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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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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A Tale of Two Shipwrecks: When History Threatens to Pollute

Last year I wrote about NOAA’s work in identifying potentially polluting shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

Several men work to pump oil onto a barge on the ocean.

During November 2013, the Canadian Coast Guard (Western Region) worked with Mammoet Salvage to remove the oil remaining on board the wreck of the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski. The Zalinski sank off the North Coast of British Columbia, Canada, and its wreck remains upside down on top of an underwater cliff. (Daniel Porter, Mammoet Salvage)

One of the wrecks that we’ve been watching with interest has been the wreck of the Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski, a World War II U.S. Army transport ship that ran aground and sank in 1946 near Prince Rupert, Canada.  For the past decade the vessel has been the source of chronic oil spills in British Columbia’s Inside Passage, and patches to the hull were only a temporary solution.

Response operations were just completed in late December 2013, and the Canadian government reported that two-month-long operations safely extracted approximately 44,000 liters (about 12,000 gallons) of heavy Bunker C oil and 319,000 liters (84,000 gallons) of oily water from the wreck.  More information on the project is on Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans website.

Every shipwreck has its own story to tell. One of the interesting bits of trivia about the Zalinski is that the crew of the sinking ship back in 1946 was rescued by the Steam Ship Catala. The Zalinski, lying in Canadian waters, is not in our database of potentially polluting shipwrecks, but the S.S. Catala is, or should I say, was.

The Catala met its end in 1965 when the ship grounded during a storm and was abandoned on a beach on the outer coast of Washington state.  Over time the vessel was buried in sand, but 40 years later, winds and tides had changed the face of the beach, re-exposing the Catala’s rusted-out, oil-laden hull.  In 2007, the State of Washington led a multi-agency effort to remove not only the 34,500 gallons of oil still on board but also the ship’s wreckage and the potential for a major oil spill near a number of state parks and national wildlife refuges on the coast.

Learn more about how NOAA worked with the U.S. Coast Guard and Regional Response Teams to prioritize potential threats to coastal resources from the nation’s legacy of sunken ships.


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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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As NOAA Damage Assessment Rules Turn 18, Restoration Trumps Arguing Over the Price Tag of a Turtle

Kemp's Ridley sea turtle on beach in Texas.

How do you put a price tag on natural resources like this endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle? (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

What is a fish or sea turtle or day of sailing worth?  Some resources may be easily valued, such as a pound of lobsters, but other natural resources may not be assigned values as easily, such as injured habitats or non-game wildlife. And what about the value of a lobster in nature rather than in a soup pot? In 1989, under the paradigm in place at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, damage assessments were based on the economic value of natural resources and their uses lost as a result of a spill.

Eighteen years ago, on January 6, 1996, NOAA issued its final rules for conducting Natural Resource Damage Assessments (NRDA) for oil spills. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, prompted by the Exxon Valdez spill, changed many aspects of the U.S. response to oil spills, including the approach to damage assessments.

One of the lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez and other incidents was that restoration became delayed when the focus was on arguing over the monetary value of natural resource damages. This was because once government agencies reached a dollar-based settlement with the organization responsible for the spill, we still had to conduct studies to figure out what restoration was really necessary. Furthermore, since the process focused on calculating monetary damages rather than restoration costs, the trustees did not always receive sufficient funds to conduct restoration (the economic value of a fish or acre of wetland may not represent the costs to restore that resource).

NOAA's Doug Helton during the response to the August 10, 1993, Tampa Bay oil spill.

NOAA’s Doug Helton during the response to the August 10, 1993, Tampa Bay oil spill. A collision between a freighter and two fuel barges resulted in hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spilled into the Bay. The damage assessment that evaluated injuries to birds, sea turtles, mangrove habitat, seagrasses, salt marshes, and recreational uses was an early example of a restoration-based claim, and NOAA used this experience in developing the damage assessment rules. A number of ecological and recreational restoration projects were conducted to address or compensate for these injuries. For more information, see http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/southeast/tampabay/

To reform this issue, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 required that NOAA promulgate new damage assessment regulations, and I was assigned to work with a team of attorneys and scientists to help develop a rule that made sense legally and scientifically. In response to the lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez and other recent oil spills, we developed a new approach, focusing on the ultimate goal of restoration rather than attempting to establish a price tag for each fish, bird, or marine mammal injured by a spill. In other words, the damage claim submitted to the responsible party is based on the cost to conduct restoration projects for the damages rather than the value of the injured resource.

The Oil Pollution Act regulations also turned Natural Resource Damage Assessment into a more open process through three major changes:

  • Making assessment results and critical documents available to the public in an administrative record.
  • Requiring that the public have a chance to review and comment on restoration plans.
  • Inviting the organizations responsible for the spill to actively cooperate in the assessment and restoration planning.

The rulemaking process took several years, and we had lots of comments from the public, nongovernmental organizations, and the marine insurance, shipping, and oil industries. Finally, after incorporating all of the comments and developing a series of guidance documents, we published the final rule on January 6, 1996.

We had little time to relax, however. The first test of those cooperative, restoration-based regulations came a couple weeks later when the Barge North Cape and Tug Scandia ran aground in Rhode Island on January 19.  Stay tuned for the story of how that grounding off of a former nudist beach inspired an unexpected career for a young college student.


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NOAA Supporting Coast Guard after Natural Gas Rig Lost Well Control, Caught Fire in Gulf of Mexico

The Hercules 265 drilling rig with cloud of leaking natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Hercules 265 drilling rig, located about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, caught fire the night of July 23. Earlier that day, the rig experienced a loss of well control while drilling for natural gas. The cloud of leaking natural gas from the well, pictured here, ignited. No one was on board at the time and no injuries have been reported. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

The Hercules 265 jack-up drilling rig, which caught fire about 50 miles offshore of Louisiana after experiencing a loss of well control, no longer has natural gas leaking out of the well. The U.S. Coast Guard and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, via aerial surveys (overflights), have confirmed that the flow of gas from the well has stopped, though a diminished fire continued to burn residual gas near the well until today.

On Tuesday, July 23, the rig operator lost control of the natural gas well during a drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico. All 44 members of its crew were evacuated safely into life rafts and were later picked up by an offshore supply vessel. Late that night, the leaking gas ignited and the rig caught fire and partially collapsed. The incident occurred at South Timbalier block 220 in about 154 feet of water.

The well was releasing natural gas and a small amount of oily fluids, creating a light sheen of variable size. (Gas is often mixed with oily fluids, and the amounts of these fluids vary among reservoirs.) The U.S. Coast Guard has two cutters on scene to provide support. NOAA support has been focused on forecasting the trajectory of the sheen and customized weather reports for the affected area as well as providing technical advice on dealing with methane (a primary component of natural gas) and potential species at risk from hydrocarbon exposure, such as birds, shrimp, fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals.  A NOAA scientist and emergency response meteorologist are now at the scene of the response and offering further scientific and weather support as needed.

Learn more at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement website.


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Watching Chemical Dispersants at Work in an Oil Spill Research Facility

Aerial view of Ohmsett and its 2.6 million-gallon salt water tank.

The Ohmsett facility is located at Naval Weapons Station Earle, Waterfront. The research and training facility centers around a 2.6 million-gallon saltwater tank. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

Last week I had the chance to go back to Leonardo, New Jersey, to observe an oil spill dispersant exercise at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility known as Ohmsett (the Oil and Hazardous Material Simulated Environmental Test Tank). Ohmsett is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). The facility features a large saltwater test tank that allows for full-scale testing of oil spill response equipment and technologies. This tank has a large wave generator to simulate the type of conditions seen in the open ocean.

Dispersant use became a national topic of discussion following the explosion and subsequent well blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20, 2010. The unprecedented use of chemical dispersants on and below the ocean’s surface during this oil spill raised scientific, public, and political questions about both their effectiveness and their potential consequences for ecosystems and marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although dispersants get a lot of attention, I’ve worked on hundreds of oil spills over the past 20 years, and during that time, I’ve only worked on a handful of spills where dispersants were used. Furthermore, I’ve never had a chance to observe directly how dispersants work. The Ohmsett facility provided that opportunity in a controlled setting that still simulated real-world, open ocean conditions.

Here is a series of photos I took from one of the tests:

Freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank.

Freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank.

A few minutes after dispersants applied. Note that some of the oil is still black, but some is turning brown.

A few minutes after dispersants were applied. Note that some of the oil is still black, but some is turning brown.

Now most of the oil is brown, and instead of being on the surface, it is now suspended in small droplets in the top couple feet of the pool.

Now most of the oil is brown, and instead of being on the surface, it is now suspended in small droplets in the top couple feet of the pool.

Now the oil is completely mixed in the water.

Now the oil is completely mixed in the water.

So what do these tests demonstrate? Dispersants can be effective in removing oil from the surface of the water. Breaking the oil into tiny droplets doesn’t remove oil from the water, but it does help to increase the rate of biodegradation.

What these tests don’t tell you is the biological effect of mixing the oil in the water, as opposed to leaving it on the sea surface. Leaving oil on the surface will increase the potential exposure to birds, mammals, and shorelines, while dispersing oil will increase exposure to fish and other animals living in the water column. The decision to use dispersants or other response strategies will always involve a careful evaluation of the environmental benefits and trade-offs of the particular situation and location.

To help answer some of these trade-off questions, NOAA, in between spills, continues to study dispersants and their potential effects on the marine resources that we are trying to protect.


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NOAA Report Identifies Shipwrecks with the Potential to Pollute

On May 14, 1942, the U.S. Army Air Corps photographed the location of the burning tanker Potrero del Llano. (National Archives)

On May 14, 1942, the U.S. Army Air Corps photographed the location of the burning tanker Potrero del Llano. (National Archives)

Over the past couple years I’ve talked about the threat of oil spills from historic shipwrecks, including the S/S Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes and the S/S Montebello off southern California. But we know that these wrecks are just the tip of the iceberg.

The past century of commerce and warfare has dotted our waters with shipwrecks, many of which have never been surveyed. Since 2010, my office, working with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the U.S. Coast Guard, has been systematically looking at which of these wrecks might pose a substantial threat of leaking oil still on board. This work is part of NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project.

We used a tiered approach to develop an initial priority list of vessels for risk assessment. This process narrowed down the estimated 20,000 vessels in U.S. waters to 573 that met the initial criteria. The ships had to be over 1,000 gross tons (making them about 200 feet or longer), built to carry or use oil as fuel, and made of a durable material such as steel.

Understanding how a shipwreck site formed helps explain why vessels, like the Dixie Arrow which initially carried approximately 86,136 barrels of crude oil, but was demolished during World War II, no longer remain intact and are no longer potentially polluting shipwrecks. (NOAA)

Understanding how a shipwreck site formed helps explain why vessels, like the Dixie Arrow which initially carried approximately 86,136 barrels of crude oil, but was demolished during World War II, no longer remain intact and are no longer potentially polluting shipwrecks. (NOAA)

Additional research revealed the actual number posing a substantial pollution threat was lower because of the violent nature in which some ships sank (many were lost in World War II). This is because, for example, a ship hit and sunk by torpedoes would be less likely to still have intact tanks of oil. And other vessels were taken off our radar because they have fallen apart or were demolished because they were navigational hazards.

We also used computer models to predict the environmental and economic consequences of oil spills from these vessels. Those results then helped us sort out which wrecks might pose the biggest risks.

A map showing the name, location, and priority level of shipwrecks recommended to the U.S. Coast Guard for further pollution assessment. (NOAA)

A map showing the name, location, and priority level of shipwrecks recommended to the U.S. Coast Guard for further pollution assessment. (NOAA)

On May 20, we released both an overall report describing this work and our recommendations and 87 individual wreck assessments. The individual risk assessments highlight not only concerns about potential ecological and socio-economic impacts, but they also characterize most of the vessels as being historically significant. In addition, many of them are grave sites, both civilian and military.

The national report and the 87 risk assessments are available at http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/protect/ppw/.


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Removal Operations Continue for Navy Mine Ship on Philippine Coral Reef

USS Guardian salvage operations

Aerial view of the vessels aiding in the dismantling process of the mine countermeasures ship Ex-Guardian, which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef Jan. 17. The U.S. Navy continues to work in close cooperation with the Philippine authorities to safely dismantle Guardian from the reef while minimizing environmental effects. (U.S. Navy/Anderson Bomjardim)

You may recall that in January the Navy mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian ran aground on a coral reef in the Philippines, inside Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. The Navy removed the approximately 15,000 gallons of fuel aboard the ship and decided that the safest way to extract the Guardian from the reef was to deconstruct and carry it away in smaller sections.

Here are some interesting photos showing how the removal of the grounded “Ex-Guardian” (formerly USS Guardian) is progressing.

First, the superstructure (Wheelhouse and above deck structures) was removed as you can see in the top photo. Now the hull is being cut into sections and removed. Earlier this week the bow section, weighing approximately 250 tons, was lifted off the reef and placed onto an awaiting barge (bottom photo).

A crane vessel removes the bow of the mine countermeasure ship Ex-Guardian.

A crane vessel removes the bow of the mine countermeasure ship Ex-Guardian, which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef, Jan. 17. The U.S. Navy and contracted salvage teams continue damage assessments and the removal of equipment and parts to prepare the grounded ship to be safely dismantled and removed from Tubbataha Reef. (U.S. Navy/Kelby Sanders)

The U.S. Navy has been working closely with the Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine Navy, and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park during the process.

For more information on the removal operations, check out http://www.cpf.navy.mil/news.aspx/010081

You can also find out more about how NOAA works to protect and restore coral reefs after ship groundings in some of our previous blog posts:


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From Rubber Ducks to Dog Food, Spilling Everything But Oil

Rubber ducks floating.

Sometimes when responders can’t spill oil, they spill rubber ducks. (Credit: Jason Ahrns. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.)

What do rubber duckies, dog food, oranges, wood chips, green dye, hula hoops, peat moss, popcorn, and rice hulls have in common?  All have been used to mimic the behavior of spilled oil.  These materials are used because in the U.S. dumping oil in the ocean is prohibited, even if it is done intentionally for training, experimental, or testing purposes.

Tank testing has been an alternative, and we use real oil in test tanks such as the one at Ohmsett (an oil spill response and research testing facility in New Jersey), but there are questions about how well these tanks simulate real world conditions, including rough seas, currents, and waves.

That means there is a real need for materials that both realistically mimic oil behavior and are safe for use in the environment. They allow us to test computer models, such as NOAA’s GNOME oil forecasting model, and to improve how containment booms and other response tactics work.

During the "Safe Seas 2006" emergency response drill off San Francisco, Calif., on Aug. 9, 2006, Oil Spill Response Corporation's Pacific Responder could be seen deploying nontoxic green dye to simulate an oil spill. The NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program's Research Vessel Shearwater (foreground) also participated in the drill. (NOAA)

During the “Safe Seas 2006″ emergency response drill off San Francisco, Calif., responders deployed nontoxic green dye to simulate an oil spill. (NOAA)

On March 21, 2013, experts from around the country gathered at NOAA offices in Seattle, Wash., to discuss the need and best options for oil spill simulants. What alternatives are best? What are the environmental effects of those simulants? What permits are needed? And most importantly, how similar is the behavior compared with real oil?

One of the preliminary conclusions from this meeting is that oil behavior is difficult to emulate, and all of the existing simulants have drawbacks.

We’ll post a future story about progress in this area, and in the meantime, if you notice a bunch of oranges (or grapefruits or lemons) floating in the water, you may be seeing a test of oil spill preparedness like this one in Florida:

Coast Guard, partnering agencies conduct Tidal Inlet Protection Strategy exercise.

In August of 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard and partnering agencies conducted an exercise aimed at testing the ability to protect Biscayne Bay (Florida) from offshore oil and involved deploying approximately 7,500 feet of boom and 240 pieces of surrogate oil or fruit, including grapefruits, oranges, and lemons across the channel. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In August of 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard and partnering agencies conducted an exercise aimed at testing the ability to protect Biscayne Bay (Florida) from offshore oil and involved deploying approximately 7,500 feet of boom and 240 pieces of surrogate oil or fruit, including grapefruits, oranges, and lemons across the channel. (U.S. Coast Guard)


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From Dynamite to Deconstruction, or How to Remove Ships from Coral Reefs

USS Guardian grounded on coral reef with tug removing fuel and wastewater.

SULU SEA (Jan. 28, 2013) The U.S. Navy contracted Malaysian tug Vos Apollo removes petroleum-based products and human wastewater from the mine countermeasure ship USS Guardian (MCM 5), which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea on Jan. 17. No fuel has leaked since the grounding and all of the approximately 15,000 gallons on board Guardian was safely transferred to Vos Apollo during two days of controlled de-fueling operations on Jan. 24 and Jan. 25. The grounding and subsequent heavy waves hitting Guardian have caused severe damage, leading the Navy to determine the 23-year old ship is beyond economical repair and is a complete loss. With the deteriorating integrity of the ship, the weight involved, and where it has grounded on the reef, dismantling the ship in sections is the only supportable salvage option. Since Guardian’s grounding, the Navy has been working meticulously to salvage any reusable equipment, retrieve the crew’s personal effects, and remove any potentially harmful materials. The U.S. Navy continues to work in close cooperation with the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy to safely dismantle Guardian from the reef while minimizing environmental effects. (U.S. Navy)

On January 17, 2013, the Navy mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian ran aground on a coral reef in the Philippines. Salvage experts evaluated various options for removing the ship, including towing or pulling it off the reef, but concluded that such efforts would cause even more damage  to the reef and the ship’s hull. Earlier this month, the Navy decided to dismantle the ship and remove it in smaller sections in order to minimize damage to the reef and surrounding marine environment.

The Tubbataha Reef, where the ship grounded in the Sulu Sea, is a marine park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its biodiversity, pristine reefs, and protected nesting habitat for marine birds and sea turtles.

The photos of the stranded ship and the concern about the corals in this part of the world reminded me of a story about the old U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS) vessel Fathomer.  The USC&GS mission was to survey the U.S. coastline and create nautical charts of the coast to help increase maritime safety. Today, this part of NOAA is called the Office of Coast Survey, which produces navigational products, data, and services to keep maritime commerce moving and to protect life and property at sea. (Editor’s note: You can check out their WordPress blog at http://noaacoastsurvey.wordpress.com.)

I came across old photos of the Fathomer when I was working on a project studying the impact of vessel groundings on corals.  That story ended quite differently than the USS Guardian, and shows how environmental protection has become a much bigger concern for salvors.  In the old days, the focus of salvage was strictly to save the ship and cargo, but modern salvors (salvage crews) have a much bigger emphasis on protecting the environment.

On August 15, 1936, the Fathomer dragged anchor in a typhoon and, like the USS Guardian, ended up grounded on a coral reef in the Philippine Islands[1].  At that time, the Philippines were a commonwealth of the United States, and the Fathomer was surveying and charting the islands.

The NOAA ship Fathomer aground on a coral reef in the Philippines after the typhoon of August 15, 1936.

The NOAA ship Fathomer aground on a coral reef in the Philippines after the typhoon of August 15, 1936. (NOAA)

The story of the Fathomer’s grounding and salvage is a good sea story, complete with rum.  All of the crew survived the storm and grounding, but the official history mentions that “Everyone was bruised and suffering from exhaustion and exposure. Two quarts of brandy, stored in the sick bay, were rationed out to all hands, and undoubtedly resulted in no one developing a severe cold or pneumonia.” The entire crew was later commended for their “seamanship, courage and fortitude.”

But what I found most interesting was the salvage efforts.  Buried in the official history are some details that show that coral reef protection was not a concern in 1936.  For example, a pile driver was used to place a “cluster of piles driven on the reef,” and these pilings were “backed by three anchors imbedded in the reef.”  Wire ropes were then used to try to bring the Fathomer upright and haul it off the reef, but those efforts were unsuccessful and ultimately the reef was dynamited and the loose coral was dredged, allowing the Fathomer to be towed to deeper water.

The removal of the USS Guardian is ongoing, but thankfully, it is clear, almost 80 years later, that coral reef protection will be very high on the list of priorities.


[1] The Fathomer worked in the Philippines from 1905-1941. After the 1936 typhoon, Fathomer resumed survey duties in the Philippine Islands. During World War II the ship was used in the defense of the Philippines and was lost in April 1942 when the American and Filipino defenders surrendered the Bataan Peninsula.

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