Climate change has made fuel safety inspections in the Y-K Delta more important than ever

A person on an ATV points at a set of fuel tanks on the tundra
The goal of the fuel inspections is simple: prevent a catastrophic oil spill that would make its way into Y-K Delta rivers, devastate the ecosystem, and threaten a subsistence lifestyle. (Photo by Nate Littlejohn/U.S. Coast Guard Anchorage Sector)

The U.S. Coast Guard recently completed a series of fuel tank safety inspections in communities across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. In the face of climate change, these checks are becoming all the more important as the land beneath the tanks melts.

The goal of the fuel inspections is simple: prevent a catastrophic oil spill that would make its way into Y-K Delta rivers, devastate the ecosystem and threaten a subsistence lifestyle.

In large part, villages were found to be following best practices to prevent oil spills. Most of the issues that the inspectors identified were administrative, like having a written plan for how to respond to a potential oil spill.

“Staying in compliance with things like paperwork may seem extremely tedious, and it is, but it’s really not about the paperwork,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Nate Littlejohn, who works with the Coast Guard’s Anchorage sector. “It’s about getting together and talking about how you would respond to a spill with your community.”

The coast guard conducts semi-annual checks of bulk fuel facilities in Bethel and surrounding communities. In their most recent deployment during the last week of August, Coast Guard and EPA inspectors visited two dozen communities.

The investigators check to make sure that fuel storage facilities have the right containment measures in place, that there’s a system to respond to a spill, and that communities have appropriate equipment to do so. These failsafes are becoming increasingly important as the land that fuel tanks sit on becomes more unstable.

Climate change is creating a series of long term problems that threaten the security of fuel tanks and could cause spills down the line. As the region warms and permafrost begins to melt, the foundations upon which many of these fuel storage tanks sit have begun to slowly sink. According to Littlejohn, in some cases they are already seeing fuel tanks sitting at an angle because of permafrost thaw.

“The aging infrastructure combined with a changing climate is continuing to be a problem,” Littlejohn said. “And we’re absolutely going to see more spills if a solution isn’t provided.”

As the foundations of these storage facilities shift, Littlejohn said that it’s all the more important for communities to inspect them regularly, work to keep them level, and develop design adaptations that take climate change and permafrost thaw into account.

The region is not equipped to handle a catastrophic spill. If that were to happen, it wouldn’t just take an environmental toll. It would also immediately put human lives at risk.

“If thousands of gallons of heating oil are lost in the dead of winter, we have to come up with a solution for how that heating oil is going to be replaced,” Littlejohn said. “How are these folks going to heat their homes? That’s a big concern.”

The Coast Guard intends to return for another round of inspections next year.

KYUK - Bethel

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