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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Oil Spills and the Holidays, Act II: Black Friday Takes a New Meaning

In the last post, Doug Helton talked about the M/V Kuroshima spill in Alaska. The next Thanksgiving story comes to us from Ed Levine, the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for Connecticut to Delaware.

After a wonderful family Thanksgiving seven years ago, what we in the response business refer to as the “Usual Notification”—a call in the middle of the night during a long holiday weekend—came true. At 9:30 p.m. on November 26, 2004, the (Black) Friday after Thanksgiving, the tanker Athos I was damaged while docking at the CITGO refinery on the Delaware River and began spilling its cargo of Venezuelan crude oil. By 2:00 a.m., I was requested to go on-scene and support the Coast Guard’s response in Philadelphia.

My sons and wife were used to this scrambling to pack and run out the door. Little did we know how complicated this response would be and how long it would last!

When I arrived, prior to first light, many details were still unknown or just unfolding. We knew the ship was leaking oil, it was leaning to one side, but it was secure at anchor. At that time we didn’t know how much oil was leaking, where it was going, how far it would spread, the cause of the damage, the environmental and economic impacts it would have, or the duration of the clean up.

Athos I

Tanker Athos I anchored in the Delaware River. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

At daylight, the first helicopter surveys found some oil along the Pennsylvania shoreline, but the first reports were not too alarming. But I knew it was important to get some calibrated eyes on the spill, someone with experience spotting oil from the air. It’s not as easy as it sounds to conduct an aerial survey.

After a few hours in the command post, I had a chance to fly.

During my overflight (aerial survey), it was clear that the ship was still leaking. I observed oil many miles up river and in larger concentrations than previously reported. Upon returning to the command post, I told the Captain of the Port, “we need a bigger boat!” This was a major oil spill, and we were going to be here a long time cleaning it up.

Little did I know how right I was.

Oiled Diver

Commercial diver covered in oil after a bottom survey. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

The ship’s crew was eventually able to transfer cargo around the tanks to stop the outflow of oil, but over 240,000 gallons of heavy crude oil were released from the ship. The cleanup took a full year until all the shorelines were signed off as clean. A nuclear power plant even shut down for over a week. Vessel traffic into the port stopped for eight days until the mysterious object that the vessel struck could be located. Hundreds of birds were oiled. Hundreds of miles of shoreline in three states had to be inspected and the oiled areas cleaned up.

Winter operations became brutal, the river eventually froze over and operations ceased for a couple months. In the early weeks of the response, a boat overturned with five people on board. Luckily for them a NOAA ship was nearby and able to rescue all of them.

Shoreline clean up

Shoreline clean up, Tinicum Island, Delaware River. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

The spilled oil was nearly neutrally buoyant in the brackish waters of the Delaware Estuary, meaning the oil was just as likely to sink as it was to float, complicating cleanup operations. Eventually, the shorelines were cleaned, and damages to natural resources were assessed and restored [leaves this blog].

Because of this accident, the response community has become more prepared and new legislation was passed (President Signs Oil Spill Legislation) [leaves this blog]. It was historic at the time, and I was glad I had given a little piece to the success of the response. It’s a thought that helps me be prepared for the next “Usual Notification” I will receive, whenever it comes.


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Oil Spills Don’t Take a Holiday

As we get ready for Thanksgiving, I am reminded of a couple oil spills that have occurred over that weekend in the past. Most of our work takes place each day from 9-5, but when a spill happens, we respond 24-7 regardless of holiday schedules.

On November 26, 1997, the day before Thanksgiving, the M/V Kuroshima, a 368-foot frozen seafood freighter, broke away from its anchorage during a severe storm. While the vessel was attempting to move to a safer anchorage, winds in excess of 100 knots blew the freighter into Second Priest Rock near the entrance of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, puncturing several of the vessel’s fuel tanks. The disabled vessel subsequently ran aground at Summer Bay, spilling about 39,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil.

M/V Kuroshima run aground.

M/V Kuroshima run aground in Summer Bay, Alaska. Credit: Jim Severns, Dutch Harbor, with permission.

Fans of “The Deadliest Catch” know these waters—and their dangers—well. The fishing vessels pass this point on their way to and from the Bering Sea fishing grounds. And this incident lived up to that deadly reputation. Two of the ship’s crew were killed during the grounding.

I flew up to Dutch Harbor to help with the response. Late fall in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands is not the best flying weather, and the airport is challenging even during good weather. The airport’s runway is bordered on one side by a drop off into the ocean and the side of a hill on the other. Both ends drop off into open water, with mountains guarding the approach. Winds buffeted the plane, and I remember the airplane taking a couple shaky passes at the runway—one of the shortest commercial runways in North America—before landing.  You can get a sense of what it is like to land there from this video [leaves this blog].

After that flight I vowed to increase my life insurance.

Dutch Harbor runway.

Final approach to Dutch Harbor, Alaska (on a calm day). Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

Bitter cold and high winds also hampered the cleanup and salvage of the ship and its spilled contents. It took four months to refloat the vessel, and cleanup lasted for over a year.

Shoreline cleanup in Summer Bay Lake, Alaska.

Shoreline cleanup along Summer Bay Lake, Alaska, December 1997, following M/V Kuroshima oil spill. Credit: Ruth Yender, NOAA.

The damage assessment and restoration effort for the spill took several years. The final restoration plan [PDF], prepared by the state and federal natural resource trustees in consultation with the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, addressed five areas of impacts: birds, vegetation, intertidal shellfish, salmon, and recreation. A settlement was reached in 2002 for natural resource damages, totaling approximately $650,000.

The recreational projects prompted some interesting challenges and solutions. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, claims can be made for the lost use of natural resources; in this case, the spill affected the prime recreational beach for the city of Unalaska. As compensation for the lost recreational opportunities during the spill, one project funded a summer outdoor recreation camp for the Qawalangin Tribe. While there, the students learned traditional subsistence harvesting techniques for shellfish and participated in other cultural and environmental activities with Unangan elders. We also arranged for further chemical analysis of the shellfish tissues and educated the community on the safety of the local seafoods.

While the spill response and restoration was successful, the story of the ship doesn’t end well. After the M/V Kuroshima was refloated, it was repaired, sold to a Latvian company and renamed the M/V Linkuva. On June 20, 2000, the ship and 18 crewmembers were lost in Hurricane Carlotta off Acapulco, Mexico.


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Remembering the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

S/S Edmund Fitzgerald.

The S/S Edmund Fitzgerald. Credit: NOAA.

Today, November 10, is the anniversary of the wreck of the S/S Edmund Fitzgerald, the largest shipwreck in the Great Lakes. The ship and entire crew of 29 men were lost in a storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. I remember listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 hit song about the wreck, and it still catches my attention when I hear it playing.

The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a ship measuring 729 feet long and 26,000 tons, is one of the most well-known disasters in the history of Great Lakes shipping. The ship’s remains lie just over the border in Canadian waters at a depth of 530 feet.

Over the years many ships have sunk in the Great Lakes, and the region is home to a number of maritime museums. NOAA’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron helps preserve and protect the maritime history of the lakes and is home to dozens of shipwrecks, some of which you can now explore online in 3-D.

My connection to the Edmund Fitzgerald comes from my work on historic ships that may still pose a threat of oil pollution. The ship was designed to carry taconite (iron ore) pellets, but it carried fuel oil for its engines.

Based on the condition and damage of the ship’s hull and the large heaps of taconite around the wreckage, it is unlikely to contain much oil, but we have the ship in our database of potentially polluting wrecks.

The Edmund Fitzgerald is a reminder that our maritime history is not limited to the marine waters. The Great Lakes are very much a coastline (and shipping hub) of the United States, and just like along our saltwater shorelines, NOAA is active in charting, weather, research, and coastal management there as well.