No, it’s not an oil spill. But the crew aboard the black-and-red-striped Coast Guard cutter in Charleston Harbor is preparing in case of one.

Cleaning up the mess

The anchorage basin by Fort Sumter is tight quarters for the 225-foot Coast Guard cutter Oak to be conducting an oil-spill drill. But the drill is an annual exercise with sites that are rotated to make sure crews are trained wherever a spill could occur, officers say.

And the buoy-tender cutter is a capable ship, with propulsion forward and aft, able to hold position within a couple of feet and maneuver at about a half-knot of speed, little more than a half of one mile per hour.

“I love piloting this ship,” said Cmdr. Whitney Houck.

The oil-spill recovery drill underway Wednesday largely involves handling an over-the-side array of outriggers, weir skimmers, floating containment booms, hoses and “bladers” to clean up the mess.

The system is able to pull out 190 gallons per minute of polluted water and clear out as much as 80 percent of the oil.

The booms are set out in a series of three rings; it looks like a bull’s eye.

The cutter would be “the first resource on the scene,” ahead or alongside private companies in case of a spill, said Don Adams, of the Coast Guard district response advisory team.

Any size spill would be handled according to contingencies in a plan that is trained for by public and private organizations.

The private companies have much more spill equipment than the cutter, which largely would be limited to deploying the skimmer system in a confined, populated location like Charleston Harbor, where burning fuel in the water or using dispersants wouldn’t be viable, Adams said.

The buoy tender works as far from the Charleston port as the U.S. Virgin Islands, about 1,000 miles away. The Coast Guard also keeps equipment at the dock here to deploy if the cutter isn’t nearby.

Bo Petersen

And it might be coincidence, but the importance of the drill taking place Wednesday at the anchorage basin is unmistakable.

The basin, a 157-acre span just off the shipping channel near Fort Sumter, has been proposed as a site for barge refueling and repairing ships that don’t want to dock.

The basin is a pull-off spot for large commercial and other ships, an anchoring site and a “bailout” for ships in the channel that lose power or steering. The Charleston Branch Pilots Association, the harbor pilots who steer large ships in and out of the port, requested the dredging because the basin has filled in.

The association also has looked at the possibility of refueling ships there. No formal requests have been made yet to state or federal agencies that would decide permits for that sort of project. But the prospect alarms conservation advocates. In the shallow and tightly confined harbor, a sizable fuel spill could wreak environmental havoc.

“We have all seen the effects of an oil spill,” said Katie Zimmerman, Coastal Conservation League project manager. Noting that Washington state adopted strict oil-transfer rules in 2006 after a large spill, she said, “We would certainly want (South Carolina) to do what they’re doing, because they have the experience of what happens when things go wrong.”

Besides meeting state regulations, barge refueling would have to meet a stringent set of federal regulations, said Don Adams of the Coast Guard district response advisory team.

Since 1985, Adams has taken part in cleaning up operations that include the infamous Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

In a confined area like Charleston Harbor, it might be easier to control a spill, but, “I can see where (a spill) could have a devastating effect on marine life,” Adams said.

The prospect of barge refueling wouldn’t figure into an Army Corps of Engineers review of either the basin-deepening project or the overall shipping channel deepening now in planning, said Sean McBride, public affairs specialist for the Charleston district.

A proposal like that “is outside our realm of work. We’re looking at the environmental impact of the work we’ll be doing,” he said. Ships are refueled over water here every day at the port and piers; the companies have their own safety requirements and measures, he said.

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