NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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

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

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

The fishing vessel Nor'Quest

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

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

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

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

Nushagak River, draining into Bristol Bay, Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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