations from 1995 through 2012. The Cook Inlet had an average of 12.4 notable incidents per year.

Based on these findings, courtesy of NOAA, as well as rankings of maximum probable discharge, current and future risk, and worst case discharge, current and future risk, it was concluded that the Cook Inlet notably ranked third in worst case discharge current risk (Reich et al., 2014). Meaning that the Cook Inlet is currently at risk for a worst case scenario situation, Table 2, based upon factors such as the level of oil production in the area (Reich et al., 2014).

Table 1: Current/Historical Incident Rate of Oil Spills (Reich et al., 2014)

Table 2: Relative Risk Rate of Worst Case Discharge (Reich et al., 2014)

The second part of environmental risk assessment is determining the impact of the oil spill. How vulnerable are both habitats and organisms to exposure to oil? Table 3 contains environmental vulnerability scores (Reich et al., 2014). The maximum environmental vulnerability value is 2.0, the maximum score for damage. These values were obtained by considering factors such as organism abundance, coverage of habitat, habitat sensitivity to oil, and the acute toxicity of oil in the area (Reich et al., 2014).

As evidenced by the table, courtesy of NOAA, the Cook Inlet has a medium environmental vulnerability score. Meaning, the Cook Inlet is average in terms of environmental vulnerability compared to other regions in Alaska.

Table 3: Environmental Vulnerability Score (Reich et al., 2014)

A tool that could be used to assess the resilience of the Cook Inlet, would be a Coastal Community Resilience Assessment, as outlined in “How Resilient is Your Coastal Community?” If there were to be an oil spill tomorrow in the Cook Inlet, would the surrounding communities and towns be prepared? The process of conducting a Community Coastal Resilience Assessment begins with the following steps:

1. Define the purpose, scope, and participants of the assessment

2. Review the Coastal Community Resilience Benchmarks

3. Prepare for the Coastal Community Resilience Assessment

4. Collect information and data

5. Compile and analyze results

6. Validate and communicate results

7. Provide recommendations to adapt plans and programs for enhanced resilience

The purpose of the assessment would be to determine if the communities surrounding the Cook Inlet would be prepared in case of an oil spill. The scope of the assessment would include the members of the surrounding communities, local government (mayors), state government (governor) and possible federal involvement, depending on the severity of the spill.

Reviewing the benchmarks for a coastal community resilience assessment include basic economic, geographic, and ecologic factors in the affected area. In compiling the data, community groups would address four categories in the assessment process:

● Identify sources of information.

● Determine assessment method by benchmark.

● Organize and train the Coastal Community Resilience assessment team.

● Develop assessment work plan and schedule.

Conducting interviews over a broad range of respondents—residents, government officials, scientists–provides the best idea of the community’s ability to prepare for an oil spill disaster. The Community Resilience Assessment should reveal the level of awareness, preparedness, and response the community has for such a disaster. Additionally, the data should be able to suggest a possible action plan if an oil spill were to occur. However, if the assessment shows an unprepared community with no established prevention measures, little knowledge on the subject, and no action plan, then community outreach and education must occur.

If a coastal community assessment were to be conducted in the city of Anchorage, and the results revealed that Anchorage was underprepared for an oil spill in the Cook Inlet, how would the city’s level of preparedness be rated? Would a response plan process help to raise the city’s common knowledge about this possible disaster?

If the same assessment were to be conducted in Anchorage with results showing that Anchorage was prepared, how would the city maintain this level of preparedness, or even try to raise it? The higher the level of preparedness a community has, the higher the level of resilience if a disaster were to occur.

SOLUTIONS

Identifying possible solutions is an important part of response to an oil spill. While factors such as liability are important, the most important part in responding to an oil spill would be the actual cleanup of oil (Ornitz & Champ, 2002). The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, OPA 90,

has a series of plans on the national level, the regional level, as well as the local level (Ornitz & Champ, 2002). The purpose these plans is to “ensure effective and immediate removal of a discharge, and mitigation or prevention of a substantial threat of a discharge, of oil or hazardous substance” into waters where it could be harmful (Oil Pollution Act of 1990, 1990). The United States, which would include a hypothetical oil spill in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, has a very straightforward system in response to oil spills, which is “effective and immediate” preparation for “worst case” scenarios (Ornitz & Champ, 2002). In recent history, finding the best way to respond to an oil spill has been through “trial and error” (Ornitz & Champ, 2002).

The physical treatment of the environment and removal of oil is another important step in responding to an oil spill. Treatment of an oiled area consists of a balance between removing the oil, accelerating the breakdown of the remaining oil, protecting the affected wildlife, hastening habitat recovery, and not causing further ecological damage through treatment (Zengel, Bernik, Rutherford, Nixon, & Michel, 2015).

Two basic categories of treatment include manual treatment and mechanical treatment. Manual treatment can consist of the manual raking and cutting of oil, and removal of oiled vegetation with hand tools (Zengel, Bernik, Rutherford, Nixon, & Michel, 2015). Mechanical treatment can include mechanical grappling, mechanical raking, mechanical cutting, and mechanical scraping (Zengel, Bernik, Rutherford, Nixon, & Michel, 2015).

A “window-of-opportunity” when using a mechanical response method is based on two different variables: the weathering of oil over time and limited conditions such as maneuverability, operability, and equipment (Ornitz, Champ & 2002). Factors such as wind speed, currents, and temperature can have effects these two variables (Ornitz & Champ, 2002). Other examples of mechanical clean-up include skimmers, oil-water separators, and sorbents (Ornitz & Champ, 2002). The properties and chemical makeup of the oil can be a factor of the effectiveness of the chosen clean-up method (Ornitz & Champ, 2002).

PREPAREDNESS

An important step in Coastal Community Resilience would be making sure the community was informed and educated on the basic information of a potential oil spill hazard. Public education outreach, as outlined in “How Resilient is Your Coastal Community?” is an excellent way to improve community knowledge.

1. Define the goals and objectives of your Coastal Community outreach program

2. Identify target audiences

3. Create messages for audience response

4. Package message into various formats

5. Distribute messages to the audiences

6. Evaluate the progress of efforts

Defining the goals and objectives of the Coastal Community Resilience Assessment would be the first step (U.S. Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System Program, 2007). In the hypothetical case of an oil spill in the Cook Inlet, the goal is to have an efficient Response Team inform all the communities about the hazard, direction, rate, and spread of an oil spill. The general public of Alaska would be the target audience for a public education outreach about oil spills in Alaska, as well as other stakeholders that would be affected in the case of an oil spill in the state of Alaska. Steps 3, 4 and 5 involve distributing your message in a way that would get your audience to respond (U.S. Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System Program, 2007). These steps are important because they will determine how effective your message will be. The way you decide to create your message and how you distribute your message can determine whether or not your message is meaningful. A newspaper printing in the town of Eagle, Alaska, or a T.V. announcement in the town of Anchorage, Alaska? Which would be more effective spreading awareness about oil spills in the state of Alaska? The final step in conducting public education outreach to improve awareness would be evaluating the progress of your efforts (U.S. Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System Program, 2007). Are the stakeholders in the potential coastal hazard now more informed of the potential danger and have more of an idea of what to do incase this hazard were to occur?

PROPOSED ACTION PLAN

To improve the Cook Inlet community’s coastal resilience to an oil spill an appropriate plan of action would be to educate the community prior to a spill. Informing the community of what an oil spill is, and what they can do in case an oil spill were to occur, is an important part of building community resilience. An effective way of doing this, would be to create a television infomercial. This is a quick and effective way of spreading information about oil spills. It’s a fast way to get general information out to the community and it would reach the most amount of people the fastest. A television infomercial has the potential to reach much more people compared to something such as a radio advertisement or a newspaper ad. Another way to spread information would be an educational class at the community center. While this would only reach the few people that were to attend the class, a class would be able to go more in depth into the hazards of an oil spill, much more in depth than a television commercial.

CONCLUSION

Coastal resilience is important to the Cook Inlet as well as other regions around the state of Alaska. With Alaska being such a huge producer of oil and oil products, Alaska, specifically the Cook Inlet region, is at risk and vulnerable for the coastal hazard of an oil spill. Tools such as the Coastal Community Risk Assessment, found in “How Resilient is Your Coastal Community”, can help determine a community’s level of preparedness and resilience. Potential solutions to an environmentally devastating oil spill would include things such as physically removing the oil from the environment with methods such as mechanically removing the oil or manually removing the oil. When taking action on an event such as an oil spill, one of the most important things is to keep the general public informed on the dangers and hazards of this potential coastal hazard. Spreading general information is also an important part of keeping a high level of preparedness. The more prepared you are for a coastal hazard, or any disaster in general, the better chance you have at bouncing back after the event.

References

  1. Alaska Oil and Gas Association. (2015) AOGA Fact Sheet: Cook Inlet Oil & Gas Production. (EPA/630/R-92/001). Alaska, U.S.A.: Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
  2. Champ, M. A., Esq, Ornitz, B. E., PhD. (2002) Oil Spills First Principles: Prevention & Best Response. Kidlington, Oxford, United Kingdom: Elsevier Science Ltd.
  3. Environmental Protection Agency. (1992) Framework for Ecological Risk Assessment. Washington, D.C., U.S.A.: Environmental Protection Agency.
  4. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 10. (2013) Ocean Discharge Criteria Evaluation For The Cook Inlet Exploration NPDES General Permit. Seattle, Washington, U.S.A., U.S. EPA Region 10.
  5. Fingas, M., (2013) The Basics of Oil Spill Cleanup. Boca Raton, Florida, 33487-2742: Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.
  6. Oil Pollution Act of 1990, (101 H.R.1465, P.L. 101-380) (1990)
  7. Reich, D. A., Balouskus, R., McCay, D. F., Fontenault, J., Rowe, J., Singer-Leavitt, Z., Etkin, D. S., Michel, J., Nixon, Z., Boring, C., McBrien, M., Hay., B. (2014) Assessment of Marine Oil Spill Risk and Environmental Vulnerability for the State of Alaska. Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center.
  8. U.S. Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System Program. (2007) How Resilient is Your Coastal Community? A Guide for Evaluating Coastal Community Resilience to Tsunamis and Other Coastal Hazards. (U.S. IOTWS Document No. 27-IOTWS-07). Bangkok, Thailand: U.S. Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System Program.
  9. Wilbanks, T. J. (2008). Enhancing the Resilience of Communities to Natural and Other Hazards: What We Know and What We Can Do. Natrual Hazards Observer 32:10-11
  10. Zengel S., Bernik B. M., Rutherford, N., Nixon Z., Michel, J. (2015) Heavily Oiled Salt Marsh following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Ecological Comparisons of Shoreline Cleanup Treatments and Recovery. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0132324. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0132324.

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Coastal Resilience to Oil Spills in Cook Inlet

Coastal resilience is important to coastal communities. Coastal resilience can be defined as the capacity for a coastal community to absorb a disturbance while at the same time undergo changes that help retain that community’s services, structures, and sense of identity. Hazards that would require coastal resilience include natural and man-made disturbances such as tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, flooding, and oil spills.

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