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University of Washington Partners with NOAA to Research and Prepare for Changes in the Oil and Gas Industry

This is a guest post by the Emerging Risks Workgroup at the University of Washington in Seattle.

LNG Tanker Arctic Lady near shore.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has opened up natural gas production in the United States, to the point that industry is increasingly looking to export it as liquified natural gas (LNG) via tanker. (Photo: Amanda Graham/Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License)

From fracking to oil trains, the landscape of oil production and transportation in North America has been undergoing a major transformation in recent years. This transformation has implications for how NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration prepares its scientific toolbox for dealing with oil spills. Our group of graduate students from the University of Washington partnered with NOAA on a project to identify major trends in the changes to risk in transporting oil and natural gas along U.S. coasts and major rivers.

Scope

To study these risks, we researched the trends that are changing the way in which petroleum is produced and transported in the United States. We also examined three high-profile incidents:

We reviewed the lessons learned from each of these responses and determined whether they also apply to the emerging risks we identified.

Research on Risks: Fracking, LNG, and Oil Trains

The largest catalyst for changes in the petroleum market in the U.S. is the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” combined with horizontal drilling. Fracking is a technique which forces fluids under great pressure through production wells to “fracture” rock formations and free greater amounts of crude oil or natural gas. This has drastically changed the amount of petroleum produced, where the petroleum is produced, and where it is transported.

Fracking also comes with its own transportation issues. The large amounts of wastewater from fracking operations are often transported or treated near waterways, increasing the risk for a spill of contaminated wastewater.

Fracking has increased the amount of natural gas production in the U.S., which is transported within North America as a gas through pipelines. However, with the increase in gas production, energy companies are looking to export some of this outside of North America as liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Several projects have been approved to export LNG, and several more are awaiting approval. LNG is currently transported by tanker, and with these new export projects, LNG tanker traffic will increase.

LNG is also being explored as a marine fuel option, which will require LNG bunkering infrastructure to supply the fuel needs of vessels that will run on LNG. Several LNG terminals and bunkering operations are in various stages of planning and development, and the presence of more vessels carrying LNG as a fuel or cargo will need to be addressed in future spill response planning.

Tanker rail cars over a wood bridge.

According to the Association of American Railroads, U.S. railroads shipping crude oil jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 carloads in 2013. (Photo: Roy Luck/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

Fracking has also led to greater amounts of crude oil produced in the U.S. Much of this new oil is being transported by rail, historically not a typical way to move lots of crude oil. This change in volume and mode of transportation for crude oil also presents risks for accidents. There have been several recent high-profile derailments of oil trains, many including fires or explosions.

The increase in crude oil transportation by rail is in large part a stopgap measure. First, because existing pipeline infrastructure isn’t available in certain parts of the country, including North Dakota and Wyoming, which are now producing crude oil. Second, because new pipelines take time to get approved and then constructed to serve new areas. Pipeline construction has increased significantly since 2008 but not without some issues.

All of this would be further complicated if the national ban on exporting crude oil (rather than refined oil) were lifted, an idea which has some supporters. This could change the amount and type of oil being transported by different modes to different locations, especially ports, and increase the risk of oil spills into nearby waterways.

Additional Risks and Recommendations

Offshore wind development and LNG infrastructure were also identified as potential risks that could further complicate petroleum production and transport in the United States. These developments could increase traffic in certain areas or place additional obstacles (i.e., wind turbines) in the path of vessels carrying petroleum products, potentially increasing the risk of spills. Additionally, the decrease in Arctic sea ice is changing oil exploration opportunities and shipping routes through the Arctic, which could shift the entire petroleum shipping picture in the U.S.

After analyzing these overall trends, we turned to recommendations from previous incidents involving oil exploration and spills. There were 248 recommendations made in the post-incident reports for the Cosco Busan, Deepwater Horizon, and Shell Kulluk. Out of these 248, we identified 29 recommendations that could apply in the context of these new, overall changes in petroleum transportation. These were divided into five major categories: contingency planning, equipment and responder training, industry oversight, funding, and public outreach and education.

Key Findings

Overall, we identified four major findings about petroleum production and transport:

  • Increased and more complex transportation risk.
  • Trends that hinder spill prevention and complicate spill response.
  • Lessons learned from past incidents are still valid for future responses.
  • There are several potential gaps in regulation, funding, planning, and coordination.

If you have any questions about the group, its members, our research, or would like to read any of our scoping documents, memos, or final paper, please visit our website at www.erw.comuv.com. We are happy to answer any questions.

The Emerging Risks Workgroup (ERW) is a group of four graduate students from the University of Washington working with UW faculty advisor Robert Pavia and Incident Operations Coordinator Doug Helton of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. The students in the group are all part of the Environmental Management Certificate at UW’s Program on the Environment. Stacey Crecy is from the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, and Andrew Cronholm, Barry Hershly, and Marie Novak are from the Evans School of Public Affairs. The Environmental Management Certificate culminates in a two-quarter capstone project that allows the student teams to work on a project for an outside client and then present their findings.

The ERW would like to thank our sponsor NOAA OR&R, and Doug Helton. We would also like to thank our UW faculty advisor, Robert Pavia of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, Anne DeMelle of the Program on the Environment, and all of the people that guided our research.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the federal government.


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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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As New Risks Emerge in Producing and Transporting Oil, University of Washington Helps NOAA Plan for Spills

This is a guest post by the Emerging Risks Workgroup at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Trucks and heavy machinery used to drill for natural gas parked in dirt.

A hydraulic fracturing operation at a Marcellus Shale natural gas well in Pennsylvania. (U.S. Geological Survey)

From fracking to oil trains, the landscape of oil production and transportation in North America has been undergoing a major transformation in recent years. This transformation has implications for how NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration prepares its scientific toolbox for dealing with oil spills. Our group of graduate students from the University of Washington is trying to provide NOAA with a picture of new or emerging risks that oil spill response plans need to adapt to.

To do this, we first have to look at what is causing the risks of transporting oil and gas products to change over time. We then compare those changes to changes that have already been accounted for by spill response planning. Once these “emerging” risks are accounted for, we can list in detail those areas that are going to be areas of concern for NOAA in the future.

Fracking

The main drivers of change for spill risks are the changes in the production of crude oil and natural gas. By far, the largest change in the market is the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which involves forcing fluids under great pressure through production wells to “fracture” rock formations to allow more crude oil or natural gas to be released. This controversial drilling technique has seen rapid and abundant growth in North America.

Fracking and other new technologies have resulted in a change in the types of petroleum products being transported in the U.S. It has changed where the products are originating, the quantities involved, and the methods of transportation.

LNG

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is natural gas that has been cooled to -260° Fahrenheit and liquefied for ease of transport. Its production has substantially increased in recent years. This is a result of the lower prices for natural gas that are caused by the immense supply, which is in turn due to increased production from fracking. Because there is so much LNG available at lower prices, two major changes in natural gas transportation have occurred.

First, due to the immense volume of available LNG (and the lack of export bans), the U.S. has started to export more LNG than in the past. The biggest recent change in LNG transport is the more widespread adoption of the LNG tanker. These tankers are just what the name implies: tanker ships storing large quantities of refrigerated LNG. These massive LNG tankers create a myriad of new challenges due to the nature of LNG (it is highly flammable) and the locations of shipping ports, which need to be large enough and properly equipped to load them.

Second, LNG is gaining popularity as a fuel for ships. Many of the new ships shipping companies are purchasing are built to run on LNG as well as traditional bunker fuel. Additionally, a number of existing ships are being retrofitted to run on LNG in certain conditions. As a result, fueling stations at the ports that service these large ships have to add a new fuel type that must be transported to the port and stored before fueling ships. This also further complicates port safety by adding more fueling processes that must be supported at in-port fueling stations.

Oil by Rail

Oil tank cars with railroad tracks.

According to the Association of American Railroads, in 2008 U.S. railroads moved 9,500 train cars of crude oil, while in 2012, U.S. trains moved nearly 234,000 carloads of oil. (U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

Fracking, as well as the advances in producing oil from oil sands, has changed where crude oil is being produced. Because pipelines require more permits and are slower and more expensive to build, maintain, and operate than rail, there has been a large increase in transporting oil via rail cars. These “rolling pipelines” are a convenient use of existing transportation infrastructure but cause significant changes in the risks of transporting crude oil in the U.S.

Many of these rail lines, at times, run adjacent to navigable waterways and end at a port for export, which means spills from derailments may sometimes release crude oil into waterways. We have already seen an increase in train derailments and resulting oil spills in recent weeks. This new risk is likely to grow, as the amount of oil transported by rail continues to grow each year.

Project Details and Timeline

We will be finishing our research and writing our report in the coming weeks. We plan on presenting our findings to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration in mid-March and will also be presenting at a symposium for the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment.

If you have any questions about the ERW, its members, our research, or would like to read any of our scoping documents, memos, or (eventually) the final paper, please visit our website at www.erw.comuv.com.

The Emerging Risks Workgroup (ERW) is a group of four graduate students from the University of Washington that are working with faculty advisor Robert Pavia and Doug Helton, the Incident Operations Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. The students in the group are all part of the Environmental Management Certificate Program at UW’s Program on the Environment. Stacey Crecy is from the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and Andrew Cronholm, Barry Hershly, and Marie Novak are all from the Evans School of Public Affairs.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the federal government.


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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.


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Ready for Anything: Advice in Case of the Undead

This is a post by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Katie Krushinski.

We’d like to wish you a happy Halloween … but it’s only appropriate we mention zombies first. In recent years, zombies have invaded popular culture, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who have done a great job linking being prepared for a zombie attack with overall disaster preparedness. You may laugh, but you can also learn a thing or two about being ready for the return of the undead.

Zombie nurse.

If you’re not prepared for the worst, then you’re letting the zombies win. (Credit: Tuomas Kuosmanen, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License)

Don’t Let the Zombies Win

Zombie hands going after brain.

Use your brain and be prepared for anything. (Credit: Beth Jusino, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License)

If you watch any movies or T.V. shows about surviving zombie apocalypse, you can actually pick up some handy preparedness tips. Although pre-made zombie survival kits are amusing, most of them have in common the kind of life-saving ideas that will work in any emergency situation:

  • Water: Having three gallons per person per day is critical. Water is not only used for drinking—we use it for cooking and cleaning too. But consider including alcohol-based hand gels or wipes to ration water use and avoid getting sick.
  • Food: Keep on hand at least two weeks’ worth of nonperishable food; the type that doesn’t require cooking or refrigeration is best. And don’t forget about food and water for pets and service animals!
  • First Aid Supplies: Commercial kits are available at most drug stores. It’s a good idea to have a kit at home and one in your car. Be sure to replenish items you use and be mindful of expiration dates.
  • Gas: It’s typically a good idea to keep at least a half tank of gas in your car at all times. If you know a hurricane or other threatening event is coming, be sure to fill up early.

Be Prepared for Hazards of All Kinds

Being ready for disasters is something we take very seriously at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. Which is why we’ve taken this advice to heart and made sure our own facility in Mobile, Ala., is ready to withstand a hurricane, tornado, or even zombie apocalypse. Just peek into our restrooms, where we have:

  • Multiple 25-person survival kits, which include items such as safety goggles, pry bar (especially handy for zombie defense!), multifunction tools, first aid supplies, flashlights, and emergency water pouches.
  • Backup generators that will automatically switch on if the primary power fails (zombie attacks usually result in power loss).
  • Internet hookups, which are being fed into the building from two different directions in case zombies or stormy weather damage or sever one of the cables.

Of course, both your family and your employer should customize the steps you take and supplies you stock based on your particular needs and situation.

Sweat the Small Stuff

We all know it’s important to make an emergency plan and keep an up-to-date list of important phone numbers. But sometimes we are so focused on gathering the big things that we forget about the small stuff.
If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you're ready for any emergency. emergency.cdc.gov
For instance, it is suggested that you stock canned food, but don’t forget to grab the “all-mighty” can opener. It’s also recommended to wear sturdy, close-toed shoes if you need to go outside. But it isn’t mentioned very often to keep a pair of spare socks in a tightly sealed bag. This will allow you to have at least one dry pair as a backup. Another tip is to keep a flashlight, radio, and other battery-powered items on hand—but make sure they all use the same size battery to avoid stocking multiple sizes.

Today, zombies provide a fun and creative way to teach about the importance of being prepared for anything. For a spooky story that kids and adults alike might enjoy, check out the CDC’s “Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic” short graphic novel, which is an entertaining and informative way to learn about preparing for an emergency, whether it’s a natural disaster or a very unnatural attack by zombies.

Happy Halloween (and watch out for the undead)!

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., where she is responsible for coordinating training events, producing external communications, and writing and editing. Katie has a background in emergency response and management. NOAA’s Disaster Response Center serves as a one-stop shop, streamlining the delivery of NOAA services that help the Gulf region prepare for and deal with disasters.


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Arctic-bound: Testing Oil Spill Response Technologies Aboard an Icebreaker

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. The following story shows one way NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is preparing for a potential oil spill emergency in the Arctic. To learn more about how you can be prepared for other types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zach Winters-Staszak.

Polar bear tracks crisscrossed by artic fox on sea ice, Barrow, Alaska.

Polar bear tracks crisscrossed by artic fox on sea ice, Barrow, Alaska. (NOAA/Zach Winters-Staszak)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “the Arctic”? For me, it’s the polar bear.

As a mapping specialist for OR&R’s Arctic ERMA project, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Arctic communities of Barrow, Wainwright, and Kotzebue, Alaska. On those trips, I’ve been lucky enough to witness a snowy owl (Barrow’s namesake), arctic hare, and caribou. Once, I even hired a local expert to take me on an “Arctic safari” to see a polar bear; the tracks we found were less than 12 hours old, but the polar bear itself continues to elude me.

On my upcoming trip to the Arctic, however, my chances are greatly improved; this time I’m headed out to sea.

An Arctic Expedition

This week, I’m returning to Barrow to join the U.S. Coast Guard and a team of scientists for two weeks aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy where we’ll take part in Arctic Shield 2013. Once we are aboard the icebreaker, the team will travel to the edge of the sea ice and begin a drill scenario to test oil spill response technologies in the remote and challenging environment of the Arctic Ocean.

The technologies being tested range from unmanned aircraft systems gathering data from above to remotely operated vehicles searching under the ice to skimmers that are designed to collect oil on the ocean’s surface. The purpose of this hands-on drill is to gain a better understanding of the challenges involved in responding to a theoretical Arctic oil spill at sea and then define the advantages and any constraints of existing technologies to improve our ability to respond to an actual spill.

Connecting the Dots of Data

As the seasonal extent of Arctic sea ice continues to contract and thin, energy exploration and transportation activities will likely continue to increase in the region, escalating the risk of oil spills and accidents. In anticipation, NOAA and interagency partners are actively preparing for these possible emergencies, and Arctic Shield is a great example of this.

This view of the online mapping program Arctic ERMA shows the approximate path of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy from Barrow, Alaska, to the edge of the sea ice, indicated on the map in yellow. Red shows higher concentrations of sea ice.

This view of the online mapping program Arctic ERMA shows the approximate path of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy from Barrow, Alaska, to the edge of the sea ice, indicated on the map in yellow. Red shows higher concentrations of sea ice. (NOAA)

My role will be to connect the various streams of data the science teams will be collecting and incorporate them into a new version of ERMA, our online mapping tool for environmental response. This latest “stand-alone” version of the tool functions like previous versions of ERMA, except it doesn’t need an internet connection. It is common for communities in the Arctic region and for many coastal areas of Alaska to have spotty internet coverage, if coverage is available at all. Stand-alone ERMA is able to map and organize information in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision-makers when internet connectivity is unreliable.

As you read this post, I’ll be on a plane traveling north. I expect the first week on the ship will be packed full of activity, but I hope the following week will allow me to write more about my experiences during the cruise. If there is enough internet bandwidth, I’ll be posting developments from the Healy. I hope to include information about the technologies being tested, life on the ship, and photos of wildlife. And if I haven’t jinxed myself by now, maybe one of those photos will include a polar bear.

Zach Winters-StaszakZach Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with OR&R’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.


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How to Survive an Upside-Down Helicopter Crash in the Ocean? Practice

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Nir Barnea, Marine Debris Regional Coordinator and Safety Officer, and LTJG Alice Drury, Scientific Support Coordinator.

Oil spill response staff, under the exceptional guidance of U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers, practiced their ocean survival skills in a life raft and simulated helicopter chair in a pool at Seattle University.

Oil spill response staff, under the exceptional guidance of U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers, practiced their ocean survival skills in a life raft and simulated helicopter chair in a pool at Seattle University. (NOAA)

“To the count of three, we roll you over. Ready? One, two, and—roll!”

This is what 32 NOAA emergency response staff heard when they went through what has become an integral part of their safety training since 1999: The practice of safely exiting an upside-down, underwater helicopter using emergency Survival Egress Air (SEA) bottle systems. SEA bottles are like small, portable SCUBA bottles that fit into a Personal Flotation Device vest.

Because many Office of Response and Restoration staff participate in helicopter overflights during oil spill responses, this is important training to have in case an emergency occurred while flying over the ocean.

We worked with four rescue swimmers from the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles and in close collaboration with Seattle University staff to carry out this training in a racing pool at the university. They used a frame-encased floating chair, which simulated a helicopter seat. Everyone sat in the floating framed seat, put on a helmet (safety first!), buckled up, and when the chair rolled upside-down into the water, we had to unbuckle the five-point seat belt and exit the “helicopter” while using emergency air in the SEA.

U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers rolled each person under water while strapped into the simulated helicopter chair. While under water, individuals had to engage the air supply, unbuckle, and kick out the "window" of the helicopter to escape.

U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers rolled each person under water while strapped into the simulated helicopter chair. While under water, individuals had to engage the air supply, unbuckle, and kick out the “window” of the helicopter to escape. (NOAA)

Sounds like fun? It was to some, though less so to others, but everyone passed the training, got an adrenaline rush, and had an opportunity to become more familiar with the equipment that could save their lives.

The exceptionally professional team of Coast Guard rescue swimmers also coupled the helicopter exit training with offshore survival skills, which include getting into a life raft and a refresher on the use of various types of other survival equipment.

Just a day before, we learned about open water survival and helicopter egress (exit) training from the Coast Guard to prepare us for the “dip” in the pool. They hit on several key points for surviving a helicopter water crash and included personal stories that taught important survival lessons. Specifically, the Coast Guard covered the “Seven Steps to Survival”:

  • Recognition: Recognize that a bad situation is unfolding and that you are in trouble. Do something about it!
  • Inventory: Decide what to do next, and what you have with you that will help you survive.
  • Shelter: Protect your body and get out of the water as much as you can. Your clothing choice is your first key to shelter.
  • Signal: Make yourself visible to rescuers.
  • Water: Keep yourself hydrated.
  • Food: If you have water, keep yourself sustained with food.
  • Play: Stay busy and keep your mind occupied. Continue working toward getting saved.

Having the right equipment is key to survival, but it isn’t much good if you don’t know how to use it properly. In addition to the action-packed pool training, we familiarized ourselves with the SEA air bottles and the MOLLE (a modular, adjustable vest used to hold the SEA) thanks to the help of Aerial Machine and Tool Company representative Butch Flythe. Butch is a retired Coast Guard Chief, expert on survival equipment, and also was part of the very first group of Coast Guard rescue swimmers when the program launched in 1985.

Buckling up when we drive, practicing evacuation from a building, and training safe exit from a downed helicopter are all safety measures we take hoping that we will never need to use them but knowing that if practiced, they could someday save our lives.

[Editor's note: You can learn about how real-time ocean data from NOAA is aiding Coast Guard search and rescue operations in the video podcast below.]


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Why Are Tropical Storms and Hurricanes Named?

This is a post by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Katie Krushinski.

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season's first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and up the East Coast. (NASA)

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season’s first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and heading up the East Coast. (NASA)

Have you ever wondered why storms are named? Up until the early 1950s, tropical storms and hurricanes were tracked by year and the order in which each one occurred during that year.

In time, it was recognized that people remembered shorter names more easily. In 1953, a new approach was taken and storms were named in alphabetical order by female name. The process of naming storms helps differentiate between multiple storms that may be active at the same time.

By 1978, both male and female names were being used to identify Northern Pacific storms. This was adopted in 1979 for the Atlantic storms and is what we use today.

The World Meteorological Organization came up with the lists of names, male and female, which are used on a six-year rotation. In the event a hurricane causes a large amount of damage or numerous deaths, that name will be retired. Since the 1950s, when it became normal to name storms, there have been 77 names retired, including Fran (1996), Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), and Sandy (2012).

To find out this year’s storm names and for a complete list of retired names, visit the National Weather Service’s website. And if you haven’t started your own severe-weather preparations, don’t delay; the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season (predicted to be more active than usual) has already begun.

The Gulf of Mexico region, in particular, experiences frequent natural and human-caused disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and oil spills.

NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center aims to reduce the resulting impacts by helping to prepare federal, state, and local decision makers for a variety of threats, creating more adaptive and resilient coastal communities. Learn more about this valuable resource and center of NOAA expertise on the Gulf Coast.

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., where she is responsible for coordinating training events, producing external communications, and writing and editing. Katie has a background in emergency response and management. NOAA’s Disaster Response Center serves as a one-stop shop, streamlining the delivery of NOAA services that help the Gulf region prepare for and deal with disasters.


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For Accidents of Chemistry, a NOAA Tool to Help Predict and Prevent Disaster

This is a post by Vicki Loe with OR&R chemist Jim Farr.

On April 10, 1995, at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. in Savannah, Ga., a chemical tank storing turpentine exploded, triggering a scenario similar to our hypothetical example. The facility stored hundreds of thousands of chemicals in tanks. The explosion resulted in widespread public evacuations and extensive damage. Here, black smoke rises from the fire.

On April 10, 1995, at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. in Savannah, Ga., a chemical tank storing turpentine exploded, triggering a scenario similar to our hypothetical example. The facility stored hundreds of thousands of chemicals in tanks. The explosion resulted in widespread public evacuations and extensive damage. Here, black smoke rises from the fire. (NOAA)

Imagine you’re a chemical engineer in charge of safety at a chemical storage facility supporting the pulp and paper industry. You’re having a normal day when—suddenly—there has been an explosion. It has affected three of the large tanks on the property.

One tank, containing sodium hydrosulfide (NaHS), is damaged and leaking. Sodium hydrosulfide is a chemical used to break down cellulose, the fibrous ingredient in plant cell walls, into pulp, making it a key chemical in the paper industry.

The tank next to it, also damaged by the explosion and now leaking, holds a tank-cleaning solution that contained the corrosive chemical hydrochloric acid (HCl). The third tank, the one that caught on fire and caused the explosion, contained a petroleum distillate material. It damaged the first two tanks, causing their contents to drain into a common area and resulting in a combination of sodium hydrosulfide and hydrochloric acid.

The Chemical Reactivity Worksheet

How would you communicate this scenario—and its potential dangers—to the emergency responders who are on their way to the scene? During chemical accidents, there are frequently many unknowns: What was released? Did it mix with anything? What might happen?

Responders at the 1995 incident caused by a turpentine tank explosion at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. storage facility in Savannah, Georgia.

Responders at the 1995 incident caused by a turpentine tank explosion at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. storage facility in Savannah, Ga. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Chemical Reactivity Worksheet is a free software program you can use to find out about the chemical reactivity of thousands of common hazardous chemicals and predict the hazards associated with mixing two materials together. (Reactivity is the tendency of substances to undergo chemical change, which can result in hazards—such as heat generation or toxic gas byproducts.)

By consulting the Chemical Reactivity Worksheet, you, the safety officer, would quickly learn that when sodium hydrosulfide and hydrochloric acid combine, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas could result. That gas is both toxic and highly flammable—possibly creating a very dangerous situation. To protect public safety, the affected area would require immediate evacuation.

Updating Software for Chemical Safety

A new version of the Chemical Reactivity Worksheet (version 3.0) has just been released and is available for download from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration website: http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/reactivityworksheet. The latest version is a combination of the latest reactivity information and expert knowledge from NOAA and Dow Chemical.

The free software predicts potential hazards from mixing chemicals and is designed for use by safety planners and the chemical industry.  It is a tool that is intended to help to prevent accidents at chemical facilities and, once an accident occurs, to give valuable information about the possible hazards associated.

The work was done as part of NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s joint development of the CAMEO software suite, which provides valuable emergency response and planning tools for releases of hazardous materials. The Center for Chemical Process Safety also contributed to the project.


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NOAA, Dow Chemical Collaborate on Update to Federal Chemical Safety Software Tool

A train derailment in Paulsboro, N.J. in November 2012 released 23,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride gas. (NOAA)

A train derailment in Paulsboro, N.J. in November 2012 released 23,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride gas. (NOAA)

NOAA has partnered with chemical industry experts from the Dow Chemical Company to release a significant update to a free software program used to prevent dangerous chemical incidents and help protect emergency workers responding to hazardous chemical spills.

The software, known as the Chemical Reactivity Worksheet, predicts potential hazards from mixing chemicals. This newest version of the program is the result of a two-year-long collaboration between NOAA chemical response specialists, technical experts at Dow, and partners at the Center for Chemical Process Safety.

“This is an innovative collaboration between industry and government scientists to produce a valuable tool that addresses reactive chemical hazards,” said Jim Farr, NOAA chemist and project coordinator. “We hope this effort paves the way for other projects that enhance our understanding of chemical hazards and leads to a safer work environment for those people in the chemical industry and those that respond to chemical incidents.”

“We’ve greatly appreciated the opportunity to partner with NOAA on this and see this as a win-win for everyone,” said Dave Gorman, Dow chemist and project leader. “This collaboration has allowed us to merge a number of best practices and tools used within Dow with the very powerful Chemical Reactivity Worksheet tool. The result is a much more powerful and versatile tool that we hope will become the gold standard within industry for determining chemical compatibility.”

The Chemical Reactivity Worksheet provides information about 5,200 chemicals, each assigned to one or more “reactive groups” of chemicals which may react in a characteristic and potentially hazardous way if they come in contact with certain substances. The user creates a virtual mixture of chemicals—which could include the chemicals involved in a hazardous incident or stored in a laboratory, warehouse, or transport vehicle. Then the program predicts the possible hazards, including fire or explosion, from mixing all possible pairs of those chemicals.

Screen shot from Chemical Reactivity Worksheet showing the color-coded reactivity predictions and hazard statements for the predicted reactions.

The Chemical Reactivity Worksheet shows the predicted hazards of mixing the chemicals in a mixture in an easy-to-use graphical interface. In this view, the reactivity predictions are color coded, and the cells on the chart can be clicked to find more information about specific predicted reactions. General hazard statements, predicted gas products, and literature documentation for the selected pair of chemicals are shown at the bottom of the chart.

This latest release of the software increases the number of reactive groups, allowing for more refined predictions of potential chemical reactions, and expands the description of reactive chemicals. The program now includes an alert for possible gases released from a chemical mixture, as well as information on the compatibility of common absorbents used in response to spills of hazardous chemicals.

In addition, managers of chemical facilities and university chemistry departments now can add chemicals unique to their facilities, enabling them to further customize their evaluations of potential hazards. Other improvements include enhanced ease of use and functionality for the user, refined reactivity predictions, and updated chemical data.

The Chemical Reactivity Worksheet is available for download online at http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/reactivityworksheet.

The work was done as part of NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s joint development of the CAMEO software suite, which provides valuable emergency response and planning tools for releases of hazardous materials. The Center for Chemical Process Safety also contributed to the project.  The team’s work was reviewed by other chemists in industry and at Argonne National Laboratory.

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