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The Columbia River flows right alongside St. Helens and other Columbia County cities and is home to not only a thriving ecosystem, but also a vibrant transportation industry – an industry that can greatly impact the surrounding area when something goes wrong.

Coast Guard Area of Responsibility

This map outlines the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Columbia River coverage areas from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho.

That’s where The Maritime Transportation System Plan and the Maritime Transportation System Recovery Unit come in. The two agencies are spearheaded by the United States Coast Guard (USCG) Sector Columbia River. The Astoria-based sector is charged with devising plans to combat anything, from terrorist attacks to oil spills, that might impact traffic on the Columbia River.

The sector comprises an area of responsibility covering 465 miles of the Columbia-Willamette-Snake River System, extending from the Pacific Ocean to Northern Idaho, according to USCG Sector Columbia River Deputy Commander Gretchen Bailey, who said the same river system is home to a $20 billion transportation system, 50,000 cruise ship passengers, 1,500 foreign vessels and many maritime transportation safety facilities.

Bailey outlined the plan during an editorial meeting July 14, to define the Coast Guard’s role in the regional Maritime Transportation System Plan and Maritime Transportation System Recovery Unit as it applies to the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

Bailey explained the purpose of the Coast Guard’s focus on the river was to keep track of traffic flowing up and down the Columbia River.

In addition to the traffic, the river system is also the top gateway for American wheat and barley exports, as well as corn, bulk minerals, timber and paper products, Bailey said, adding that the Columbia River is one of the few port systems in the United States to export more than it imports.

“A major disruption to the Maritime Transportation System would be felt around the world,” Bailey said.

The USCG’s recovery plan is designed to prevent such disruption.

“The Maritime Transportation System Recovery Plan prevents, responds and recovers from any natural or manmade event that causes disruptions on the Maritime Transportation System on any of those systems: the Columbia-Willamette-Snake River, coastal Oregon, coastal Washington, and other navigable waterways,” Bailey said.

A large part of the plan involves holding drills each year according to different scenarios in order to develop a coordinated response for different incidents, Bailey said.

The scenarios are contained in a three-part system made public in the presentation and outlined by USCG Port Security Specialist Jim Merten.

“This recovery plan that we’ve done is really the first time the Coast Guard has pulled this plan out of the classified level and put it open share department at the local level, at the state level,” Merten said.

The first part is Infrastructure Impact, the second is Constrained Operational Capacity and the third is Constrained by Response Operations.

The first involves a natural disaster like an earthquake or flood, or an infrastructure casualty to bridges or roads. An event like this “requires repair, alternative strategies and vessel traffic control actions by the Captain of the Port prior to resumption of MTS operations,” the presentation states.

The second part, Constrained Operational Capacity, is an event without infrastructure damage that still interrupts cargo or vessel movement, according to Merten.

“Examples are weather events, labor shortage-disruption event, security or casualty causing enhanced cargo movement in other non-impacted ports within the region,” Merten said.

The third event, Constrained by Response Operations, includes oil discharge/hazardous substance release, mass rescue operations, or a marine casualty that may or may not involve infrastructure damage, according to Merten, who said in each of the scenarios, the response to it depends on a number of factors and involves the partnerships the USCG has formed with stakeholders.

“We identify and prioritize our goals and find the methods to aid in their recovery,” Merten said.

One such scenario Merten used as an example in the Maritime System Transit Recovery Plan was at the Bonneville Lock on the Columbia River that was forced to close for 21 days this past September following the discovery of a leak.

That scenario impacted vessels up and down river, according to Merten. In order to resolve the build-up in traffic, Merten said the USCG Columbia River Sector worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and industry partners in order to create a vessel queue, a prioritized order in which vessels would pass through the lock once it was opened. Vessels were prioritized by commodity, Merten said.

“In the Coast Guard, we call these things ‘choke points,’” Merten said. “The entire river is a choke point; if something happens in one place, it can back up the whole system.

See a special Salute to the U.S. Coast Guard attached.


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