Update: A large-scale oil spill response exercise involving more than 600 people is wrapping up in Maine.

The so-called Spill of National Significance Exercise aims to test the preparedness of oil spill clean-up vessels and numerous federal and state agencies in responding to a massive oil spill at sea.

The exercise has been centered in Portland, where vessels on Wednesday responded to a simulated spill in the harbor while hundreds of people in an onshore command center monitored the vessels and worked on the logistics of coordinating a response.

The drill wraps up today with officials participating from Maine, Boston, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C.

The exercise is held every three years. This is the first time it was held in New England.

1 a.m.

PORTLAND — By noon, the stress levels were rising in the ballroom at the Holiday Inn by the Bay.

Dozens of people stationed around the room, already dealing with a mock collision that dumped 2 million gallons of crude oil into Casco Bay two days earlier, faced a new disaster: The car carrier ship that had crashed into the tanker outside Portland Harbor had just sunk between Cushing Island and Portland Head Light, resulting in yet another spill.

“This is designed to really push us,” said Capt. James McPherson, commander of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, who was leading the exercise.

More than 500 people from dozens of public agencies and private businesses participated in the two-day drill to test the region’s emergency response system. The object was to try to contain the spill and begin to clean up the damage.

The Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lead a major oil spill exercise every three years. Portland was a natural choice for a drill because it is the second-largest oil port on the East Coast. Only Philadelphia is larger.

It was also the first drill in northern waters in the winter.

While the hotel was the command center, emergency response teams were stationed throughout the city. A mock registration center for cleanup volunteers was set up at 312 Canco Road, and emergency responders tested equipment out in Casco Bay, near Fort Gorges, with a helicopter hovering overhead.

In Saco, a group of responders worked to keep the mock spill from entering Goosefare Brook and the marshes behind it, while other exercises were conducted in harbors in Portsmouth, N.H., and Boston.

McPherson said the drill will make Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, based in South Portland, much better prepared for a disaster. When the drill is over, the Coast Guard will inherit the geospatial maps, the computer system and some of the other equipment involved.

At the hotel, the commotion continued as visitors, including gubernatorial candidates, toured the command center while the disaster played out.

Teams of workers performed various tasks: getting information to the media, assessing the location of the spill, deploying cleanup and salvage teams, and managing the logistics of feeding and housing the hundreds of emergency responders who would descend on the area in the event of a real disaster.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Todd Wardwell reported that, just a little over 48 hours after the initial spill, emergency workers had recovered about 10 percent of the oil.

There was even a team calculating the costs of the emergency response, to tally up the cleanup bill, which would be paid largely by the responsible party, in this case Shell Oil Co., which also is paying much of the cost of the drill.

Officials didn’t have a final figure on the cost of the two-day exercise, but estimated it would run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The drill will continue today with an appearance by Gov. John Baldacci at a press conference sponsored by Repower Maine, a clean-energy organization. The event is billed as a call for federal legislation to move the country away from fossil fuels and the threats they pose to the environment.

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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