N.H.-Maine Oil Spill Drill Tests Crisis Response in Portsmouth

Mar 22, 2018

More than 100 responders from dozens of state, federal and local agencies were busy in Portsmouth Thursday, practicing their response to a hypothetical oil spill.

These exercises happen every year on the Piscataqua River between New Hampshire and Maine – but the made-up crisis they game out is always changing.

Carroll Brown is New Hampshire’s oil spill contingency planner. He says this year’s scenario imagined flying debris from a winter storm, rupturing an Irving Oil diesel tank on the riverbank in downtown Portsmouth.

“A significant amount of oil has gotten into the river, and it’s traveling out and back in with the tide,” he explained, standing inside the bustling, makeshift incident command center.

The outdoor practice part of the drill was canceled due to real weather. But players inside were still put through their paces.

They worked together to update maps of where oil was turning up, answer fake phone calls and social media posts from the press and public, and organize equipment and emergency funding.

Brown, who’s retiring next week after 29 years with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, says technology and coordination have improved a lot since these drills began in the 1990s.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

But he says the challenges are the same as ever.

“We still have oil, we still have vessels coming in, we still have a difficult geographical and oceanographic place to respond to,” he says. “There’s high currents, there’s a narrow river.”

If the federal government were to open the Gulf of Maine to offshore drilling, Brown says people like him would factor those new risks to future drills.

“You try to stay current with what’s happening in the world that could be a problem, and then you set your exercises and your objectives to that,” he says. “What do we think we need to learn and what do we think we need to practice?”

The U.S. Interior Department’s final offshore drilling proposal is due out at the end of the year.