By Jenny Neyman
The Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council is in the news these days for the best possible reason — celebrating 25 years of successful operation — rather than anything dramatic to do with its mission to prevent oil spills or pollution in Cook Inlet.
Lynda Giguere is the director of public outreach for the organization, formed by Congress as part of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 in the wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Every day that goes by without an incident is a success for the organization. But it takes far more than just wishful thinking and crossed fingers for that to happen.
“We’re making oil transportation safer, oil spill contingency plans stronger and more protective, we’re steadily expanding our knowledge of Cook Inlet’s water, shorelines, sediments and habitat through biological and chemical monitoring, habitat mapping (and) physical oceanography,” Giguere said in a presentation to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce on June 3. “We’re gaining a better understanding of oil, how it moves, and the effect it has on the Cook Inlet environment and shorelines. We’re monitoring industry compliance through permits, regulations and legislation. And we are effectively guiding oil spill prevention, response and planning.”
The organization’s most recent accomplishment is the completion of a navigation risk assessment for Cook Inlet, in which CIRCAC had substantial involvement from start to finish. Now the organization is helping implement the priority recommendations that came from that assessment, most notably the formation of a Cook Inlet harbor safety committee.
CIRCAC’s Cook Inlet Response Tool, which details the coastlines and habitats around the inlet, is available on the organization’s website, and is useful for industry partners as well as the general public.
“You can use this tool yourself, it’s readily available on the website. I’ve used it as a kayaker scoping out beaches,” Giguere said. “… So it’s really helpful not just for oil spill planners, it’s helpful for recreational users.”
Since oil industry activity continues year-round, so, too, do CIRCAC’s efforts, including studying the winter prey and habitat of beluga whales, and developing a network for ice forecasting with cameras throughout the inlet, including a new one at the mouth of the Kenai River. The feed from that camera is available on the city of Kenai’s website.
In fact, all of CIRCAC’s data and developments are made available to other organizations, agencies and industry, as the goal is to work together to protect Cook Inlet.
“The beluga whale study is one example of the CIRCAC-led research and data we routinely make available to our partners and the public on an ongoing basis. Everything we’re talking about is available on our website. We’re working very hard to make as much data and information (and) reports publicly accessible, easy to get to. So that’s been another big effort of ours is to have a very robust, useful website,” she said.
Though its 25th anniversary is a chance for CIRCAC to shine, Giguere said that none of the organization’s accomplishments would be possible without support.
“We can do all this because of the strength of our volunteer board, committee members, hundreds of people who’ve helped make this organization work for 25 years. We have ongoing and new partnerships with industry, agencies NGOs, and the involvement of Cook Inlet citizens and communities,” Giguere said. “So we’re able to carry out those big ideas, goals and projects, some of which have gone on to be statewide initiatives, because of this broad network of support.”
For more information on the organizations, and to access the wealth of information and tools it makes available, visit http://www.circac.org. And to see one of its projects in person, visit the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center this summer to see the “Coastal Impressions” exhibit, a collection of images taken from a project to photograph the entire gulf coastline of Alaska.