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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Overcoming the Biggest Hurdle During an Oil Spill in the Arctic: Logistics

Ship breaking ice in Arctic waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in Arctic waters. A ship like this would be the likely center of operations for an oil spill in this remote and harsh region. (NOAA)

August in the Arctic can mean balmy weather and sunny skies or, fifteen minutes later, relentless freezing rain and wind blowing off ice floes, chilling you to the core. If you were headed to an oil spill there, your suitcase might be carrying a dry suit, down parka, wool sweaters and socks, your heaviest winter hat and gloves, and even ice traction spikes for your boots. Transit could mean days of travel by planes, car, and helicopter to a ship overseeing operations at the edge of the oil spill. Meanwhile, the oil is being whipped by the wind and waves into the nooks and crannies on the underside of sea ice, where it could be frozen into place.

Even for an experienced oil spill responder like Jill Bodnar, the complexity of working in such conditions goes far beyond the usual response challenges of cleaning up the oil, gathering data about the spill, and minimizing the impacts to marine life and their sensitive habitats. Rather, in the Arctic, everything comes down to logistics.

The unique logistics of this extreme and remote environment drive to the heart of why Bodnar, a NOAA Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist, and her colleague Zachary Winters-Staszak are currently on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, at the edge of the sea ice north of Alaska. They are participating in an Arctic Technology Evaluation, an exercise conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) in support of the Coast Guard’s broader effort known as Arctic Shield 2014.

Building on what was learned during the previous year’s exercise, the advanced technologies being demonstrated in this evaluation could potentially supplement those tools and techniques responders normally would rely on during oil spills in more temperate and accessible locations. This Arctic Technology Evaluation provides multiple agencies and institutions, in addition to NOAA, the invaluable opportunity to untangle some of the region’s knotty logistical challenges on a state-of-the-art Coast Guard icebreaker in the actual Arctic environment.

Getting from A to B: Not as Easy as 1-2-3

Bodnar has been mapping data during oil spills for more than a decade, but this exercise is her first trip to the Arctic. While preparing for it, she found it sobering to learn just how many basic elements of a spill response can’t be taken for granted north of the Arctic Circle. In addition to the scarcity of roads, airports, and hotels, other critical functions such as communications are subject to the harsh Arctic conditions and limited radio towers and satellite coverage. Out at sea ships depend on satellites for phone calls and some Internet connectivity, but above the 77th parallel those satellites often drop calls and can only support basic text email.

The remoteness of the Arctic questions how hundreds of responders would get there, along with all the necessary equipment—such as boom, skimmers, and vessels—not already in the area. Once deployed to the spill, response equipment has the potential to ice-over, encounter high winds, or be grounded from dense fog. Communicating with responders and decision makers on other ships, on shore at a command post, or even farther away in the lower 48 states would be an enormous challenge.

For example, if an oil spill occurs in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, the nearest and “largest” community is Barrow, population 4,429. However, Barrow has very limited accommodations. For comparison, 40,000 people, including Bodnar, responded to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This was possible because of the spill’s proximity to large cities with hotel space and access to food and communications infrastructure.

This is not the case for small Arctic villages, where most of their food, fuel, and other resources have to be shipped in when the surrounding waters are relatively free of ice. But to respond to a spill in the Arctic, the likely center of operations would be on board a ship, yet another reason working with the Coast Guard during Arctic Shield is so important for NOAA.

NOAA’s Role in Arctic Shield 2014

During this August’s Arctic Technology Evaluation, the Coast Guard is leading tests of four key areas of Arctic preparedness. NOAA’s area focuses on how oil disperses at the edge of the sea ice and collects under the older, thicker ice packs. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is working with NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program to develop techniques for quickly identifying and delineating a simulated oil spill in the Arctic waters near the ice edge. The Coast Guard will be using both an unreactive, green fluorescein dye and hundreds of oranges as “simulated oil” for the various tools and technologies to detect.

Normally during an oil spill, NOAA or the Coast Guard would send people up in a plane or helicopter to survey the ocean for the oil’s precise location, which NOAA also uses to improve its models of the oil’s expected behavior. However, responders can’t count on getting these aircraft to a spill in the Arctic in the first place—much less assume safe conditions for flying once there.

Instead, the UAS group is testing the feasibility of using unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft such as the Puma to collect this information and report back to responders on the ship. Bodnar and Winters-Staszak will be pulling these data streams from the Puma into Arctic ERMA®, NOAA’s mapping tool for environmental response data. They’ll be creating a data-rich picture of where the oil spill dye and oranges are moving in the water and how they are behaving, particularly among the various types of sea ice.

Once the oil spill simulation is complete, Bodnar and Winters-Staszak will be reporting back on how it went and what they have learned. Stay tuned for the expedition’s progress in overcoming the many logistical hurdles of a setting as severe as the Arctic here and at oceanservice.noaa.gov/arcticshield.


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On the Chesapeake Bay, Overcoming the Unique Challenges of Bringing Restoration to Polluted Military Sites

Transformations are taking place at more than 10 government facilities, mostly owned by the Department of Defense, across the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. These properties typically include large, relatively undisturbed natural areas, which often serve as key habitats for endangered fish, birds, and wildlife. Yet the same federal facilities also have become Superfund sites, slated for cleanup under CERCLA, with pollution at levels which threaten the health of humans and the environment.

Heavy equipment clearing a former landfill for restoration.

Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, a major base for the Navy’s Atlantic fleet, is one of the facilities that was slate for cleanup on the Chesapeake Bay. Here, heavy equipment prepare a former landfill for restoration post-cleanup in 2006. (U.S. Navy)

Yet in spite of some unique challenges, these areas are being cleaned up and restored to become healthy places for all once more. Success has stemmed largely from two critical pieces of the process: collaborating closely among numerous government agencies and incorporating restoration into the process as early and often as possible.

According to Paula Gilbertson of the U.S. Navy, “The close partnership among the many federal and state agencies involved has provided a framework for success. Great things can happen when people work together toward a common goal.”

Moving Past the Past

Past activities leading to pollution at U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy sites on Chesapeake Bay were many and varied, and included: incineration, landfilling, ship and airplane repair and maintenance, military testing, and pesticide and munitions disposal. As a result, beginning in the 1980s, entire facilities along the bay became Superfund sites and listed for priority cleanup.

Typically during the Superfund process, the party responsible for polluting has to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which leads the cleanup, and other state and federal agencies—known as trustees—which represent affected public lands and waters.

A landfill on the Little Creek naval base before cleanup.

A landfill on the Little Creek naval base before cleanup in 2006. (U.S. Navy)

But in these cases, the Department of Defense has to play multiple roles: trustee of natural resources on the property, entity responsible for contamination, and lead cleanup agency. In addition, the EPA still oversees the effectiveness of the Superfund cleanup, and the military branches at each site still have to coordinate with the other trustees: NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state agencies.

NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service also are part of a special technical group run by the EPA (the Biological Technical Assistance Group, or BTAG), which coordinates trustee participation and offers scientific review throughout the ecological risk assessment and cleanup process at each site.

According to Bruce Pluta, coordinator of the EPA BTAG, “The collaborative efforts of the EPA Project Team, including the BTAG, and our partners at the Department of Defense have resulted in model projects which integrate remediation and ecological restoration.”

Working Together for the Future

What does not change during this process is that the trustees are working to protect and restore the “trust resources,” including lands, waters, birds, fish, and wildlife affected by contamination coming from these military sites. This can include natural areas adjacent to the sites and the animals that could migrate onto the federal properties, such as striped bass, herring, blue crabs, eagles, and herons.

Other important differences exist governing how all these government entities work together in the Superfund cleanup process. For example, NOAA often works to evaluate ecological risks and determine environmental injuries resulting from hazardous material releases at Superfund sites. Then we implement restoration projects to compensate for the injuries to coastal and marine natural resources and the benefits they provide to the public. This is the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. NOAA seeks legal damages (payment) or works with those responsible for the pollution through cooperative agreements to restore, replace, or acquire the equivalent natural resources.

Restored wetlands.

A site transformed: Immediately after completion of cleanup and restoration activities at a landfill on the Little Creek naval base on the Chesapeake Bay. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

As federal trustees, we are significantly limited in our ability to conduct a formal damage assessment against a fellow federal agency doing cleanup because we are both trustees of the affected natural resources. However, all federal and state trustees can work together with EPA to protect the lands, waters, and living things during cleanup, maximize the potential for restoration at each site, and develop measures to ensure both environmental recovery and resilience.

“By considering restoration early in the process and getting input from natural resource managers, many simple, common sense measures are being incorporated that benefit ecosystems, reduce overall costs, and improve the effectiveness of the cleanup,” says Simeon Hahn of NOAA.

Overcoming Challenges

Having so many government agencies involved in overlapping but distinct roles requires a great deal of collaboration and communication. This became clear early in the process if each case were to achieve multiple objectives:

  • Cleaning up the military sites and returning the lands and waters to productive uses.
  • Performing cleanups using environmentally friendly strategies to remove, recycle, and reuse materials while also addressing climate resiliency.
  • Protecting and restoring natural resources.
  • Accomplishing everything within a reasonable budget and timeframe.

Despite the many challenges, the process of cleaning up and restoring these contaminated military facilities has been going well. EPA, the Department of Defense, and fellow trustees have collaborated to protect and restore affected natural resources while also helping adapt these areas to the threats and impacts of climate change. By integrating restoration into cleanup planning early and often, we have made significant progress toward a healthier Chesapeake Bay—at lower costs and in less time.

Map of hazardous waste sites on federal properties in the Chesapeake Bay area.

Hazardous waste sites on federal properties in the Chesapeake Bay area. (NOAA)

Over the coming months, we will be sharing more about these successes here on the blog. We will recount the removal and recycling of thousands of tons of concrete; the restoration of hundreds of acres of wetlands, shorelines, creeks, and forested areas; and the revitalization of numerous acres of land contributing to benefits such as natural defenses for coastal communities. Stay tuned!


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OR&R Defines the Issues Surrounding Oil Spill Dispersant Use

Oil floating on water's surface.

Oil on the water’s surface. (NOAA)

I recently had the opportunity to attend an interesting seminar on the use of dispersants in oil spill response. On August 8, 2014, OR&R Emergency Response Division marine biologist, Gary Shigenaka, and Dr. Adrian C. Bejarano, aquatic toxicologist, made presentations to a group of oil spill response professionals as part of the Science of Oil Spills class, offered by OR&R in Seattle last week.

Mr. Shigenaka introduced the subject, giving the students background on the history of dispersant use in response to oil spills, starting with the first use in England at the Torrey Canyon spill. Because the first generation of oil dispersants were harsh and killed off intertidal species, the goal since has been to reduce their inherent toxicity while maintaining effectiveness at moving oil from the surface of the water into the water column. He gave an overview of the most prevalent commercial products, including Corexit 9527 and Corexit 9500, manufactured by Nalco, and Finasol OSR52, a French product.

Aerial view of testing facility with long pool.

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)

Shigenaka reviewed the U.S. EPA product schedule of dispersants as well as Ohmsett – National Oil Spill Response Research Facility in Leonardo, N.J. Ohmsett is run by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. He showed video clips of oil dispersant tests conducted recently at the facility by the American Petroleum Institute.

The corporate proprietary aspects of the exact formulation of dispersants were described by Shigenaka as one of the reasons for the controversy surrounding the use of dispersants on oil spills.

Dispersant Use in Offshore Spill Response

Dr. Bejarano’s presentation, “Dispersant Use in offshore Oil Spill Response,” started with a list of advantages of dispersant use such as reduced oil exposure to workers; reduced impacts on shoreline habitats; minimal impacts on wildlife with long life spans; and keeping the oil away from the nearshore area thus avoiding the need for invasive cleanup. She followed with some downside aspects such as increased localized concentration of hydrocarbons; higher toxicity levels in the top 10 meters of the water column; increased risk to less mobile species; and greater exposure to dispersed oil to species nearer to the surface.

Dr. Bejarano is working on a comprehensive publicly-available database that will include source evaluation and EPA data as well as a compilation of data from 160 sources scored on applicability to oil spill response (high, moderate, low and different exposures).

Her presentation concluded with a summary of trade-offs associated with dispersant use:

  • Shifting risk to water column organisms from shoreline, which recover more quickly (weeks or months).
  • Toxicity data are not perfect.
  • Realistic dose and duration are different from lab to field environment.
  • Interpretation of findings must be in the context of particular oil spill considerations.

Dr. Bejarano emphasized the need for balanced consideration in reaching consensus for the best response to a particular spill.

Following the formal presentations, there was a panel discussion with experts from NOAA, EPA, and State of Washington, and the audience had an opportunity to ask questions. Recent research from the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service/ Montlake Laboratory was presented, focusing on effects of oil and dispersants on larval fish. The adequacy of existing science underlying trade-offs and net environmental benefit was also discussed.

Read our related blog on dispersants, “Help NOAA Study Chemical Dispersants and Oil Spills.”


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How Much do Coastal Ecosystems Protect People from Storms and What is It Worth?

Sand dunes with grass.

Sand dunes along the New Jersey shore. (NOAA)

 This post was written by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Meg Imholt and is based on research done during the summer of 2014 by OR&R intern, Emory Wellman.

Nearly a year ago, one lawsuit spurred the question–how much do coastal ecosystems protect people from storms and what is that worth?  It’s a question NOAA scientists and economists are working to answer.

At NOAA, our job is to protect our coasts, but often, coastal ecosystems are the ones protecting us. When a severe storm hits, wetlands, sand dunes, reefs, and other coastal ecosystems can slow waves down, reducing their height and intensity, and prevent erosion.  That means less storm surge, more stable shorelines, and more resilient coastal communities.

When the coastal Borough of Harvey Cedars, New Jersey, replenished beaches with sand dunes to offer this ecosystem service, a New Jersey couple, the Karans, sued on the grounds that the newly placed dunes obstructed the ocean view from their home. Initially, the court barred the jury from considering storm protection benefits from the dunes in their decision. The jury awarded the Karans $375,000, but New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the ruling. The jury should consider storm protection benefits, according to the Supreme Court, and when it did, the Karan’s settlement dropped to $1.

Cases like this one spur a lot of questions for both science and the courts.

NOAA has been supporting ecosystem services in court for decades through Natural Resource Damage Assessments (NRDA), but putting a price tag on ecosystem services isn’t easy. Instead, NOAA often determines how ecosystem services were hurt and what it will take to replace them.  Following a spill or chemical release, NOAA is one of a number of mandated state and federal natural resource trustees that assess if and how ecosystem services were injured and typically focuses on habitat and recreation. That assessment is then used to determine how much restoration the responsible party must provide to compensate for the injury.

Destroyed homes along the coast.

At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy sped toward the East Coast, eventually sweeping waves of oil, hazardous chemicals, and debris into the coastal waters of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. (U.S. Air Force)

Determining exactly how much storm protection may have been lost is another challenge. We know that already; there are a variety of estimates showing how much coastal ecosystems reduce a storm’s impact. Still, the science of storm protection is complicated. For example, an ecosystem’s type, location, topography, and local tides all impact its ability to protect us from storms. So, determining how much storm protection services were lost, who they benefited, and what type of restoration could compensate depends on all of those factors too.

Ultimately, the decision on how to assess storm protection benefits may be up to the courts.  The next case like Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan may provide some clues, but until then, we’ll keep working on the science.


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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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NOAA Again Joins Coast Guard for Oil Spill Exercise in the Arctic

This is a post by NOAA Environmental Scientist Dr. Amy Merten.

Large ship offshore.

U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy.

It is no mystery anymore that the Arctic is undergoing unprecedented change and the extent of summer sea ice continues to shrink. As the ice contracts, shipping within and across the Arctic, oil and gas exploration, and tourism likely will increase, as will fishing, if fisheries continue migrating north to cooler waters. With more oil-powered activity in the Arctic and potentially out-of-date nautical charts, the region also will see an increased risk of oil spills.

Although the Arctic may have “ice-free” summers, it will remain a difficult place to respond to spills, still facing conditions such as low visibility, mobilized icebergs, and extreme cold. Much of the increased activity exploits the longer amount of time between the sea ice breaking up in the spring and freezing up in the fall. Accidents on either end of this longer window could mean responding to oil spills complicated by sea ice.

Ready, Set, (Pretend to) Spill

With these challenging circumstances in mind, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration again will be sending spatial data specialists aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy for an Arctic Technology Evaluation, a month-long scientific expedition to the Arctic Ocean to demonstrate and evaluate oil spill tools, technologies, and techniques as part of Arctic Shield 2014. The ship leaves for the edge of the sea ice from Seward, Alaska, on August 8. We will be working with the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) to operate Arctic ERMA, our mapping tool geared at oil spill response. Normally an online tool, a special internet-independent version of ERMA, known as Stand-alone ERMA, will serve as the common operational picture for scientific data during this Arctic Technology Evaluation.

NOAA provides scientific support to the Coast Guard during oil and chemical spills, and ERMA is an extension of that support. This Arctic Technology Evaluation is an opportunity to work with the Coast Guard in as realistic conditions as possible—on a ship in the Arctic Ocean. Once the Healy makes it far enough north, the Coast Guard RDC will deploy a simulated oil spill so they can test oil spill detection and recovery technologies in ice conditions. The team will test unmanned technology platforms (both airborne and underwater) to detect where the spilled “oil” is and to collect ocean condition data, such as sea temperature, currents, and the areas where oil is mixing and spreading in the water column. In this case the simulated oil will be fluorescein dye, an inert tracer used for other simulated spills and water transport studies in the ocean and rivers. (Other simulated spilled “oils” have included peat moss, rubber ducks, and oranges.)

Ship with small aircraft in front of it.

NOAA’s remote-controlled Puma aircraft. (NOAA)

One major objective is for NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems group to fly their 8.5 foot wingspan, remote-controlled Puma, instead of an airplane with a human observer, to delineate the extent of the “oil” plume. ERMA’s job will be to display the data from the Puma and other unmanned technologies so all of the team can see where measurements have been taken and identify insights into how they could hypothetically clean up a spill in the remote, icy environment.

Arriving at the Arctic

In many ways, our office is a newcomer to the Arctic, and we still have a lot to learn about past research and current ways of life in the region. As the NOAA co-director for the Coastal Response Research Center (a joint partnership with the University of New Hampshire), I worked with my co-director, UNH professor Nancy Kinner, to promote understanding of the risks the Arctic is facing. In 2007, we participated in a joint industry study which brought me to the Arctic at the SINTEF lab on Svalbard in Norway. Here, I saw firsthand how difficult it can be to find oil mixed in ice and then try to do something about it, such as burn it. The temperature extremes in the Arctic limit mobility and the amount of time one can be outside responding to a spill—if you can get to the spill in the first place.

At the same time, we were developing ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application), a web-based mapping tool for environmental response, which is customized for various regions in the United States. As NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration began developing strategies for working in the Arctic, support emerged for customizing ERMA for the Arctic region. We worked with several organizations, including Arctic communities, to develop Arctic ERMA, taking care to make connections and build relationships with the people who live in and know the region and its natural resources. ERMA also will use the Healy’s onboard satellite communications to relay data back to the live Arctic ERMA website, allowing people outside the vessel to stay up-to-date with the mission.

Responding to Reality

image of broken ice on the water's surface. (NOAA)I’m excited for my ERMA colleagues, Jill Bodnar and Zach Winters-Staszak, to experience this extreme and special environment firsthand. Academically, you can think through the challenges a spill in the Arctic would present, but actually experiencing it quickly reveals what will and will not work. Partnering with the Coast Guard is helping those of us at NOAA be proactive responders in general, and in particular, is teaching the ERMA team how to pull into this tool data from multiple platforms and improve response decision-making.

We’re all connected to the Arctic; weather and oceanographic patterns are changing world wide because of the rapidly changing Arctic. Oil and gas coming from the Arctic will fuel the U.S. economy and current way of life for the foreseeable future. We hope that Arctic Shield and other oil spill exercises will better prepare us for whatever happens next.  Follow along with NOAA’s efforts during Arctic Shield at http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/arcticshield/.

Amy Merten with kids from Kivalina, Alaska.

Dr. Amy Merten is pictured here with children from the Alaskan village of Kivalina. She was in Alaska for an oil spill workshop in the village of Kotzebue.

Amy Merten is the Spatial Data Branch Chief in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Amy developed the concept for the online mapping tool ERMA (Environmental Response Mapping Application). ERMA was developed in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire. She expanded the ERMA team at NOAA to fill response and natural resource trustee responsibilities during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Amy oversees data management of the resulting oil spill damage assessment. She received her doctorate and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland.

 


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Mysterious Oil Spill Traced to Vessel Sunk in 1942 Torpedo Attack

Aerial photo of an oil sheen on the ocean.

U.S. Coast Guard overflight photo, taken on July 17, 2014. (USCG)

A few weeks ago a North Carolina fisherman had a sinking feeling as he saw “black globs” rising to the ocean surface about 48 miles offshore of Cape Lookout. From his boat, he also could see the tell-tale signs of rainbow sheen and a dark black sheen catching light on the water surface—oil. But looking around at the picturesque barrier islands to the west and Atlantic’s open waters to the east, he couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. What was the source of this mysterious oil?

Describing what he saw, the fisherman filed a pollution report with the U.S. Coast Guard. On July 17, 2014, a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft flew over the site and confirmed the presence of a sheen of oil in the same vicinity. Based on the location and persistence of the sheens, the responders suspected the oil possibly could be leaking from the sunken wreck of the steamship W.E. Hutton, 140 feet below the water surface. Shortly after, archeologists confirmed that to be the case.

Balck and white photo of a ship in 1942.

A 1942 photo of the W.E. Hutton. (USCG)

At the Bottom of the Graveyard of the Atlantic

This area off of North Carolina’s Outer Banks is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The combination of harsh storms, piracy, and warfare have left these waters littered with shipwrecks, and because of the conditions that led to their demise, many of them are broken in pieces. In the midst of World War II, on March 18, 1942, the W.E. Hutton was one of three U.S. vessels in the area torpedoed by German U-boats. Tragically, 13 of the 23 crewmembers aboard the ship were killed. The Hutton’s survivors were rescued by the Port Halifax, a British ship.

When the steam-powered tanker was hit by German torpedoes, the Hutton was en route from Smiths Bluff, Texas, to Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, with a cargo of 65,000 barrels of #2 heating oil. An initial torpedo hit the starboard bow, and the second hit to the port side came 10 minutes later. The ship sank an hour after the first hit, eventually settling onto the seafloor. Today, it is reportedly upside down, with the port side buried in sand but with the starboard edge and some of its railing visible.

The wreck of the W.E. Hutton also is located in the NOAA Remediation to Undersea Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) Database. Evaluated in the 2013 NOAA report “Risk Assessment for Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters,” this wreck was considered a low potential for a major oil spill because dive surveys “show all tanks open to the sea and no longer capable of retaining oil.”  However, as the fisherman could observe from the waters above, some oil clearly remains trapped in the wreckage.

This shipwreck was described by wreck diver and historian Gary Gentile as having “enough large cracks to permit easy entry into the vast interior.” Another wreck diver and historian, Roderick Farb, noted that the largest point of entry into the hull is “about 150 feet from the stern,” through a “huge crack in the hull full of rubble, iron girders, twisted hull plates and other wreckage.”  This wreck is the closest one to the spot where the fisherman first saw the leaking oil, and given the Hutton’s inverted position and such cracks, we now realize the possibility that the inverted hull has been trapping some of the 65,000 barrels of its oil cargo as well as its own fuel.

An image of the wreck of the W.E. Hutton laying on the ocean floor.

A multibeam scan of the wreck of the W.E. Hutton taken in 2010. (NOAA)

Solving the Problems with Sunken Shipwrecks 

On July 21, 2014, a commercial dive company contracted by the U. S. Coast Guard sent down multiple dive teams to the Hutton’s wreck to assess the scope and quantity of the leaking oil. The contractor developed and implemented a containment and mitigation plan, which stopped the flow of oil from a finger-sized hole in the rusted hull. It is not known how much oil escaped into the ocean or how long it had been leaking before the passing fisherman noticed it in the first place.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, led by Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak, provided the U.S. Coast Guard access to historical data about shipwrecks off of North Carolina, survey information, including underwater and archival research, and the animals, plants, and habitats at risk from the leaking oil. Our office frequently provides scientific support in this way when a maritime problem occurs due to sunken wrecks. They may pose a significant threat to the environment, human health, and navigational safety (as an obstruction to navigation). Or, as in this case, shipwrecks can threaten to discharge oil or hazardous substances into the marine environment.

Last May, our office released an overall report describing this work and our recommendations, along with 87 individual wreck assessments. The individual risk assessments highlight not only concerns about potential ecological and socio-economic impacts, but they also characterize most of the vessels as being historically significant. In addition, many of them are grave sites, both civilian and military. The national report, including the 87 risk assessments, is available at “Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters.” Several of those higher-risk wrecks also lie in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, but as we discovered, it is difficult to predict where and when a rusted wreck might release its oily secrets to the world.

OR&R’s Doug Helton and Frank Csulak contributed to this post.

 

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