Floating black in a sea of blue. Birds covered in viscous goo. A devastated fishing industry. An ecological disaster.

Americans have been reminded this month, in graphic detail, what an oil spill looks like. Before all is said and done, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent leak in the Gulf of Mexico could be the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

While Hawaii does not have the off-shore drilling that caused the Gulf’s problems, it does rely heavily on imported oil. The hypothetical worst-case scenario of a million-barrel tanker dropping its product into the Pacific should be enough to make every Hawaii resident ask: Are we ready?

Government and industry leaders say yes.

“Anything up to a significant incident we can pretty well take care of with the resources that we have here,” Kim Beasley, general manager of Clean Islands Council. “And the beauty is that we’re connected to other entities throughout the country and the world.”

The Clean Islands Council, an oil response consortium of about 120 members, including Tesoro, Chevron and Hawaiian Electric Company, maintains the Hawaii Oil Spill Center, a home base for training, drills, meetings of the Area Planning Committee and, when needed, a war room for tactical response to oil spills.

Hawaii also has an immense amount of equipment designed to respond quickly to a spill, a list of investments that is “a reflection of how seriously we take preparedness,” Beasley said.

The asset list includes one of only seven airborne dispersant delivery systems in the world, complete with a large stockpile of thousands of gallons of dispersant; miles of pre-staged boom to soak up the oil and one of only four looms in the country so more boom can be manufactured locally; oil response vehicles, and, perhaps most importantly, a top-notch state-of-the-art command post on Sand Island.

“Part of it is because obviously there is a great concern for the wonderful environment we have here and a recognition that we’re a long way from help,” Beasley said. “We want to hit the ground running.”

A critical part of a quick, efficient response is communication — collected data from the field gets to the unified command, then the decisions are relayed back out. That unified command would include input from numerous county, state and federal government agencies, as well as the party responsible for the spill. Chief among the parties are the U.S. Coast Guard and the Hawaii Department of Health.

“We have a plan, we exercise that plan, we routinely do actual employments of equipment,” said Curtis Martin, state Department of Health coordinator of emergency response. “We have had incidents and we have responded to them.”

The plan calls first for source control — a step that has proven to be difficult to attain in the Gulf of Mexico because the oil is emanating from a leak a mile below the ocean’s surface. After that, the use of dispersant has been pre-approved in Hawaiian waters to get the oil off of the surface and eliminate the potential impact to seabirds, Martin said.

In the event of a smaller spill, the Coast Guard would serve in an assisting role, but could federalize a more aggressive response if the responsible party was slow or unable to react, said Lt. Blair Sweigart, assistant chief of the Incident Management Division.

Planning has been a higher priority since 1989’s Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound spurred Congress to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Hawaii has complied with OPA 90 by creating the 692-page Hawaii Area Contingency Plan, maintained by the coast guard and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The plan outlines the “worst case potential discharge” — probably from a vessel. The largest boat that can be received at either Chevron’s or Tesoro’s offshore moorings is a 1,000-foot, 150,000-dead-weight-ton tanker with a cargo capacity of a million barrels — 42 million gallons.

That worst case scenario is unlikely. The last “major” discharge — one greater than 100,000 gallons in the coastal zone — occurred in 1987 when jet fuel leaked from a pipeline into Pearl Harbor. Before that, no major spills had occurred since the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. There were 13 discharges of more than 10,000 gallons between 1984 and 2009, according to the plan, generally linked to mechanical failures due to human error or weather.

Beasley said Hawaii’s unified command could start its response to an “average most probable discharge” of 50 barrels within two hours and to a “maximum most probable discharge” of 1,500 barrels within 12 hours, required by OPA 90 guidelines, without help from outside the state. Partners in California, Alaska and elsewhere could help in the event of a larger spill.

Larger spills carry with them a higher likelihood of damage to the environment.

“If we had a major oil spill incident or accident close to Hawaii’s shores, it would cause an ecological disaster as well as lead to an economic disaster,” said Ed Teixeira, vice director of Hawaii State Civil Defense. “A large oil spill that we somehow cannot contain with the resources we have would affect our sea life, fishing, coral, even our seaweed resources, the wildlife, birds, et cetera.”

Asked if they believed Hawaii is ready to respond to a spill and prevent those negative environmental and health impacts, Beasley, Martin, Sweigart and Teixeira all expressed confidence.

“I really believe that Hawaii has a very, very good system of monitoring our aquatic ocean resources,” Teixeira said, “and if something happens, the response is going to be there.”


DISCUSSION Hawaii is geographically isolated from help, heavily reliant on large amounts of imported fossil fuel, and home to a sensitive ecosystem of flora and fauna. Do you feel secure in the state’s ability to respond to a potentially catastrophic oil spill?

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