Arctic conditions make cleaning waste a challenge

  • Published
  • By Capt. Anastasia Wasem
  • 11th Air Force Public Affairs
Members of the 611th Civil Engineer Squadron, along with five other state and federal agencies, practiced techniques to deal with oil or hazardous waste spills under cold weather conditions during an exercise here Feb. 3-5.

The 611th CES acts as first responder to incidents on Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson and King Salmon Divert Airfield, Alaska, as well as secondary responder to 21 remote operating locations in Alaska and around the Pacific. It is also the only civil engineer squadron in the state of Alaska that responds to oil spills, a characteristic that is also very unique Air Force-wide.

"With this exercise, we show that it is possible to find and recover oil during Arctic conditions," said Scott Partlow, the U.S. Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) assistant base manager. "I think it's a good thing that everyone gets out here and gets their hands dirty to figure out how the equipment works and why we do it."

U.S. Navy SUPSALV was just one of the agencies working with the 611th CES to increase interoperability and complete the exercise. In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard, Cook Inlet Spill Prevention & Response Inc. and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation had representatives to help plan, execute and receive training as part of this cold weather operations exercise.

"It's a unique opportunity just to have all these different agencies working together with the same focus in mind; to respond to a crisis and to be able to deploy the different techniques and be responsible for the cleanup," said Master Sgt. Petree Buford, the 611th CES operations engineering superintendent.

The response teams learned and practiced several different types of techniques to use in the event of an oil spill.

The Trenching and Rope Mop Method includes creating a trench through the ice, without penetrating it, and then drilling holes down to the water through the trench, said Partlow. The oil or hazardous waste floats up through those holes, becomes trapped in the trench and is picked up by a rope skimmer, a device that resembles a long, frayed rope specially designed to absorb oil and fuel. The rope skimmer picks up the trapped oil, a machine at the end of the trench separates the oil and water and the oil is then sent to a holding tank.

Another technique practiced during the exercise was the Diversionary Tactic. This method starts by drilling holes in the ice to help determine the location of the spill and then simply inserting plywood to divert the spill to the location needed in order to clear it from the water.

"If the flow of the water is coming one way, we want to try to divert or control the flow," Buford explained. "We'll make a slice in the ice and then insert the plywood to act as a barrier or blockade to shoot the oil and water where we want it to go."

While the techniques practiced and employed by the 611th CES are effective, these are only temporary measures to prevent spreading or to cleanup a small spill until larger assets can be deployed from other agencies. The methods practiced during the exercise are meant to control 60 to 70 thousand gallons of hazardous waste in a lake or river. According to Buford, the 611th CES can respond to an incident on Elmendorf in about 12 hours and about 24 to 48 hours for an incident at King Salmon.

"This is important to the state of Alaska, because here oil would travel to the ocean and have a much larger effected area if the spill wasn't contained," Buford said. "It could have a major impact on the residents of Alaska."