NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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When Oil Doesn’t Spill: Protecting Hagemeister Island, Alaska

When I was at the International Oil Spill Conference last week in Portland, Ore., I was notified about a potential oil spill in Alaska. We get called all the time by the U.S. Coast Guard when they are concerned that a vessel in distress might turn into a pollution case.  This time it was a fishing boat that drifted aground on Hagemeister Island in Togiak Bay (near Bristol Bay) after it lost anchor.

The fishing vessel Nor'Quest

The fishing vessel Nor'Quest ran aground on Hagemeister Island near Bristol Bay, Alaska. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

The 102-foot-long Nor’Quest had 16,000 to 18,000 gallons of diesel fuel and approximately 1,000 gallons of miscellaneous lube oils on board, which is where we wanted it to stay.

In these types of incidents, response equipment is staged and spill responders are on standby in case of an oil spill. If it is safe to do so, hoses and pumps are used to transfer fuel off the vessel to a nearby ship. This helps reduce the risk of a spill and lighten the vessel to make it easier to refloat, which is exactly what happened in this case. There was no pollution reported and salvage efforts allowed the ship to refloat early in the morning of May 30, 2011.

We at NOAA helped the Coast Guard with weather forecasts, information on tides and currents, and computer modeling to predict where oil might go if there were a spill. We also looked at what kinds of shoreline habitats and animals might be at risk from any potentially released oil.

Nushagak River, draining into Bristol Bay, Alaska

Nushagak River, draining into Bristol Bay, Alaska. Credit: Erin McKittrick/AlaskaTrekker via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Hagemeister Island, part of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, is a remote windswept island. It has no human residents, but lots of marine mammals—such as seals, walruses, and whales—as well as birds use the island and nearby waters, and herring and other fish spawn along the shorelines. This time of year is the commercial fishing season for herring and that brings a lot of seasonal vessel traffic, which is probably why the Nor’Quest was there.

Most of the time, people only hear about oil spills when they’re big and in the news—like last year’s in the Gulf of Mexico. But those of us in NOAA’s Emergency Response Division use our scientific expertise every day to help keep oil out of the water and off the shore to protect our country’s rich natural resources.


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We Love (Oil Spill Response) Technology: What’s on Show at IOSC 2011

It’s probably not that surprising that the office leading scientific coordination on more than 100 oil and chemical spills every year would be flooding an event called the “International Oil Spill Conference” (IOSC).  However, we did find one thing about this conference that was both unexpected and impressive: the diversity of organizations and individuals who attended. For example, tucked among booths sporting fire boom and remote-controlled submersibles, we spotted an exhibit advertising language translation services. When you think about the magnitude and scope of last year’s Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill—where Vietnamese fishers in the Gulf of Mexico were affected—it makes perfect sense.

Spills are complex situations that require complex and innovative solutions.  It’s clear that oil spills are “no win” situations, but taking a look through the exhibit hall at the IOSC conference, which wrapped up yesterday, you can’t help but be inspired by the wide range of people who work every day to develop the technology, strategies, and approaches needed to prepare for, respond to, and recover from devastating oil spills.

At the NOAA booth during the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference, Dr. Larry Robinson receives a demonstration from Heather Lilly on ERMA, a spatial data tool used during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

At the NOAA booth during IOSC 2011, Dr. Larry Robinson receives a demonstration from Heather Lilly on ERMA, a spatial data tool used during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Credit: NOAA

Naturally, as one of the co-sponsors of the event, NOAA used our booth in the exhibit hall to reach out to nearly 1,000 passers-by to showcase our scientific expertise, along with the products and services that we use to combat spills. One of the major tools we highlighted was the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®), a tool that we publicly launched during the Gulf spill and is accessible via GeoPlatform.gov.  Imagine it as the “Google Earth” of oil spills, sharing a similar look but layered with data critical to responders and public alike for identifying areas impacted by the spill, natural resources at risk (such as nearby wildlife), and scientific data collected by NOAA and partner scientists from land, sea and sky.

In addition to the flyers and brochures (and free loot!) that you’d expect at any conference exhibit hall, some organizations brought along high-tech equipment used for real-life spill situations, as well as some futuristic or experimental technologies that could be tested in future spills.

EPA emergency response truck at the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference Exhibitor Hall.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows off their emergency response truck at the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference Exhibitor Hall. Credit: NOAA

For example, one land vehicle, driven to the conference by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was fully equipped with sampling equipment, hazmat suits, and other devices that EPA responders use when responding to chemical spills on shore or on land.

Another vehicle, a kind that could be tethered to a ship, would operate like an “underwater helicopter,” a two-seated device with a dome that could be deployed at various depths to observe oil and the marine environment.

This SEAmobile Submersible, on display at IOSC 2011, acts like an underwater helicopter for detecting oil spills in the ocean.

This SEAmobile Submersible, on display at IOSC 2011, acts like an underwater helicopter for detecting oil spills in the ocean. Credit: NOAA

If you weren’t able to attend the conference in Portland this week, you can learn more about it by visiting www.iosc.org. You can also get the story on oil spills in general at response.restoration.noaa.gov, where you can also take a look at some of the recent notable spills we have responded to in the past few years.


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Insights from NOAA on the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill at the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference

NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Dr. Eric Schwaab, and Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley assess how the sample is processed aboard the Research Vessel Caretta and chain of custody protocol used when handling specimens associated with the oil spill.

NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Dr. Eric Schwaab, and Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley assess specimens associated with the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Credit: NOAA.

You may already know that NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is a federal agency full of scientists that deal with a whole range of issues, wet and dry. You may even know that some of NOAA’s scientists are the ones offering their scientific know-how  when oil spills in marine and coastal waters. (If so, you get extra credit!)

However, even if you did already know that, you may not have a sense of how that looks in an actual oil spill. Take, for example, the most recent spill of national significance, the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

At the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference, Dr. Larry Robinson, NOAA’s Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Conservation and Management and Deputy Administrator, spoke about NOAA’s ongoing role in responding to this spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which focuses on:

  • Carrying out the best possible science and then sharing it for the benefit of the public and our natural resources,
  • Keeping our seafood safe (making sure they only get oiled when they reach the frying pan),
  • Protecting wildlife and the places they live,
  • Figuring out what resources have been damaged in a spill and by how much, and
  • Restoring those injured resources.

What set the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill apart from many other spills, besides its size, was the fact that it was ongoing, continuing to pump oil and methane (a major component of natural gas) into the deep ocean, day after day for 87 days, complicating and often defying many efforts to staunch the flow and clean up the resulting mess.

Dr. Larry Robinson and others examine tarballs in Dauphin Island, Alabama.

From left, Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT) team lead Graham McDonald, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator John Whitney, and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Dr. Larry Robinson investigate tar balls washed ashore on the beaches of Dauphin Island, Ala., during the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (May 13, 2010). Credit: NOAA.

And so, for NOAA and Dr. Robinson, the message of the day was coordination. Out of that difficult situation in the Gulf arose an incredible amount of coordination from NOAA, both inside its diverse scientific groups and with other federal agencies, Gulf legislators and governors, and the spill response community. Likewise, the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill revealed areas where NOAA and others directly working on the spill could improve how they communicate about important issues and whose talents could be better integrated to help, such as at universities and nongovernmental organizations.

One result of this, which Dr. Robinson pointed out, is a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between NOAA and the federal agency that regulates offshore oil and natural gas drilling, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE). This agreement, which is in line with the recommendations of the President’s oil spill commission, sets up these two federal agencies to work together even more closely, bringing forward the best available science to support future decisions on offshore drilling.

Dr. Robinson’s comments were in line with the rest of the panel at the oil spill conference as well, with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the oil industry group, the American Petroleum Institute. They each shared their insights into the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, and each came to the conclusion that prevention, coordination, and management of risk and expectations are the keys to improving response to oil spills, big or small.

Paramount to all of this is building public confidence in the people and organizations working on these spills through transparency and solid science. The public needs to understand that as long as oil is being drilled, spills will happen. Nothing is without risk. However, the people responding to spills are learning from events like the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill and getting better and better at dealing with them. After all, oil and water don’t mix, so the only solutions you get when they do mix are some big lessons for the future.


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Getting Shipwrecked at the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference

In getting ready to lead a discussion on shipwrecks and marine pollution at the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference, I took a look at some past cases in Oregon, where the conference is taking place. (You can browse through historical incidents at http://www.incidentnews.gov/.)

The Oregon coast and Columbia River have claimed many ships over the years. One of the most memorable in recent years was the grounding of the 640-foot freighter New Carissa off Coos Bay, Ore., in 1999.

The New Carissa is a long sea story, involving a dark and stormy night, a heroic rescue of the crew, explosives, burning fuel, the ship breaking in two, failed salvage attempts, and a U.S. Navy submarine having to fire a torpedo to scuttle the bow section of the ship. I was there when the ship was intentionally blown-up and burned. It was startling to see the smoldering wreckage in the surf.

The grounded ship New Carissa on fire off the coast of Oregon in 1999.

A grounded New Carissa on fire near Coos Bay, Ore., Feb. 12, 1999. The ship's remaining fuel was intentionally ignited to help prevent nearly 400,000 gallons of oil from reaching the shoreline. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

The stern section of the New Carissa remained stranded on the Oregon shore for over nine years until it was cut apart and removed from the beach in 2008.

NOAA scientists collecting water samples near the site of the grounded New Carissa in 1999.

NOAA scientists collecting water samples near the site of the grounded New Carissa in 1999. Credit: NOAA

A more recent pollution concern for that region comes from the SS Davy Crockett, a World War II Liberty ship built in 1942. This 431-foot ship was converted to a barge and then abandoned and beached along the Washington shore of the Columbia River. Earlier this year the ship began to leak oil, and the U.S. Coast Guard is conducting a cleanup.

The Davy Crockett being dismantled in 2011.

The Davy Crockett being dismantled in 2011. The wreck is surrounded by a steel cofferdam to keep oil from spilling into the river. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Unfortunately there are a lot of abandoned and derelict (neglected) vessels in our coastal waters, and many contain oil and hazardous materials. At the conference this week I am chairing a discussion on these kinds of sunken wrecks. NOAA’s interests in shipwrecks come from its roles as a scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard, as a manager of living marine and cultural resources, and as the nation’s chart-maker to ensure that wrecks are properly marked on maps for safe navigation.

I have been working on shipwreck issues since I got involved with a project in American Samoa. In the early 1990s, a typhoon hit the island and grounded nine fishing vessels. The owners abandoned them on the reef. NOAA worked with the Coast Guard to remove the wrecks and restore the coral reef.

NOAA staff transplanting corals away from the wreck in American Samoa prior to bringing in salvage equipment in 2000.

Here we are transplanting corals away from the wreck in American Samoa prior to bringing in salvage equipment in 2000. Credit: NOAA

Since then, I have been engaged in a number of shipwreck projects. Currently, I am working with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to figure out which of the approximately 30,000 ships wrecked in US waters might pose pollution threats. Most date back to World War I or earlier and did not carry oil as fuel or cargo.

Some of the more recent wrecks, however, are known to be substantially intact and based on accident investigation reports and cargo records, have the potential to contain oil. This is an issue around the world, and one of the presentations during my conference session will be from an Italian researcher looking at wrecks in the Mediterranean Sea. I’m looking forward to hearing how other countries are addressing the same issue.


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Spill Scene: Headed to the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference

2011 International Oil Spill Conference bannerNext week (May 23-26) is the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference in Portland, Oregon.  This conference is held every three years in the U.S., and we’re lucky that it is close to our office here in Seattle.  A bunch of us from Seattle will be heading down, and we’ll meet colleagues from across the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The mission of this conference is to “contribute to and enable a culture of preparedness within the oil spill response community” and beyond.

On that note, I will be chairing a session on pollution threats from sunken shipwrecks.  There are also sessions on the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, Arctic response issues, case studies on other incidents, dispersants and other technologies, economic considerations, and natural resource damages and restoration.  In addition to the presentations on science and policy issues, there is also a big trade show exhibiting response equipment and technology from around the world.  For more information, see www.IOSC.org

Keep an eye out next week because we’ll be posting a few updates from the conference.


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When Coral Reefs Lose a Boxing Match

This past Sunday, the one to really get knocked out during Filipino Manny Pacquiao and American Shane Mosley’s boxing match was an area of coral reef in the southern Philippines. There, international media report that a Panamanian-registered cargo ship bearing 65,000 tons of coal from Australia to India ran aground in the Sarangani Bay, crushing a large section of reef. According to Philippine news sources, local officials have started rumors that the M/V Double Prosperity’s mostly Filipino crew was deviating from course into shallow waters to get better satellite signal and TV reception of that day’s boxing match between Pacquiao and Mosley.

“I have a feeling they sailed close to the shore to watch the fight,” Sarangani Governor Miguel Dominguez speculated to the media a few days after the incident.

While the damaged corals, located in a marine sanctuary, were supposed to be protected, perhaps they should have learned to bob and weave after witnessing another coral reef’s bad luck.

MV Shen Neng grounded and spilling fuel oil on the Great Barrier Reef in April 2010

M/V Shen Neng 1 grounded and spilling fuel oil on the Great Barrier Reef in April 2010. The milky plume in the water is pulverized coral. Photo courtesy of Maritime Safety Queensland.

Last April, the Great Barrier Reef received an even worse black eye when another ship carrying Australian coal, the Chinese M/V Shen Neng 1, grounded itself on the famous reef, spilling between three and four tons of heavy fuel oil and oiling nearly two-thirds of a mile of Queensland shoreline. The main cause of the Shen Neng 1’s grounding wasn’t a crew of boxing fans, but rather, an overly sleepy pilot, which is reported to be a key safety risk at sea.

When something like this happens in U.S. waters, Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) staff are called in to figure out how coral reefs have been damaged and to make science-based recommendations for restoring that habitat. For both of the cases mentioned here, the real threat to the environment wasn’t from potentially spilling the ships’ fuel; it was from smashing the sensitive coral reefs below the surface.

As the ships plow into the reefs, they create what is known as a “grounding scar,” that in the case of the Shen Neng 1, was several miles long and crushed hundreds of acres of corals.  The milky white sediment plume you can see around the vessel in the above photo is pulverized coral. In addition to corals being directly toppled and crushed, the resulting rubble can continue to scour and smother the adjacent undamaged corals, delivering a double blow to the ecosystem.

For example, in the center of the below photo, you can see a debris pile composed of crushed coral. The left side of the photo shows undamaged coral reef, and the barren area to the right reveals the improvised highway the vessel scraped across the reef.  These unstable and barren areas may take generations to recover as baby corals lack a stable place to attach to and form a new reef.

Coral reef damaged by the Margara oil tanker grounding in Puerto Rico in April 2006

Coral reef damaged (right) by the Margara oil tanker grounding in Puerto Rico in April 2006. Credit: NOAA

Once a ship is stranded, the damage to corals is not over. Other concerns include scraping toxic paint from the ship’s bottom, discharging ballast water and cargo to lighten the ship, and additional reef-crushing as the swells and wind move the ship and as salvage vessels work to free the stricken vessel. In some cases, even the iron from the ship can harm the reef.

The bottom line is that sometimes an oil spill is only one of many environmental problems that can result from a shipping accident. Some things can be done to restore the reef, but recovery will still be slow. OR&R works to minimize those environmental impacts and develop restoration alternatives.  If you’re interested in how OR&R and NOAA address coral injuries, take a closer look at these two cases in Maitland, Fla., and Cape Flattery, Hawaii.  And if you’re a boxing champ, we know a couple coral reefs that could use some lessons in defense.

Doug Helton contributed to this post.


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Illustrating the Effects of Oil Spills in the Arctic

Libby Logerwell in the Arctic.

Libby Logerwell at the Arctic Ocean shore in Barrow, Alaska during March 2011.

As a fishery biologist with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, I usually spend more time thinking about fishing than oil spills. However, that’s changed since I started a six-month assignment with the Office of Response and Restoration’s (OR&R) Assessment and Restoration Division in December 2010. I got interested in this assignment after I attended a workshop on Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) in the Arctic. NRDA is the process of figuring out what effects an oil spill has on the environment (including natural resources that people use), and what restoration projects are needed to bring things back to the way they were before the spill. I was struck by how we need the same kind of data to assess environmental damage after an oil spill as we do for monitoring the effects of climate change and fishing (the kinds of things I research as a fisheries biologist). I had done some field research in the Beaufort Sea and felt a personal desire to learn more about how NOAA works to protect and restore Arctic ecosystems. So here I am!

One of the main projects I am working on is creating a model of what would happen to Arctic habitats and wildlife in the event of an oil spill. If this did happen in the Arctic, one of the first things we would have to do, even before we would go out in boats and helicopters to the site of the spill, would be to figure out what wildlife or habitats could be affected.

One way to get a handle on this question is to build a conceptual model that lays out all the possible ways oil could move through the marine environment and all the different things that could get exposed to oil. Dr. Mary Baker of OR&R and I have worked together to build a first draft of such a model, and we are hoping to publish it at a seminar to be held in Calgary this fall. We constructed a simple flow chart showing how fish, invertebrates, birds, and marine mammals could be exposed to oil at the surface of the ocean, deeper in the water, and on the ocean bottom.

We are also working with Kate Sweeney, an illustrator at the University of Washington, to make a user-friendly illustration of our ideas. In this picture below, you can look at different parts of the Arctic marine environment and see what could be impacted by oil and in what way. For example, look at the “Benthos,” or “bottom,” box, and you can see that fish and crabs could be impacted because oil would damage their food web (what they eat and what they eat eats). Putting together this model was really interesting and challenging for me—it was like a crash course in Arctic ecology!

I learned that although there is a lot known about certain wildlife groups in some areas of the sea, a lot more information is needed for others. For example, not much is known about fish eggs and larvae (baby fish) from the Beaufort Sea. This is particularly important because shipping creates a high risk for oil spills on the surface of Arctic waters, which could then impact the fish eggs and larvae found there. We also learned that more data is needed on the toxic effects of oil on Arctic fish, especially Arctic cod, which are food for other fish, marine mammals, and seabirds and so are a key part of Arctic food webs. We hope to fill these gaps in understanding over the next few years using any means available!

By Libby Logerwell

Oil impacts on Arctic food webs

The illustration shows potential oil spill impacts to wildlife and habitats in the Arctic sea. Click for larger view. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney, Illustration


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Is It Oil?

Photo of leaking well in Bayou Perot.

Oil slicks of varying colors around leaking oil well in Bayou Perot, LA

Crude oils can range in color, from black to red to yellow.

When most people picture oil spills, they often think of a heavy continuous coating of oil on the sea or shoreline, and that may be a fair depiction, but after a few hours or days the oil can become patchy, become mixed with water, and change in color and consistency.

Even close to the source of the spill the colors can be quite variable depending on the thickness of the oil. Check out this spill I worked on a few years ago in Louisiana. A well is leaking and spraying yellowish oil, which is caught in a floating boom. As the oil collects in the boom it gets thicker and becomes orange. The thickest oil is black.

There are a lot of phenomena that may be mistaken for oil. Algae blooms, for example, can confuse even trained observers. I took these photos a couple summers ago at a marina near Seattle. This is naturally occurring algae but it looks a lot like reddish brown oil.

Here are photos showing different kinds of oil and some photos of things commonly confused with oil. How many did you get right? Let me know. If you are interested in more information, go to http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/oil-algae.html.

Image: shows 11 photos that may or may not include oil.

Guess which of these photos indicate oil. Answers above.

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