Marine Spill Response Corporation performs test drill on the riverWorkers wearing white hardhats and foul weather gear unroll and inflate a 660-foot black and orange rubber boom, as a rain squall washes the decks of an oil spill response barge.
The boom floats in the Columbia River near Tongue Point like the tail of a sea serpent. A support boat pulls the free end into a J-shape to gather spilled oil. Cranes lower skimmer pumps into the apex of the J, ready to begin pumping petroleum out of the water.
The crew from the Marine Spill Response Corporation works quickly and carefully as they run through a cleanup drill Thursday. The responders - on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year - would be among the first to come on scene in the event of a terrorist attack on an oil tanker or barge. Readiness is their stock and trade, they say, and the company has made few changes to their routine in response to the heightened terrorism alerts and war.
"We are an emergency response organization," said Michael A. LaTorre, vice president of MSRC's western region. "As far as the security issue associated with the war in Iraq ... If there was an event for us, an oil spill, we would respond, (but) probably coordinate more closely with the (U.S.) Coast Guard."
While the responders have always coordinated with the Coast Guard, as well as state environmental agencies, in the past, they would go immediately to the vicinity of a spill. "But now there's that extra step of making sure that area is secure," LaTorre said.
Michael Zollitsch, a senior emergency response coordinator for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said that the state's response to a "suspected terrorist event" would have to be "a little more delicate." He said responders would have to worry about a secondary device, for example. State environmental coordinators who handle oil spills look to the Coast Guard and law enforcement officials to take the lead on security issues.
In response to heightened terrorism alerts, Zollitsch said his agency checks and double checks its backup systems, such as satellite phones.
"We make sure all our communications systems are working so that when something happens we have people available," Zollitsch said. "That's something we normally do, but we do it more often now."
While Zollitsch said he has not heard of any specific threats identified within the state of Oregon, a terrorism expert at Portland State University said terrorist attacks are by their nature unpredictable.
LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian
During an oil spill response drill Thursday, Tony Smart holds the floatable hoses as a skimmer pump is lowered into the center of the contained area."A terrorist attack can occur at any time and where it is least expected," said Gary Perlstein, professor emeritus in the administration of justice department.
Columbia River ports could be possible terrorist targets, he said.
"How likely? Nobody in the world knows," said Perlstein, who teaches a course on homeland security. "But we've got to protect to be sure."
Maritime trade - specifically an oil tanker - was a target for terrorists last October. The French-owned supertanker Limburg was severely damaged off the coast of Yemen when a small boat loaded with explosives rammed the ship. Thousands of barrels of oil spilled from the tanker after the attack.
Despite the increased terrorism threat, MSRC's mission remains largely unchanged since it was created 13 years ago.
The oil and shipping industries founded MSRC to meet heightened requirements for oil spill prevention and response spelled out in the 1990 Oil Pollution Act. The act was signed into law in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez accident, which spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
Funded by oil companies, MSRC has responders stationed on the East, West and Gulf coasts. The crew at the Port of Astoria, in concert with contractors around the state, responds to any spill in Oregon waters, out to 200 miles at sea. Responders stationed locally can also be sent to assist with spills elsewhere.
LaTorre, the regional vice president, said the company is constantly practicing to improve its ability to respond to spills.
"The whole security issue," he said, "that just puts one more piece in front of us."