Oil spill response workshop convenes in Barrow
As a new era of oil exploration opens up in the Arctic, a New Hampshire research center has been initiating a dialogue about Alaska's oil spill restoration potential.
The series of four workshops — beginning in 2010 in Anchorage — held its most recent installment in Barrow this weekend, led by the University of New Hampshire Coastal Response Research Center.
Nancy Kinner, the center's director, said her organization is leading the dialogue on behalf of NOAA. The workshops focus on the concept of environmental assessment — before and after a spill occurs — as a way to develop a proactive restoration plan, she said.
"The whole idea," said Kinner, "is to have the local and Alaska Native people start to, in the villages and the communities of the Northwest Arctic Borough and the North Slope Borough, begin to understand the process of natural resource damage assessment."
The workshop focuses not so much on the logistics of responding to a spill, but the science behind ensuring and carrying out environmental restoration.
"We know that people are well aware of response," Kinner said. "Because there have been a lot of meetings with Coast Guard and Shell, etc. But what we feel is that they're not as aware of the process of natural resource damage assessment."
One of the goals is to have a concrete understanding of and data set on local environmental resources, as well as what measures might be necessary to restore them should they be damaged.
Having that understanding and data in place, Kinner said, helps to ensure that the responsible parties follow an appropriate and effective protocol should a spill occur.
"We need to continue the dialogue," Kinner said. "Because the whole idea of damage assessment is that there is compensation that has to be provided by the responsible parties during a spill or after a spill — to compensate for the damages that have occurred to natural resources (and) to subsistence users."
While the conversation uses terms like compensation and responsible party, it's not like a lawsuit for damages, Kinner said.
A hypothetical example of this, she said, would be if a spill or accident damaged the Arctic cod fishery.
"Then what would happen is the responsible party would have to do restoration projects to improve the spawning grounds for the Arctic cod," Kinner said. "Something to help their population come back."
An effective damage assessment system would have plans for those specific types of restoration projects in place.
Representatives from the New Hampshire center weren't the only out-of-state participants to make the trek to Barrow. Scientists from the University of Washington, NOAA officials, representatives from the oil and gas industry and Fran Ulmer of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission were among the dozens of other attendees.
From around the North Slope there were representatives from most slope villages and several from ASRC and the North Slope Borough.
A comparable meeting was held in Kotzebue in May, Kinner said, and she believes both were good beginnings to what will hopefully be an ongoing and progressive conversation.
"It's quite a complex and large group of people to get together," Kinner said. "But I think we had good representation. We made a start in both places and I think it is going to be a dialogue that continues."
Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at email@example.com.