Shell recruits training for Arctic oil spill response

Workers unroll inflatable boom and fill it before casting it off into Valdez waters during oil spill response training for Shell.

Workers unroll inflatable boom and fill it before casting it off into Valdez waters during oil spill response training for Shell. (Jennifer A. Dlouhy / The Houston Chronicle)

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by Jennifer A. Dlouhy

Against the backdrop of Alaska’s snow-topped Chugach Mountains and in the same waters that were spoiled by the Exxon Valdez oil spill more than two decades ago, Shell is training recruits in skills it hopes they never have to use. The company is putting scores of people through oil spill response training in the Valdez port, ahead of expected drilling in Arctic waters north of Alaska this summer.   If regulators approve the plans, Shell anticipates drilling up to five wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

The recruits — mostly men and mostly long-time Alaskans — are learning how to deploy inflatable boom for corralling floating crude and how to suck it up with skimmers once it has been lassoed by the orange booms. They are practicing on the same ships that Shell plans to station around its drilling operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in case something goes wrong.

The flotilla includes the Nanuq and Aiviq, two ice-class oil recovery and supply ships, as well as six oil spill response vessels that will be stationed on them. There also are barges and tugboats for pushing them along.

“In the Arctic, you’ve got to bring it with you if you think you’re going to need it,” said Geoff Merrell, superintendent of emergency response for Shell Alaska. “That’s spare parts, that’s people, that’s consumables.”

On Wednesday, Shell’s trainees were on the open water in the Valdez port, working to deploy boom in a U-shape, so that a barge-mounted skimmer could suck up the crude that pools at the bottom of that U. On board the Nanuq, recruits unwound inflatable boom from giant reels, pumped orange pockets full of air and cast it into the water. Oil spill response vessels holding one end of the boom pulled slowly away, keeping the material taut.  On Thursday, additional drills focused on other boom formations, including a J shape.

At one point Wednesday, two vessels, each holding one end of the U-shaped boom, let too much slack develop. And when the vessels moved in concert with a skimmer-wielding barge, Shell supervisors watching the Nunuq gave them poor marks. “They’re moving way too fast,” Merrell said.

In the oil spill response choreography playing out on the Valdez water, pulling boom too quickly can allow suction to develop and give oil a chance to slip underneath the apron of the boom and escape.

“This is why we practice,” Merrell said…

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