Coast Guardsmen and partner organizations practice oil spill cleanup in the Gastineau Channel near Sandy Beach on May 11. 2021. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Coast Guardsmen and partner organizations practice oil spill cleanup in the Gastineau Channel near Sandy Beach on May 11. 2021. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

A well-oiled routine: Oil spill responders train in Gastineau Channel

Residents of the Savikko Park area might have been perplexed to see boats with oil booms swanning about near Douglas Harbor on Tuesday morning.

The Coast Guard held their first large-scale oil spill response exercise after a year of being limited by pandemic conditions, choosing the Gastineau Channel off Sandy Beach as their training ground, said Lt. Maren Balke, who organized the exercise.

“Over the year, we have gained new responders with little experience while losing others from transfer to other units and departments, and we had a knowledge gap that we needed to close,” Balke said in an email. “This is also a great opportunity to develop any tactics locally for our unique environment, something that we have never done before.”

The exercise was held with Coast Guardsmen from sectors Juneau and Ketchikan. Partners, including the Southeast Alaska Petroleum Response Organization, Global Dive and Salvage, Petro Marine and Delta Western also participated in the training or contributed vessels. Much of the muscle for clean up efforts in Alaska is concentrated in Juneau, making it a logical place for a training exercise, Balke said.

[New D17 commander awards aircrew for November rescue]

“This helped everyone maintain their familiarity with the equipment as well as understand how it interacts in the environment under strain,” Balke said. “These kinds of tactics need to be practiced regularly, otherwise you lose proficiency.”

Live operations are funded by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, created after the Exxon Valdez disaster, Balke said. The Coast Guard has more than 100 strategies for spills across a broad range of conditions, Balke said.

“We have over 100 Geographic Response Strategies that the Coast Guard and the State use and are responsible for keeping current, in order to ensure their efficacy in a real world scenario,” Balke said. “Typically, when we get together at this scale we are exercising one of those GRS to determine its functionality when actually deployed and make any changes necessary. We are planning to still have one of those later this year, but we wanted to do this to shake off the rust of the past year.”

Happily, Balke said, the need for the large-scale training like that practiced today rarely arises.

“Fortunately, it’s not that often,” Balke said. “We have needed to deploy oil spill containment tactics when there has been a sunken vessel, but we rarely employ deflection booming like we were exercising today.”

About 35 personnel from the Coast Guard and other partner organizations spread across eight vessels participated on

Tuesday, Balke said.

“The exercise went great. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew to work with on this project,” Balke said. “We all came away from this with increased knowledge and comfort with the equipment and tactics.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or

Coast Guardsmen and partner organizations practice oil spill cleanup in the Gastineau Channel near Sandy Beach on May 11. 2021. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Coast Guardsmen and partner organizations practice oil spill cleanup in the Gastineau Channel near Sandy Beach on May 11. 2021. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

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