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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In Some Situations, Ships Dump Oil on Purpose

Oil on water.

Port Sulphur, La. (Nov. 29)–An aerial view of a section of the Mississippi River containing a dense amount of the Nigerian ‘sweet’ crude oil spilled by the M/V Westchester Nov. 28, 2000. USCG photo by PA1 Jeff Hall

 

We generally think of oil being accidentally spilled, but there are situations when oil might be intentionally spilled.

Historically, ships at sea have sometimes intentionally dumped some of their cargo to save the ship and perhaps prevent a complete loss. However, this is a thorny area of maritime and environmental law, made even more complex by the engineering stresses on a foundering vessel and the political dynamics underlying a decision to intentionally dump oil.

On March 18, 1973, the tanker Zoe Colocotronis ran aground on a reef 3.5 miles off the southwest coast of Puerto Rico. The master unilaterally ordered cargo from the forward tank jettisoned to help get the vessel off the reef, and 1.5 million gallons of crude oil were intentionally released. The tanker was refloated with the remaining 6.3 million-gallon cargo, but the captain was later convicted for multiple violations.

When the Argo Merchant ran aground on Nantucket Shoals in 1976, jettisoning was suggested but rejected. The vessel eventually broke apart and the entire cargo was lost. In 1996, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences developed a lengthy report, “Purposeful Jettison of Petroleum Cargo,” to clarify when such a drastic measure might be the best way to prevent a larger spill.

Aircraft in distress may also sometimes intentionally jettison fuel to reduce landing weight. Even though the dumped fuel is thought to vaporize rapidly, this technique is rare, in part because of environmental concerns.

Dumping oil at sea hasn’t always been prohibited. In fact, steamships and lifeboats were required to carry equipment to slowly release oil (generally vegetable or fish oil) at sea during storms. The lifeboats carried by the Titanic fell under British Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 that required carriage of “oil for use in stormy weather.”

The USCG regulations also used to require that lifeboats be equipped with storm oil. What? How does spilling oil help you in a lifeboat?

One of the behaviors that makes oil hard to clean up — its ability to spread rapidly into thin layers — has the effect of reducing the wave height and breaking waves. This is also why spilled oil becomes a “slick”. Oil spilled on the water absorbs energy and dampens out the surface waves making the oil appear smoother or “slicker” than the surrounding water.

Drawing of a cone-shaped container with labels.

A commercial ship’s lifeboat sea anchor. From the U.S. Coast Guard Manual for Lifeboatmen, Able Seamen, and Qualified Members of the Engine Department. “Oil, storm. One gallon of vegetable, fish, or animal oil must be provided in a suitable metal container so constructed as to permit a controlled distribution of oil on the water, and so arranged that it can be attached to the sea anchor.”

This phenomenon has been studied for a long time. The U.S. Navy produced several reports on the topic back in the 1880s, but my favorite is the research conducted by Benjamin Franklin. Everyone knows about his famous kite flying during an electrical storm, but in the 1760s, he also did some intentional oil spill experiments. On a sea voyage to Europe he noted that the greasy discharge from a nearby ship’s galley had smoothed the water, and later did studies on lakes to test his theories (these lakes were in England, not his home state of Pennsylvania). His letters were later summarized in a journal report on the “stilling of waves.” Franklin reported that “not more than a tea spoonful produced an instant calm, over a space several yards square, which spread amazingly, and extended itself gradually till it reached the lee side, making all that quarter of the pond, perhaps half an acre, as smooth as a looking glass.”

U.S and international regulations no longer require equipping life boats with storm oil. The requirement was removed in 1983, the same year the United States Coast Guard replaced open lifeboats with the requirement to carry fully and partially enclosed lifeboats.

Photo with old type from a 1774 document.

 


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Understanding How Oil Reacts on Water: A Simple Experiment

Rainbow sheen.

Rainbow sheen, such as the one shown here from a different incident in the Gulf of Mexico, has been spotted near the leaking natural gas well off the Louisiana coast. (NOAA)

Have you ever seen a rainwater puddle on a street and wondered why it seemed to have a rainbow floating on top? That rainbow effect is caused when oil on the street floats to the top of the puddle.

Understanding how oil and water react together is an essential part of the science of cleaning up oil spills. One of the goals of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) is to share our scientific expertise and experience. Fostering scientific understanding of oil spills helps everyone prevent and prepare for marine pollution.

Here is a simple experiment for elementary-aged children that can be done with common household items to understand how oil reacts in water.

OR&R has more experiments and activities for elementary school students and life-long learners on our education page.


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Sticky Black Gobs on the Beach: The Science of Tarballs

People walking on beach with tarballs on sand.

Extensive tarballs are visible in the foreground and surf zone in this image from the Gulf Islands National Seashore, FL., shot on July 1, 2010. Credit NOAA.

Walking on the beach one of life’s great pleasures. The walking on the beach and ending up with sticky black balls attached to your feet is not so pleasurable.

Tarballs, those sticky black gobs, are often leftover from an oil spill. When crude oil (or a heavier refined product) hits the ocean’s surface it undergoes physical change. The change process is called “weathering.” As the wind and waves stretch and tear the oil patches into smaller pieces, tarballs are formed. Tarballs can be as flat and large as pancakes or as small as a dime. How long do tarballs remain sticky? Are tarballs hazardous to your health? How are tarballs removed from affected beaches? Those and other questions, including how to report new sightings of tarballs, can be found here.

Block glob of tar on sand.

Tarball found on Dauphin Island, AL. Credit NOAA.


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Hurricane Matthew Aerial Photos

Aerial photo of coastline with houses.

Edisto Beach, South Carolina before Hurricane Matthew.

Hurricane Matthew caused death and destruction from North Carolina to the Caribbean. From Oct. 7-10, 2016, the National Geodetic Survey collected aerial photos from more than 1,200 square miles of flooding and damage in the hurricane’s aftermath. The photos were taken in specific areas of the nation identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service. National Ocean Services has more information on how the photos were collected.

All the photos can be accessed online. The areas with imagery are shown as blocks on the map; zoom in to see the high-resolution aerial photos (which may take a few seconds to load).

For more coastal weather conditions NOAA’s nowCOAST web portal is a near-real-time, one-stop look at coastal conditions and includes storm surge flooding maps.


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For Better Chemical Safety, NOAA and EPA Work to Improve Data Sharing During Emergencies

Oil tank fire on platform

In March 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard worked with state and local partners to respond to an oil production platform fire in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana. (U.S. Coast Guard)

When a disaster occurs, it’s critical that the organizations involved in the response can communicate and share information quickly and effectively.

That means groups as diverse and numerous as emergency management, fire service, law enforcement, emergency medical, and responders from local, state, tribal, and federal governments all need to be on the same page. At NOAA, we’re working with our partners to help ensure that the information responders need flows quickly and accurately—when they need it.

An important part of being able to share data is establishing a common set of guidelines or rules for exchanging information. Having a data standard, for example, can enable neighboring districts and states to share key information with one another—even if they aren’t using the same system for storing their information.

The ability to pass information back and forth like that may seem basic, but imagine an emergency in which different response agencies can’t communicate with one another because their radios are incompatible (one of the problems that came to light in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001).

Chemical Reaction, Executive Decision

In the United States, organizations and businesses that produce or store specific hazardous chemicals above certain amounts are required to disclose information to local fire departments, local emergency planning committees, and state or tribal emergency response commissions to help those groups plan for and respond to chemical emergencies.

This process is mandated by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). Under EPCRA, those chemical sites must complete an annual “Tier II form,” where they share information about the chemicals on site (such as types, quantities, and locations), as well as other important details like contact information for their site’s emergency coordinator.

As a result of fatal chemical accidents in recent years, Executive Order (EO) 13650 (Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security) was implemented in August 2013. It called for improving operational coordination between federal, state, local, and tribal organizations; enhancing information collection and sharing; and modernizing regulations, policy, and standards.

Many of the items in the executive order are specifically related to facilitating the exchange of information to help emergency responders and planners. Among the changes that EO 13650 proposes is the creation of a national Tier II data standard so that information can be shared between systems (e.g., between neighboring states using different Tier II filing systems) to improve the exchange of Tier II information.

NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have recently developed and released version 1.0.0 of the national Tier II data standard, which will allow Tier II information to be shared by all programs that follow the standard. We chose a common platform, XML, for the new standard to make adoption of the standard as easy as possible.

Top Tier Software

NOAA and EPA also develop a Tier II management program called Tier2 Submit™, which allows chemical sites to complete Tier II forms electronically. The chemical sites can then submit those electronic Tier II submission files, according to the requirements of their state. About half of the states and territories in the U.S. use the Tier2 Submit program, which is available for download from the EPA website. Tier2 Submit files can also be imported directly into the CAMEOfm database program for emergency response and planning purposes.

When the new version of Tier2 Submit is released this fall, it will be able to import and export data in an XML format that adheres to the new national Tier II data standard. (Tier2 Submit will also continue to support import from the older file formats in this upcoming release.) While this is a significant change to the data file structure and an important improvement for exchanging data between programs, it will have minimal impact on the user experience and they will interact with Tier2 Submit much as they have in previous years. (The fall release of CAMEOfm will also allow Tier  II information to be imported via the new XML data standard, but the next CAMEOfm will not include any additional import or export XML support beyond that.)

A Suite of Updates for Safety

Besides the Tier II data standard, the joint NOAA-EPA CAMEO® team has implemented several other changes, prompted by the executive order, to the suite of chemical response and planning software. We have added the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) information in CAMEO Chemicals; added Spanish and French response guides from the 2016 Emergency Response Guidebook in CAMEO Chemicals; included the Navy’s RAILCAR model in ALOHA® as an alternative tank source strength model, and redesigned the MARPLOT® mapping program to allow users to incorporate geospatial data from many sources (and in many different file formats).

In addition, the CAMEO team is currently developing several apps for mobile phones and tablets.

The CAMEO software products have been valuable hazardous materials response and planning tools since the first products were introduced in 1986. The CAMEO suite consists of four core programs—ALOHA (models hazardous gas clouds), CAMEO Chemicals (a chemical database), CAMEOfm (a chemical emergency data management application), and MARPLOT (a mapping program)—as well as several related programs, such as Tier2 Submit. These applications can be used together or separately, but when used together, the programs interact seamlessly and information can be linked easily between them.

As a result of NOAA and EPA’s work to address Executive Order 13650 recommendations, emergency responders have improved access to information and an enhanced ability to share information with other organizations for chemical facility safety and security—improving safety for everyone when a disaster occurs.


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Small Oil Spill Prevention in the San Juan Islands

Man with spill prevention kit.

Seattle recreational boater Greg Mueller placing an absorbent oil spill prevention kit pillow in the engine bilge. (Lauren Drakopulos, Washington Sea Grant)

Guest post by MaryAnn Wagner of Washington Sea Grant.

For more than 20 years, small oil spills prevention has been a hallmark of Washington Sea Grant work, but this summer marked the first-ever organized effort to directly educate Washington State recreational boaters. Washington Sea Grant teamed up with Washington State Parks in an effort that spanned the summer months and culminated in a week on San Juan Island, with staff talking to hundreds of suntanned recreational boaters.

This summer’s outreach was part of a three-year campaign, supported by the Washington State Department of Ecology, to educate boaters as far north as Friday Harbor. The team set up a booth on Friday Harbor Marina dock, where they handed out free small oil spill kits and shared tips on how boaters can easily prevent spills with a few simple precautions.

While on the docks, staff asked passing boaters what the biggest environmental threat posed by boaters might be.

“The biggest threat is the boaters themselves,” said Fred Adams, a boater from Waldron Island, WA.

Washington State is responding to a national call for more education on small oil spill pollution and its prevention. Washington is one of only a few states that focus on educating recreational boaters.

“Small oils spills, whether a cup, a gallon or just a few drops, add up to a huge water quality problem; it is death by a thousand tiny cuts. Over time, it all adds up,” said Washington Sea Grant’s boating specialist, Aaron Barnett.

The free kits, designed by Barnett, consist of an absorbent pillow and pad that fit snuggly under most small-vessel bilges.

“I put the pad under the engine and just leave it there. That’s just what you have to do,” said Joe Cann of San Juan Island, WA

The team handed out more than 200 pads and pillows in just a few days at the marina.  Next year, Barnett and team are planning a more expanded effort that will take them back to the San Juan Islands for another round and will include boaters and marina owners along popular lakes in Eastern Washington.

To order kits contact Washington Sea Grant’s Aaron Barnett at aaronb5@uw.edu.

MaryAnn Wagner is Assistant Director for Communications with Washington Sea Grant. Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, provides statewide marine research, outreach and education services. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) U.S. Department of Commerce. Visit wsg.washington.edu for more information or join the conversation @WASeaGrant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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Preparing for Hurricanes

Houses, trees, and powerlines in a New Orleans neighborhood flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina flooded much of New Orleans, trapping many residents who did not evacuate. (NOAA)

Hurricane Matthew is the latest storm to wreak havoc on our nation’s shores. Being involved in disaster response, we at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration know what can go wrong when a hurricane hits the coast—after all, we’ve seen it firsthand:

Boats scattered in a marsh and onshore next to damaged buildings.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, thousands of boats were scattered along the shores and waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Dealing with these vessels and their resulting pollution can be a long and difficult process. (NOAA)

Clearly, a lot is at stake when a hurricane sweeps through an area, which is why preparing for hurricanes and other disasters is so important. We can’t stop these powerful storms, but we can prepare ourselves, our homes, and our coastal communities to lessen the impacts and bounce back more quickly after storms hit. NOAA’s National Weather Service has plenty of tips and guidelines for preparing to weather these storms.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also takes care to prepare for hurricanes and other disasters.

Sometimes that means building internet and phone access into the stormproof bathrooms of our facilities so that we can continue providing sound science and support to deal with pollution from a storm. Other times that means working with coastal regions to create response plans for disaster debris, training other emergency responders to address oil and chemical spills, and developing software tools that pull together and display key information necessary for making critical response decisions during disasters.

NOAA’s National Weather Service has plenty of tips and guidelines for preparing to weather these storms.

Learn more about how to protect yourself and your belongings from a hurricane.

NOAA’s National Weather Service has the latest information on Hurricane Matthew.