By Dave Rogers Staff Writer
---- — NEWBURYPORT — When gallons upon gallons of gasoline spilled out of a crippled tractor-trailer on Interstate 95 more than three years ago and ended up coating the Merrimack River, local firefighters borrowed a bright orange boom from neighboring Salisbury to help minimize the mess before environmental cleanup crews could be dispatched.
But thanks to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, the city now has its own 200-foot-long plastic containment device, along with a trailer to store it.
Yesterday, local firefighters were at the Cashman Park boat launch deploying the trailer for the first time, with the help of harbormasters from Newburyport, Salisbury and West Newbury. Joining local firefighters were their counterparts from Newbury, Rowley, Salisbury and officials from the DEP, the Massachusetts Environmental Police and the United States Coast Guard.
Starting around 11:30 a.m., firefighters climbed on board both Newburyport harbormaster Paul Hogg’s vessel and another boat and slipped the 200-foot boom into the choppy waters of the Merrimack. In a slow-motion ballet, the two boats guided the boom as if it were containing an oil spill, until it reached its designated point.
A few minutes later, Salisbury firefighters and others grabbed their own boom and conducted the same drill using two other boats including Salisbury harbormaster Ray Pike’s vessel. Serving as a floating safety monitor during the exercises was the West Newbury harbormaster. An American Medical Response EMT was also at the scene in case of injury.
“We all want to take advantage of this training. If something really does happen, here’s what to do,” Hogg said, a day earlier. Newburyport fire Chief Stephen Cutter called the booms vital in minimizing the environmental impact of an oil spill in the quickest time possible.
“Basically, we’re the first line of defense,” Cutter said.
Over the last few years, the DEP has stationed oil spill prevention and response trailers, at a cost of about $35,000 each, in coastal communities up and down the state. Throughout the year, according to DEP official Richard Packard, the state schedules training exercises, inviting multiple communities to take part at the same time.
“It’s designed to get them in quick,” Packer said.
Prior to yesterday’s field operations, the DEP held two hours of classes covering such topics as boom deployment techniques and strategies, identifying sensitive coastal areas, coming up with geographic response plans and equipment descriptions and uses, according to Packer.
Booms could also be used in the event of an oil spill in the mouth of the Merrimack between Newburyport and Salisbury or the open sea if so desired, Packer said.
Similar training sessions are expected to be held in Plymouth on Oct. 16 and then Sandwich the following day.
Asked if the booms could have aided in the containment of millions of half-dollar-sized plastic disks that escaped from a New Hampshire wastewater treatment plant in March 2011, Packer said as long as they remained a maximum of 18 inches from the surface, the booms would have been useful.