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.


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.


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.


Shipwrecks and Rats No Match for the “Galapagos of the North”

This is a post by Jennifer Boyce of the NOAA Restoration Center.

Ancient Murrelet

An Ancient Murrelet adult and chick. Credit: Jake Pattison, Laskeek Bay Conservation Society.

On the remote, windswept islands of British Columbia, Canada, a unique species of seabird, the Ancient Murrelet, nests in burrows among tree roots, logs, and rock crevices set in the breathtaking Haida Gwaii region. Unfortunately for this threatened relative of the puffin, however, mysterious oil spills in California were coating and killing the murrelet and thousands of other seabirds from at least the 1990s through 2002.

This devastation to the rare murrelet, which migrates south to California in the winter, and to other threatened and endangered species such as sea otters and snowy plovers went on for years. Finally in 2002, U.S. federal and state officials identified the sunken oil tanker Jacob Luckenbach (wrecked in 1953) as the culprit and the source of several mystery oil spills cropping up during winter storms off the coast of California.

The owners of the vessel no longer exist, but the U.S. government created the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, managed by the U.S. Coast Guard, to provide cleanup operations and support for restoration projects resulting from these kinds of oil spills. The same year, the Coast Guard used the Trust Fund to remove oil from the Luckenbach and seal it from future leaks.

To make up for the damage to wildlife from the oil, a trustee council that includes NOAA summarized the injuries to natural resources and, as a result of the assessment, received $22.7 million toward restoration projects for the impacted seabirds and otters. The money came from the National Pollution Fund Center.

As a result, an innovative partnership has sprung up between nonprofits, governments, state and federal agencies, and foundations to restore critical breeding habitat—located in Canada’s Haida Gwaii region—for colonies of the Ancient Murrelet. However, that offers its own challenges.

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site are home to many of the Haida Gwaii region’s 1.5 million nesting seabirds. A marine archipelago, the region is renowned for its rugged coastline, temperate rainforests, and distinct flora and fauna, which evolved through 14,000 years of isolation from the mainland. It is so disproportionately rich in rare and unique species that it is often referred to as the “Galapagos of the North.”

The Bischof Islands in Gwaii Haanas

The Bischof Islands, part of Gwaii Haanas National Park, looking south to Juan Perez Sound in British Columbia, Canada. Credit: Andrew S. Wright.

Yet Gwaii Haanas’s biodiversity is threatened by a range of biological, climate, and human-induced impacts. One of the most significant is from introduced species. Rats, first introduced to Haida Gwaii via maritime shipping in the late 1700s, have been found on at least 18 islands throughout the archipelago.

Because island systems have been isolated for long periods of time, they are especially vulnerable to the impacts of introduced species because native island species often lack the evolutionary defenses to deal with the newcomers. Rats have devastating effects on populations of nesting seabirds, forest songbirds, and native small mammals. Recent research shows that rats can also affect invertebrate populations, and as a consequence, unleash a cascade of far-reaching effects in ecosystems, such as changes to soil fertility and plant composition. With funds from the Luckenbach settlement and Parks Canada and the Haida Nation, a partnership has been created to eradicate rats on the islands in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site in the hopes of restoring seabird populations.

In September of this year, I was fortunate enough to visit this stunningly beautiful and culturally rich region to witness the restoration project as the NOAA representative on the Luckenbach Trustee Council. Traveling with Parks Canada, Island Conservation, and Coastal Conservation (the latter two are the non-profits implementing the on-ground efforts), we were able to visit the islands kicking off the rat eradication project.

Strategically placed bait stations have been situated throughout each island and armed with the pesticide brodifacoum. Infrared cameras capture any nocturnal visitors to the stations and ensure that only rats can access the bait. Initial signs are positive. These bait stations will be monitored for the next two years to confirm that all rats have been removed before the islands can be declared officially rat-free.

In addition, scientists will use automated acoustic listening devices to measure seabird populations on affected islands, studying the frequency and distribution of seabird calls and determining what bird species are present. Hopefully in the years to come, these devices will record both the return of the Ancient Murrelet to its historic numbers—and the sound of success.

Jennifer Boyce

Jennifer Boyce in Gwaii Haanas, Canada.

Jennifer Boyce works for the NOAA Restoration Center, based in Long Beach, California. Jennifer serves as the NOAA trustee on several oil spill restoration Trustee Councils throughout California and is the Program Manager for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

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Five Coming Innovations in Arctic Science

Arctic sea ice.

On July 12, 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard retrieved supplies for NASA's ICESCAPE mission, a two-year shipborne investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems. The bulk of the research takes place in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in summer 2010 and 2011. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen.

Scientific tools have come a long way from the simple, leather-bound journals 18th century naturalists were toting on expeditions into uncharted lands. But hundreds of years later, we are still asking many of the same questions about the natural world: what’s out there and how does it work?

A handful of adventurous researchers have been probing the northern frontiers of the Arctic Circle for decades, and last week, I was fortunate enough listen in as they offered their knowledge of this region to the experts at NOAA who specialize in marine oil spill preparedness and response. NOAA hosted the University of Alaska Fairbanks for an Arctic Oil Spill Science Workshop, setting to tackle the scariest natural disaster the Arctic could face in the coming century (outside of climate change, and in a way because of it).

Take a look at some of the coolest innovations in Arctic science that may one day help us deal with oil spills:

1. The High-Flying Robo-Naturalist

In the inhospitable high Arctic, University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers hope to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) strapped with sensors to assess where marine mammals are, how sea ice moves, and potentially where oil is in the event of a spill. Space for sensors on these small aircraft is in high demand, so which sensors are the most important?  Ultraviolet (UV) sensors can spot a polar bear but not a seal. Thermal imaging can identify a walrus, but due to its thick blubber insulation, it can’t find a whale.

2. Oil-Sniffing Underwater Watchdogs

There are many potential causes of an oil or chemical spill in the Arctic, but only a few are likely to occur at specific locations where we can set up monitoring systems for early detection. Scientists from the University of Alaska are interested in using autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to patrol oil and gas infrastructure (pipelines, drilling rigs), sniffing the water for signs of oil to detect tiny leaks that pressure sensors within pipelines might not catch.

3. Canary in the Coal Mine, Meet Crab at the Drill Site

A new twist on using canaries to warn coal miners of environmental dangers, the next iteration of this concept is using critters to alert us of oil in Arctic marine environments. Scientists at the international energy company StatOil have used the closing of mussels to signal the presence of oil [leaves this blog] in the undersea environment, so the concept holds some promise. At last week’s Arctic science workshop, NOAA and University of Alaska Fairbanks biologists discussed the options for developing a similar mechanism in the Arctic using animals friendly to cooler climes, like cold-water crabs or fishes.

4. Get Yourself Some Seep

Unlike other countries, the U.S. does not permit anyone to spill oil in the ocean—even for research purposes—so oil spill responders must rely on natural oil seeps to test their tools and skills. The best test bed in the U.S. is located just off the shores of Santa Barbara, Calif., but responding to an oil spill in the Sunshine State bears little resemblance to what responders could face in the Arctic Ocean. As a result, University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers hope to review data logs and speak with residents of Alaska’s North Slope to determine if and where there might be a natural seep to test oil spill response techniques in the U.S. Arctic.

5. More Ice, More Problems

One of the most daunting challenges facing NOAA’s oil spill modelers is determining where oil will move when placed in, under, and between chunks of ice. University of Alaska Fairbanks and NOAA researchers discussed the possibility of combining the forces of both aerial and underwater unmanned vehicles to simultaneously map the structure of sea ice from above and below. This has never been done, but it could shed considerable light on the 3-D shape and movement of sea ice.

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Solving the Oily Mystery of the Wrecked S/S Montebello

This is a post by Jordan Stout, the Office of Response and Restoration’s Scientific Support Coordinator based in Alameda, Calif.

Underwater image of the Montebello wreck.

An underwater photo of fishing net draping the wreck of the S/S Montebello, taken by the remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Credit: NOAA/Robert Schwemmer.

In a refreshing change for those of us who deal with oil spills, the mystery of the S/S Montebello, a U.S. oil tanker sunk only two weeks after Pearl Harbor, has finally been solved and it’s good news: There is no sign of the more than 3 million gallons of crude oil on board the ship when it went down nearly 70 years ago.

Given the data discovered and records available, a long-term model says it’s likely that most of the oil remained offshore and headed south, while some would have evaporated within the first few days. The remainder may have washed ashore but may have been so widely scattered it went unnoticed. We will probably never know exactly what happened to the oil.

Submersible dives indicated the Japanese torpedo that sunk the Montebello missed the cargo tanks where the oil was held. Originally, some people speculated that the oil might have leaked out the vent pipes. Others thought the oil had solidified in the cold bottom waters off the coast of San Pedro, Calif., and was still inside the ship.

But with limited information, the best we could do was make educated guesses about how and when an oil spill might occur from this ship. What we really needed was to look inside the tanks for oil and, if we found any, assess the wreck’s overall condition. Even with the cargo tanks in relatively good condition, the Montebello was degrading over time, and any oil still on board could pose a threat of an uncontrolled oil release, which can be an expensive, difficult, and potentially hazardous endeavor.

In recent years, there has been a growing concern about potential pollution from the thousands of shipwrecks in U.S. waters. A number of wrecks in the Pacific Basin have undergone some kind of focused assessment and oil removal, which helped us with these operations.

The S/S Montebello was different, however, because it was not actively leaking oil at the time, and the assessment would be performed entirely by remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). In addition, we used some innovative and very specialized technologies, including:

  • ultrasonic thickness gauges (to figure out how thick the ship’s hull is).
  • neutron backscatter detectors (to determine the likelihood of oil being in the tanks, without damaging them).
  • a specialized ROV-mounted drill bit that drilled a small hole in the ship, grabbed an oil sample, and then sealed the hole when the tool was extracted (a tool specially built for this project).

Carefully and methodically applying these tools gave us convincing answers while limiting the number of holes created in the ship.

Of course, the more we looked for oil in the S/S Montebello, the less we found. And, in truth, I found that to be a bit anti-climactic. Even so, a long-standing mystery has finally been solved, and I’m proud of our efforts.

Jordan Stout

Jordan Stout.

Jordan Stout currently serves as the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator in California where he provides scientific and technical support to the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency in preparing for and responding to oil spills and hazardous material releases.  He has been involved in supporting many significant incidents and responses in California and throughout the nation and was on-scene for the S/S Montebello assessment operation.