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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A Major Spill in Tampa Bay—21 Years Ago this Month

Two barges next to one another; one with oil spilled on its deck.

An oil soaked barge, after the 1993 Tampa Bay spill. (NOAA)

 

OR&R’s Doug Helton recalls his experience responding to a major spill in 1993.

August 10 is an anniversary of sorts.  21 years ago, I spent much of the month of August on the beaches of Pinellas County, Florida.  But not fishing and sunbathing. On August 10, 1993, three vessels, the freighter Balsa 37, the barge Ocean 255, and the barge Bouchard 155, collided near the entrance of Tampa Bay, Florida.

A barge on fire, with smoke coming form the deck.

The collision resulted in a fire on one of the barges and caused a major spill. (NOAA)

The collision resulted in a fire on one of the barges and caused a major oil spill. Over 32,000 gallons of jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline and about 330,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled from the barges. Despite emergency cleanup efforts, the oil fouled 13 miles of beaches and caused injury to birds, sea turtles, mangrove habitat, seagrasses, salt marshes, shellfish beds,  as well as closing many of the waterways to fishing and boating.

The prior year I had been hired by NOAA and tasked with developing a Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) to provide a quick response capability for oil and chemical spill damage assessments, focusing on the collection of perishable data and information, photographs, and videotape in a timely manner to determine the need for a natural resource damage assessment. The emergency nature of spills requires that this type of information be collected within hours after the release. Time-sensitive data, photographs, and videotape are often critical when designing future assessment studies and initiating restoration planning—and are also used later as evidence in support of  Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) claims. The Tampa Bay spill was one of the first major responses for the RAP team.

The case was settled long ago and restoration projects have all been implemented to address the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of the spill. But some of the damage assessment approaches developed during that incident are still used today, and some of the then innovative restoration approaches are now more commonplace.

Sunset behind a bridge over a bay.

Tampa Bay, Skyway Bridge sunset, August 3, 2013. (Jeff Krause/Creative Commons)


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At the Trans Alaska Pipeline’s Start, Where 200 Million Barrels of Oil Begin their Journey Each Year

Man in hard hat outside at sign at start of Trans Alaska Pipeline.

NOAA’s Incident Operations Coordinator at milepost 0 of the Trans Alaska Pipeline in Deadhorse, Alaska. (NOAA)

A couple years ago I visited the southern end of the 800-mile-long Trans Alaska Pipeline in Valdez, Alaska. As the northernmost port that remains free of ice, the Valdez Marine Terminal is where crude oil from the North Slope oil fields is loaded on tankers destined for refineries on the west coast of the United States. Last month I got to visit the northern end of the pipeline in Deadhorse, Alaska, where on average 17,001 gallons of oil enter the pipeline each minute and more than 200,000,000 barrels each year [PDF].

I was in Deadhorse to meet with Alaska Clean Seas, the primary Oil Spill Response Organization (OSRO) for all of the oil exploration and production operations in Prudhoe Bay and the other nearby oil fields.

Sign in airport showing acceptable cold weather clothing for passengers.

Everyone traveling to Deadhorse, Alaska, where the Trans Alaska Pipeline begins, must follow strict Arctic fashion guidelines. (NOAA)

The flight from Anchorage was right on time, boarded quickly, and was full of jackets and hats with every industry logo in the oilfield servicing business. Safety is a big concern in a place that is so remote, and the safety policy starts at Anchorage. Nobody is allowed on the plane without appropriate clothing.

The scenery in Deadhorse is difficult to describe. It has a flat, sprawling industrial footprint surrounded by vast tundra, shallow braided rivers, and innumerable shallow ponds and lakes. All of the infrastructure is built on large gravel pads: living quarters, warehouses, huge drilling rigs, and other equipment, with multiple racks of elevated pipelines running every direction. Unheated structures sit on the ground, but heated buildings are constructed on concrete stilts to prevent thawing of the permafrost.

Deadhorse is home to the beginning of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, combining oil from five major feeder pipelines that originate in the different oil fields that comprise the North Slope. Oil takes about 15 days to get to Valdez, moving about five miles per hour. Since its construction in 1977, the Trans Alaska Pipeline System has transported nearly 17 billion barrels of oil.

While in Deadhorse, I also got to see the Beaufort Sea. Although it was close to the summer solstice (the last sunset was about a month ago), the ocean was still mostly frozen. Response boats remained staged on land, waiting for open water.

As you can gather from these descriptions and the pictures that follow, the Arctic is not a place that easily lends itself to the type and speed of oil spill cleanup possible in warmer and more accessible areas. Learn more about NOAA’s ongoing Arctic efforts in a series of reports released in April 2014.


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You Say Collision, I Say Allision; Let’s Sort the Whole Thing Out

Despite improved navigation aids, including charts and Global Positioning Systems (GPS), ships still have accidents in our nation’s waterways, and I regularly review notification reports of these accidents from the National Response Center. Sometimes I need to consult the old nautical dictionary I inherited from my grandfather (a lawyer and U.S. Navy captain) to figure out what they mean.

Nautical terms and marine salvage books.

Keeping it all straight. (NOAA)

The U.S. Coast Guard investigates ship accidents, but they use the terms “marine casualty or accident” interchangeably [PDF]. Mariners are required to report any occurrence involving a vessel that results in:

  • Grounding
  • Stranding
  • Foundering
  • Flooding
  • Collision
  • Allision
  • Explosion
  • Fire
  • Reduction or loss of a vessel’s electrical power, propulsion, or steering capabilities
  • Failures or occurrences, regardless of cause, which impair any aspect of a vessel’s operation, components, or cargo
  • Any other circumstance that might affect or impair a vessel’s seaworthiness, efficiency, or fitness for service or route
  • Any incident involving significant harm to the environment

Some of those terms are pretty straightforward, but what is the difference between grounding and stranding? Or foundering and flooding? And my favorite, collision and allision?

Here is my basic understanding of these terms, but I am sure that some of these could fill an admiralty law textbook.

Groundings and strandings are probably the most common types of marine casualties. A grounding is when a ship strikes the seabed, while a stranding is when the ship then remains there for some length of time. Both can damage a vessel and result in oil spills depending on the ocean bottom type (rocky, sandy, muddy?), sea conditions, and severity of the event (is the ship a little scraped or did it break open?).

Flooding means taking on excessive water in one or more of the spaces on a ship (e.g., the engine room), while foundering is basically taking on water to the point where the vessel becomes unstable and begins to sink or capsize. Note that “foundering” is different than “floundering,” which is to struggle or move aimlessly.

And collision and allision … These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but technically, a collision is when two vessels strike each other, while an allision occurs when a vessel strikes a stationary object, such as a bridge or dock.

Close up of large damaged ship with Coast Guard boat.

A U.S. Coast Guard boat approaches the gash in the side of the M/V Cosco Busan after it allided (rather than collided) with San Francisco’s Bay Bridge on November 7, 2007, releasing 53,000 gallons of bunker oil into San Francisco Bay. (U.S. Coast Guard)

No matter the proper terminology, all of these incidents can result in spills, keeping us pollution responders on our toes because of the potential impacts to coasts, marine life, and habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass beds. But understanding these various nautical terms helps us understand the circumstances we’re dealing with in an emergency and better adapt our science-based recommendations as a result. And as my grandfather used to say, a collision at sea can ruin your entire day …


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Booms, Beams, and Baums: The History Behind the Long Floating Barriers to Oil Spills

Oiled boom on Louisiana beach.

Oiled boom is cleaned so that it can be used to contain oil over and over again. (NOAA)

One of the iconic images of spill preparedness and response is oil boom. You’ve probably seen these long ribbons of orange, yellow, or white material stockpiled on a pier, strung around a leaking vessel, or stretched across a channel to protect sensitive areas threatened by an advancing oil slick. Made of plastic, metal, or other materials, booms are floating, physical barriers to oil, meant to slow the spread of oil and keep it contained.

As we describe on our website, there are three main types of boom:

Hard boom is like a floating piece of plastic that has a cylindrical float at the top and is weighted at the bottom so that it has a “skirt” under the water. If the currents or winds are not too strong, booms can also be used to make the oil go in a different direction (this is called “deflection booming”).

Sorbent boom looks like a long sausage made out of a material that absorbs oil. If you were to take the inside of a disposable diaper out and roll it into strips, it would act much like a sorbent boom. Sorbent booms don’t have the “skirt” that hard booms have, so they can’t contain oil for very long.

Fire boom is not used very much. It looks like metal plates with a floating metal cylinder at the top and thin metal plates that make the “skirt” in the water. This type of boom is made to contain oil long enough that it can be lit on fire and burned up.

But why is it called “boom”? Does it make a sound? Every industry has jargon, and the spill response community, at the intersection of the maritime and oil industry, has more than its fair share. There are whole dictionaries devoted to maritime terms, and others devoted to the oil industry. (Remember “top kill” and “junk shot”—industry terms used to describe attempts to stop the flow of oil from a damaged wellhead?) But when I looked for the origins of the word “boom,” I had to do some digging. I guess boom is such a common term in the response business, nobody thinks much about its derivation. Kind of like asking a chef why spoons are called spoons.

The word “boom” is the Dutch word for tree. German is similar: “baum.” Remember “O Tannenbaum,” a Christmas carol of German origin? From these roots, we get the word “beam” as in a long wooden timber, and of course, a part of a sailboat, the “boom,” that holds the foot of the sail and was traditionally made of wood. Around the Northwest it is pretty common to see a tug boat pulling a big raft of logs to a mill—a log boom.

But what do trees have to do with oil boom? Back to the Dutch. In the Middle Ages, logs were chained together and used as a floating barrier across a waterway to protect a harbor from attack or to force passing ships to stop and pay a toll. During the American Revolution, for example, the Hudson River was boomed with logs to prevent the British from sailing upriver. Similar fortifications were used during the Civil War, and even in World War II to protect U.S. West Coast ports from foreign submarines.

How log booms evolved into oil containment booms is unclear, but we know that every major spill has resulted in a flurry of inventions and improvements, often on the fly as responders adapted available resources to combat the spill. As concern over oil pollution increased over the past century, some of these were patented and form the basis for today’s technologies, but unfortunately there is still no silver bullet; once oil is spilled in the sea, it is a challenge to control and clean up. Learn more about how responders use boom during oil spills [PDF], including the ways to use boom effectively.


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Looking Back: What Led up to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill?

Calendar showing March 1989 and image of Exxon Valdez ship.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Exxon Shipping Company’s safety calendar featured the T/V Exxon Valdez in March 1989, the same month the ship ran aground. Image: From the collection of Gary Shigenaka.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred on March 24, 1989. This spill was a turning point for the nation and a major event in the history of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. It also led to major changes in the federal approach to oil spill response and the technical, policy, and legal outcomes continue to reverberate today.

But before this monumental oil spill happened, there were a series of events around the world building up to this moment. Now, 25 years later, join us for a look at the history which set the stage for this spill.

1968

Atlantic Richfield Company and Humble Oil (which would later become Exxon) confirmed the presence of a vast oil field at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Plans for a pipeline were proposed but held up by various environmental challenges.

1973

The 1973 oil embargo plunged the nation into a serious energy crisis, and Alaskan oil became a national security issue. On November 16, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, which prohibited any further legal challenges. This pipeline would connect the developing oil fields of Alaska with the port town of Valdez, where oil could be shipped out on tankers through the Gulf of Alaska.

1977

On August 1, 1977, the tanker ARCO Juneau sailed out of Valdez with the first load of North Slope crude oil.

1981

How prepared for oil spills was Valdez? Despite complaints from the State of Alaska, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the corporation running the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, decides to disband its full-time oil spill team and reassign those employees to other operations.

1982

The National Contingency Plan (NCP) is updated from the original 1968 version, which provided the first comprehensive system of accident reporting, spill containment, and cleanup in the United States. The 1982 revisions formally codified NOAA’s role as coordinator of scientific activities during oil spill emergencies. NOAA designated nine Scientific Support Coordinators, or SSCs, to coordinate scientific information and provide critical support to the U.S. Coast Guard, and other federal on-scene commanders.

1984

In May 1984, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) field officers in Valdez write a detailed memo warning that pollution abatement equipment has been dismantled and Alyeska, the pipeline company, does not have the ability to handle a big spill. This document will become part of the Congressional investigation of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Later in 1984, Alyeska conducts an oil spill response practice drill that federal and state officials deem a failure. In December 1984, DEC staffers in Valdez write another lengthy memo to their administrators detailing shortcomings in Alyeska’s spill response program.

1986

The T/V Exxon Valdez is delivered to Exxon in December of 1986 and makes its maiden voyage to Alaska. When the Exxon Valdez first arrived at the Port of Valdez later that month, the town celebrated its arrival with a party. “We were quite proud of having that tanker named after the city of Valdez,” recalls former Mayor John Devens.

1987

Captain Joseph Hazelwood becomes master of the Exxon Valdez, which then earns Exxon Fleet safety awards for 1987 and 1988.

In June 1987, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation approves Alyeska’s contingency plan without holding another drill. The plan details how Alyeska would handle an 8.4 million gallon oil spill in Prince William Sound. Alyeska says:

“It is highly unlikely that a spill of this magnitude would occur. Catastrophic events of this nature are further reduced because the majority of tankers calling on Port Valdez are of American registry and all of these are piloted by licensed masters or pilots.”

1988

The big news in Alaska is the lingering low price of oil. Nearly one in 10 jobs disappears from the Alaska economy. Oil output peaks on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline at 2.1 million barrels of oil a day.

January 1989

In January 1989 the Valdez terminal has a couple major tests of spill response capacity with two small oil spills, which draw attention to cleanup problems and the condition of their tanker fleet. Alyeska vows to increase its response capacity and decides to buy a high-tech, 122-foot-long skimmer, at a cost of $5 million. The skimmer is scheduled for delivery in August 1990. The company also replaces four 21-foot response boats and arranges to purchase thousands of feet of extra boom for delivery later in the year.

March 1989

On March 22, the Exxon Valdez arrives at the Valdez Marine Terminal, Berth 5 and begins discharging ballast (water used for balancing cargo) and loading crude oil. Loading is completed late on March 23 and a little after 9:00 p.m. the tanker leaves Valdez with 53 million gallons of crude, bound for California.

Early on March 24, 1989, a little over three hours after leaving port, the Exxon Valdez strikes Bligh Reef, spilling approximately 10.9 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.


Join us on March 24, 2014 at 12:00 p.m. Pacific/3:00 p.m. Eastern as we remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill 25 years later.

Use Twitter to ask questions of NOAA biologist Gary Shigenaka and learn about this spill’s impacts on Alaska’s environment.

Get the details.


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A Tale of Two Shipwrecks: When History Threatens to Pollute

Last year I wrote about NOAA’s work in identifying potentially polluting shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

Several men work to pump oil onto a barge on the ocean.

During November 2013, the Canadian Coast Guard (Western Region) worked with Mammoet Salvage to remove the oil remaining on board the wreck of the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski. The Zalinski sank off the North Coast of British Columbia, Canada, and its wreck remains upside down on top of an underwater cliff. (Daniel Porter, Mammoet Salvage)

One of the wrecks that we’ve been watching with interest has been the wreck of the Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski, a World War II U.S. Army transport ship that ran aground and sank in 1946 near Prince Rupert, Canada.  For the past decade the vessel has been the source of chronic oil spills in British Columbia’s Inside Passage, and patches to the hull were only a temporary solution.

Response operations were just completed in late December 2013, and the Canadian government reported that two-month-long operations safely extracted approximately 44,000 liters (about 12,000 gallons) of heavy Bunker C oil and 319,000 liters (84,000 gallons) of oily water from the wreck.  More information on the project is on Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans website.

Every shipwreck has its own story to tell. One of the interesting bits of trivia about the Zalinski is that the crew of the sinking ship back in 1946 was rescued by the Steam Ship Catala. The Zalinski, lying in Canadian waters, is not in our database of potentially polluting shipwrecks, but the S.S. Catala is, or should I say, was.

The Catala met its end in 1965 when the ship grounded during a storm and was abandoned on a beach on the outer coast of Washington state.  Over time the vessel was buried in sand, but 40 years later, winds and tides had changed the face of the beach, re-exposing the Catala’s rusted-out, oil-laden hull.  In 2007, the State of Washington led a multi-agency effort to remove not only the 34,500 gallons of oil still on board but also the ship’s wreckage and the potential for a major oil spill near a number of state parks and national wildlife refuges on the coast.

Learn more about how NOAA worked with the U.S. Coast Guard and Regional Response Teams to prioritize potential threats to coastal resources from the nation’s legacy of sunken ships.


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As North American Oil Production Explodes, So Do Oil Trains

National Transportation Safety Board officials at the scene of the Casselton, N.D., train derailment and explosion on January 1, 2014 in below-zero temperatures. One of the burned-out trains is in the background.

National Transportation Safety Board officials at the scene of the Casselton, N.D., train derailment and explosion on January 1, 2014 in below-zero temperatures. One of the burned-out trains is in the background. (National Transportation Safety Board)

December 30, 2013 turned out to be an explosive day. On that date, a train hauling grain near Casselton, N.D., derailed into the path of an oncoming crude oil train, resulting in several oil tank cars exploding.

Fortunately, the burning tank cars caused no injuries, but local residents were evacuated as a precaution. The North Dakota accident is one of a number of high-profile rail accidents in North America over the past year, which included the July 2013 accident in Quebec, Canada, that killed 47 people. Earlier this week, on January 8, another train accident occurred, this one in New Brunswick near the Maine border. It resulted in several crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas tank cars catching fire.

The growth in U.S. and Canadian oil production has exceeded pipeline capacity and has resulted in a dramatic increase in oil shipments via rail. According to the Association of American Railroads [PDF], in 2008 U.S. railroads moved “just 9,500 carloads of crude oil. In 2012, they originated nearly 234,000 carloads.”

These recent accidents have also raised concerns about the safety of some of these crude oils being transported. Within days of the North Dakota oil train accident, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a warning to emergency responders that “crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.” The full safety alert can be found online [PDF].

This rise in transporting oil by rail is one way the growth in the domestic oil industry and changing oil transportation patterns can pose new environmental and safety risks. Unit trains carrying oil are becoming a common sight. (A “unit train” is an entire train carrying the same product to the same destination. A crude oil unit train of 100 tanker cars would carry about 60,000 barrels, or about 2.5 million gallons.) Additional rail terminals have been proposed in Washington state and elsewhere to accommodate growing oil production in the Dakotas and eastern Montana, particularly from the Bakken oil fields.

NOAA and other spill responders are working to understand these emerging risks in order to effectively and safely respond to oil spills. We are currently working with the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment on a project to explore these risks from changes in oil and gas production and transportation. Stay tuned for future blog posts about the progress and findings of this project. UPDATE:


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As NOAA Damage Assessment Rules Turn 18, Restoration Trumps Arguing Over the Price Tag of a Turtle

Kemp's Ridley sea turtle on beach in Texas.

How do you put a price tag on natural resources like this endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle? (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

What is a fish or sea turtle or day of sailing worth?  Some resources may be easily valued, such as a pound of lobsters, but other natural resources may not be assigned values as easily, such as injured habitats or non-game wildlife. And what about the value of a lobster in nature rather than in a soup pot? In 1989, under the paradigm in place at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, damage assessments were based on the economic value of natural resources and their uses lost as a result of a spill.

Eighteen years ago, on January 6, 1996, NOAA issued its final rules for conducting Natural Resource Damage Assessments (NRDA) for oil spills. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, prompted by the Exxon Valdez spill, changed many aspects of the U.S. response to oil spills, including the approach to damage assessments.

One of the lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez and other incidents was that restoration became delayed when the focus was on arguing over the monetary value of natural resource damages. This was because once government agencies reached a dollar-based settlement with the organization responsible for the spill, we still had to conduct studies to figure out what restoration was really necessary. Furthermore, since the process focused on calculating monetary damages rather than restoration costs, the trustees did not always receive sufficient funds to conduct restoration (the economic value of a fish or acre of wetland may not represent the costs to restore that resource).

NOAA's Doug Helton during the response to the August 10, 1993, Tampa Bay oil spill.

NOAA’s Doug Helton during the response to the August 10, 1993, Tampa Bay oil spill. A collision between a freighter and two fuel barges resulted in hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spilled into the Bay. The damage assessment that evaluated injuries to birds, sea turtles, mangrove habitat, seagrasses, salt marshes, and recreational uses was an early example of a restoration-based claim, and NOAA used this experience in developing the damage assessment rules. A number of ecological and recreational restoration projects were conducted to address or compensate for these injuries. For more information, see http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/southeast/tampabay/

To reform this issue, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 required that NOAA promulgate new damage assessment regulations, and I was assigned to work with a team of attorneys and scientists to help develop a rule that made sense legally and scientifically. In response to the lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez and other recent oil spills, we developed a new approach, focusing on the ultimate goal of restoration rather than attempting to establish a price tag for each fish, bird, or marine mammal injured by a spill. In other words, the damage claim submitted to the responsible party is based on the cost to conduct restoration projects for the damages rather than the value of the injured resource.

The Oil Pollution Act regulations also turned Natural Resource Damage Assessment into a more open process through three major changes:

  • Making assessment results and critical documents available to the public in an administrative record.
  • Requiring that the public have a chance to review and comment on restoration plans.
  • Inviting the organizations responsible for the spill to actively cooperate in the assessment and restoration planning.

The rulemaking process took several years, and we had lots of comments from the public, nongovernmental organizations, and the marine insurance, shipping, and oil industries. Finally, after incorporating all of the comments and developing a series of guidance documents, we published the final rule on January 6, 1996.

We had little time to relax, however. The first test of those cooperative, restoration-based regulations came a couple weeks later when the Barge North Cape and Tug Scandia ran aground in Rhode Island on January 19.  Stay tuned for the story of how that grounding off of a former nudist beach inspired an unexpected career for a young college student.


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NOAA Supporting Coast Guard after Natural Gas Rig Lost Well Control, Caught Fire in Gulf of Mexico

The Hercules 265 drilling rig with cloud of leaking natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Hercules 265 drilling rig, located about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, caught fire the night of July 23. Earlier that day, the rig experienced a loss of well control while drilling for natural gas. The cloud of leaking natural gas from the well, pictured here, ignited. No one was on board at the time and no injuries have been reported. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

The Hercules 265 jack-up drilling rig, which caught fire about 50 miles offshore of Louisiana after experiencing a loss of well control, no longer has natural gas leaking out of the well. The U.S. Coast Guard and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, via aerial surveys (overflights), have confirmed that the flow of gas from the well has stopped, though a diminished fire continued to burn residual gas near the well until today.

On Tuesday, July 23, the rig operator lost control of the natural gas well during a drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico. All 44 members of its crew were evacuated safely into life rafts and were later picked up by an offshore supply vessel. Late that night, the leaking gas ignited and the rig caught fire and partially collapsed. The incident occurred at South Timbalier block 220 in about 154 feet of water.

The well was releasing natural gas and a small amount of oily fluids, creating a light sheen of variable size. (Gas is often mixed with oily fluids, and the amounts of these fluids vary among reservoirs.) The U.S. Coast Guard has two cutters on scene to provide support. NOAA support has been focused on forecasting the trajectory of the sheen and customized weather reports for the affected area as well as providing technical advice on dealing with methane (a primary component of natural gas) and potential species at risk from hydrocarbon exposure, such as birds, shrimp, fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals.  A NOAA scientist and emergency response meteorologist are now at the scene of the response and offering further scientific and weather support as needed.

Learn more at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement website.


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Watching Chemical Dispersants at Work in an Oil Spill Research Facility

Aerial view of Ohmsett and its 2.6 million-gallon salt water tank.

The Ohmsett facility is located at Naval Weapons Station Earle, Waterfront. The research and training facility centers around a 2.6 million-gallon saltwater tank. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

Last week I had the chance to go back to Leonardo, New Jersey, to observe an oil spill dispersant exercise at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility known as Ohmsett (the Oil and Hazardous Material Simulated Environmental Test Tank). Ohmsett is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). The facility features a large saltwater test tank that allows for full-scale testing of oil spill response equipment and technologies. This tank has a large wave generator to simulate the type of conditions seen in the open ocean.

Dispersant use became a national topic of discussion following the explosion and subsequent well blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20, 2010. The unprecedented use of chemical dispersants on and below the ocean’s surface during this oil spill raised scientific, public, and political questions about both their effectiveness and their potential consequences for ecosystems and marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although dispersants get a lot of attention, I’ve worked on hundreds of oil spills over the past 20 years, and during that time, I’ve only worked on a handful of spills where dispersants were used. Furthermore, I’ve never had a chance to observe directly how dispersants work. The Ohmsett facility provided that opportunity in a controlled setting that still simulated real-world, open ocean conditions.

Here is a series of photos I took from one of the tests:

Freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank.

Freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank.

A few minutes after dispersants applied. Note that some of the oil is still black, but some is turning brown.

A few minutes after dispersants were applied. Note that some of the oil is still black, but some is turning brown.

Now most of the oil is brown, and instead of being on the surface, it is now suspended in small droplets in the top couple feet of the pool.

Now most of the oil is brown, and instead of being on the surface, it is now suspended in small droplets in the top couple feet of the pool.

Now the oil is completely mixed in the water.

Now the oil is completely mixed in the water.

So what do these tests demonstrate? Dispersants can be effective in removing oil from the surface of the water. Breaking the oil into tiny droplets doesn’t remove oil from the water, but it does help to increase the rate of biodegradation.

What these tests don’t tell you is the biological effect of mixing the oil in the water, as opposed to leaving it on the sea surface. Leaving oil on the surface will increase the potential exposure to birds, mammals, and shorelines, while dispersing oil will increase exposure to fish and other animals living in the water column. The decision to use dispersants or other response strategies will always involve a careful evaluation of the environmental benefits and trade-offs of the particular situation and location.

To help answer some of these trade-off questions, NOAA, in between spills, continues to study dispersants and their potential effects on the marine resources that we are trying to protect.

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