Coast Guard wraps up initiative in Arctic, Western Alaska

Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Houvener inspects a fuel storage facility Oct. 23, 2021, on Little Diomede. Marine Safety Task Force members visited 95 remote communities, completed 128 fuel storage facility inspections, 470 commercial fishing vessel exams, five gold dredge exams and monitored six fuel-to-shore transfers. Coast Guard photo by Petter Officer 1st Class Dane Grulkey

By Petty Officer 1st Class Nate Littlejohn
For The Cordova Times

2021 marked a milestone for the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Task Force initiative in Alaska. MSTF teams operated with new partners, visited more communities, and strengthened relationships in the Arctic and Western portions of Alaska, due to unprecedented planning, action and support.

The ongoing MSTF initiative, first implemented in 2019, manages the seasonal deployment of Coast Guard teams to remote areas across the state to conduct vessel and facility inspections, provide operator training, improve maritime domain awareness, and conduct outreach for preparedness and safety programs.

Through MSTF operations, the Coast Guard observed firsthand, impacts of climate change to the landscape of the Arctic and Western portions of Alaska. As permafrost thaws, the ground under many aging fuel facilities is becoming unstable. This could potentially leave people unable to heat their homes and schools or fuel their traditional hunting and fishing transportation. Potential fuel oil spills caused by aging infrastructure in rapidly changing landscapes threatens local ecosystems that sustain communities. Additionally, an increase in maritime traffic in the Arctic increases the potential for search and rescue or pollution cases.

95 communities visited

In 2021, MSTF teams visited 95 remote communities, completed 128 fuel storage facility inspections, 470 commercial fishing vessel exams, five gold dredge exams, and monitored six fuel-to-shore transfers.

“I had a very special opportunity to be part of an MSTF team that deployed to the island community of Little Diomede in October,” said Capt. Leanne Lusk, commander, Sector Anchorage. “Little Diomede is the closest location in the U.S. to Russia. The island has 98 residents, half of whom are children. We learned that they only receive one fuel delivery each year. We were there to inspect their fuel tanks to ensure they could survive the coming winter without a fuel or heating oil spill, and to talk about pollution response efforts in the Bering Strait should a spill ever occur. The residents we met described this increasingly-transited region as their ‘grocery store’ and explained the tragic impacts a major pollution incident would have on their village and their people.”

Lusk and other MSTF members met with the City Council during their visit. The team learned that inhabitants of Little Diomede subsist on blue king crab, walrus, seal, and an occasional polar bear, all harvested in the winter months when the ice is safe enough to walk on around the island. However, for the last seven years, the multi-year ice they counted on for fishing and hunting for generations has receded substantially.

“Crabbing on winter ice is not so good anymore,” said Opik Ahkinga, environmental coordinator and vice-mayor on Little Diomede. “We are no longer able to access the locations where crabs are abundant. But still, pretty much everything we do now is on foot, on winter ice. We are working with the Coast Guard now on their return to the island to provide us with ice rescue training.”

The Coast Guard MSTF team observed during their visit some of the tremendous currents in the Bering Strait. These currents make fishing from shore on Little Diomede nearly impossible during the summer, and have resulted in both children and adults being swept away when playing in the water or accidentally breaking through the ice in the winter.

“Climate change is everywhere, not just on our island,” Ahkinga said. “We are concerned that hunting for our traditional Inupiaq foods will be lost. For three years now, we have not seen full meat racks of oogruk (seal) and walrus. We are also concerned about the increased shipping near our island and the potential for groundings and possible oil spills. We do have mitigation plans, but we need to train everyone here on how to respond should an incident occur.”

Public safety is priority goal

The primary goal of the MSTF initiative is to promote public safety and to protect the marine environment. An oil spill in a remote part of Alaska could potentially devastate nearby marine life and maritime communities. Pollution in Alaska could impact the country’s largest commercial salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. Furthermore, remote pollution incidents require significantly higher levels of resources to clean up. A 3,000-gallon heavy fuel oil spill on Shuyak Island in 2019, just northeast of Kodiak Island, cost $9 million to clean up, the highest cost-per-gallon spill in U.S. history. In the winter of 2020-2021 there were a total of five spills in remote Alaska communities, including one during a barge-over-the-water transfer that cost a community more than $60,000 in lost fuel alone.

The Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation coordinated a response to a heating oil discharge from the Northwest Arctic Borough School District in Kivalina that occurred Dec. 16, 2021. A Coast Guard MSTF responder from Sector Anchorage went to Kivalina to assess and oversee cleanup of the approximate 1,900-gallon discharge.

When mariners and fuel facility operators comply with federal law, and actively practice both prevention of and response to emergencies, communities become safer places to live. Coast Guard MSTF teams worked throughout 2021 with remote communities of Alaska to achieve compliance and provide education.

“When we say MSTF improves our maritime domain awareness, we’re talking about putting our boots on the ground in as many locations within our area of responsibility as possible,” said Lusk. “We mean talking to the people we serve, to learn about the unique challenges they face in their communities and in their waters. We mean seeing with our own eyes some of the dangers to the public due to a changing climate, in the dynamic landscapes and waterways around their homes. During MSTF deployments, we gain visual and in-person comprehension of the logistical and physical obstacles that could slow us down during a search and rescue or oil spill response. We’re striving for stronger relationships with locals and with our partner agencies to overcome these obstacles. We share what we learn in remote communities with our partner agencies including the Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.”

Visits from Charlie Company

In 2021, for the very first time in MSTF history, aircrews from the Alaska Army National Guard Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 641st Aviation Regiment, flew Coast Guard members from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to hub communities, including King Salmon and Nome. From these hub communities, as in years past, pilots from the Civil Air Patrol Alaska Wing flew MSTF members to remote communities, whose runways only allow for smaller airplanes. This year, CAP delivered Coast Guard MSTF team members on 119 flights.

Coast Guard MSTF teams arriving in these communities relied on support, as always, from locals for ground transportation to complete each mission. Facility managers, operators, and fishermen are actively working with the Coast Guard toward compliance with federal laws that help keep people and the environment safe.

The direct result of these efforts has been a 395% increase in physically inspected facilities and an almost 2,000% increase in vessel exams since MSTF’s launch in 2019. MSTF operations directly mitigate pollution and vessel safety risks and foster a greater understanding of the unique challenges found in each community.  

Focus on climate impact

“Coastal erosion, changes to the home range of key species, increased commercial traffic, and thawing permafrost all have significant impacts on coastal communities and Coast Guard operations across various mission sets,” said Cmdr. Jereme Altendorf, an Arctic emergency management specialist at Sector Anchorage. “The Coast Guard has leveraged local partnerships to create a unique and effective program. The MSTF initiative identifies risk and provides comprehensive compliance assistance directly to the facility owners and operators. This helps lessen the rapidly advancing effects of climate change in the Arctic. We double down on our efforts indirectly by working with our partner federal and state agencies to provide facility condition updates and other facility compliance data. This assists them in making decisions about infrastructure upgrade grants and other compliance assistance funding, as well as tuition-free operator training courses. Through both direct and indirect compliance assistance to the regulated community in the Arctic and Western Alaska regions, the Coast Guard effectively builds adaptive capacity within the local communities. Via the MSTF initiative, the Coast Guard has positioned itself to not only complete its statutory missions, but simultaneously share the story of the effects of climate change with those who may be able to act.”

The MSTF initiative is a year-round operation, that includes summer field work, fall planning, and winter deficiency checks. Planning for the MSTF 2022 summer surge season is already underway. One key planning effort is expanding relationships with Alaska natives in communities across the state.

“Tribal and municipal governments throughout rural Alaska often have limited resources to build the adaptive capacity to safeguard their communities from the impacts of climate change,” said Rear Adm. Nathan Moore, commander, 17th Coast Guard District. “Given our expanded relationships that allow routine on-site physical inspections and exams in the maritime environment, our MSTF teams will continue to work with Tribal representatives, Alaska Native Organizations, municipalities, the commercial fishing community and our partner agencies to promote sustainable community resiliency, and continued documentation of the impacts of climate change.”