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Responders load containment boom onto a boat...
Responders load containment boom onto a boat...

Seaway readies its spill response, too

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As the effects of the Gulf oil spill continue to grow, all was calm and sunny on the St. Lawrence River Wednesday. That was the setting for the St. Lawrence Seaway to test its spill response plans. The exercise raised two questions. Should some of the containment boom and manpower positioned along the St. Lawrence be used to help in the Gulf? And if the River were to be the site of a spill today, could America fight oil spills on two fronts? David Sommerstein reports.

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...and block off the bay to Massena's water intake in this spill exercise.

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David Sommerstein
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Here's the scenario.  A sunny day, 75 degrees.  A Seaway freighter runs aground just upriver of Massena and starts spewing oil.  The oil settles in a swift current headed for the intake of the village's water supply. 

[boom]

Men load ribbons of yellow containment boom onto a boat.  Seaway employee Pat Broderick oversees the effort.

We're trying to keep the oil from going in the intake.

[more sound]

They fumble a bit linking two sections of boom.  But otherwise things go smoothly and the boat heads out.

[boat]

The Massena intake's in a little bay off the main channel.  Men feed the boom onto the water, sealing off the bay at its mouth.  The Seaway's Gerald Tessier watches from a nearby boat.

So what you have is the boom going across the entire thing and any oil that comes this way will be stuck on the channel side, so that you can collect it and keep things out of the intake.

State police, Coast Guardsmen, and local emergency responders look on and snap photos on cell phones.

The St. Lawrence Seaway invites a host of agencies to participate in spill drills like this at least once a year, says deputy associate administrator Carol Fenton.

What we try to do is exercise different areas of the river because we are responsible for 120 miles of river.

All along the St. Lawrence, from CapeVincent to Massena, thousands of feet of containment boom sit ready, mostly in trailers that can be hauled wherever they're needed.

Yet while responders to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico say they need all the resources they can get, the Seaway's Carol Fenton says she hasn't been asked to send any boom south yet.

The local Coast Guard, however, has mobilized.

We're doing rotations as of now.  It's kinda up in the air because it's all new.

Petty Officer Andrew Ferguson says three of Coast Guard Massena's current 8-person staff is headed down to the Gulf, along with a van full of skimming equipment.

Because of the call for immediate action, they've now pulled people from our office, so we're kinda scrambling to keep everything in line here.

More than a hundred Coast Guard personnel have been sent to the Gulf from the Great Lakes region.  That's left some Great Lakes environmentalists worried about the worst-case scenario - another spill while the Gulf cleanup is ongoing.  Stephanie Weiss directs Thousand Islands-based Save the River. 

We have really limited resources already, although it looks like there's more that the Seaway's been able to bring in, we still don't have a lot, so anytime we lose anything from here, not just actual physical things like boats and boom but personnel who are experienced in this who are sent to other areas, that's a concern, and I think nationally, we have to think about how we can manage multiple disasters at once.

For example, the Seaway's plan includes relying on teams in New Jersey and Buffalo and Boston for a second wave of spill response.  But many of them are already down in the Gulf.

The Seaway's Carol Fenton says the River would still be covered.

It's not going to overwhelm the resources I feel that we have in the area or that we could get from Canada fairly quickly.  They have a lot of equipment in Sarnia.  That's not that far away.

Andrew Ferguson of the Coast Guard jokes that even with the three people away, the only thing those left behind won't get done is leave time.

Ferguson acknowledges it's a delicate balance - sending critical resources to an unfolding disaster versus holding resources behind just in case.

For us to send our boom from here, then it would put us in a position where we wouldn't have any.  It'd be one of those situations where you take away the resources we have here, and nothing's ever happened, but then, with our luck, it'd be that time that something does happen.  And then we wouldn't have it, so...  we're just trying to keep everybody covered.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein on the St. Lawrence River in Massena.

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