This is a post by Kyle Jellison, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator.
The longer I work in the Gulf of Mexico, the more I come to understand why oil spill responders claim that “every spill is a unique situation.” Really? Yes, really.
Currently, I am providing scientific support for a pollution response in the remote, wooded swamp tucked inside Bayou Sorrel, about an hour outside of Baton Rouge, La. In early January, a pipeline running underground ruptured, and responders believed it was leaking just a few barrels of crude oil onto land. Then the rains came … and the flooding … and then even more flooding. Right now, up to 4 feet of water is covering the entire affected area (about 1 acre), and cleanup crews are wading through the oil slick in hip waders. This has been quite the challenge.
Part of my job is to help figure out how we could expedite this cleanup while minimizing damage to the environment. For this case, we agreed that it’s time to get out your matches because we’re having a fire! It is not for every spill that in situ burning, or the controlled burning of spilled oil “in place,” comes up. This is the first incident that I have been involved with where burning has been seriously discussed as a spill response option and one of only a few burns conducted in an environment other than a marsh, where the practice is more common for removing oil. (You may remember similar burns on the open ocean during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.)
In preparation for the burn, we needed to consider many factors: public safety and health, worker safety and health, effects to vegetation and animal species, proper conditions to sustain combustion, controls for limiting collateral damage, potential quantity of oil removed, and more. The response team determined that rising flood waters would complicate the cleanup operation and increase the probability of the oil escaping containment and spreading throughout the swamp. Controlled burning, on the other hand, could rapidly remove a high percentage of oil while causing minimal local damage to area plant species. (With their roots protected underwater, the plants would be able to grow back after the oiled upper portions were burned off.) As these plans took shape, burn team safety was paramount, and cleanup crews corralled the oil to create thick pools of oil for combustion.
Considering the circumstances, the in situ burns seemed like a great success. The fire team was able to ignite three patches of pooled oil with a handheld propane brush torch; one burn lasted 5 minutes and the other two burns lasted 15 minutes. The fires did not spread outside the oiled area, and we’ve heard no reports of injury or ill health. With 35 minutes of total combustion, the burns were able to remove an estimated 20 to 30 barrels of oil from the affected swamp, leaving 30 to 40 barrels behind for further clean up.
Wait a minute, how did we end up with so many barrels of oil if initial reports were that only a few barrels leaked? The rain and the flooding have been drawing oil up from the soils surrounding the ruptured pipeline, and the oil has been rising to the water’s surface. If the pipeline buried about 6 feet underground can generate a pool of oil at the surface under dry conditions, how much oil has really been released? Could more oil show up later?
Efforts are underway to better understand this tricky situation by placing a closed loop of containment boom over the source point for several days. If more oil appears inside the boom, then the soil is continuing to release oil. If that is the case, this oily situation might persist for months to come, but only time will tell. Stay tuned at IncidentNews.gov.
LTJG Kyle Jellison is a Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. He is assigned to New Orleans, La., to provide Federal On-Scene Coordinators with mission critical scientific information for response and planning to oil and hazardous material releases. Jellison and his family currently reside on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and are enjoying the Louisiana lifestyle of crabbing, shooting, and “bon temps.” Prior to this, Jellison served aboard NOAA Ship HENRY B BIGELOW and was Acting Operations Officer during the vessel’s oceanographic mission to support the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill response.