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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1976: A Winter of Ship Accidents

Ship broken in two in water.

The tanker Sansinena exploded in Los Angeles harbor on Dec. 17, 1976, spilling 1.3 million gallons of heavy oil. USCG

The winter of 1976-77 was a bad time for oil spills in the United States. I was still in middle school, but I remember doing a science report on oil spills. In a short time period there were multiple major oil spills, including these:

  • The tanker Argo Merchant ran aground on Dec. 15, 1976 and later broke apart off Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, spilling 7.6 million gallons of heavy fuel oil.
  • The tanker Sansinena exploded in Los Angeles Harbor, California, on Dec. 17, 1976, spilling 1.3 million gallons of heavy oil. Nine crew were killed and 46 people were injured.
  • Christmas Eve 1976 was not all quiet, when the tanker Oswego Peace spilled 5,000 gallons of bunker fuel into New London Harbor, Connecticut.
  • The tanker Olympic Games ran aground in the Delaware River, south of Philadelphia Pennsylvania, on Dec. 27, 1976, spilling 145,000 gallons of crude.

The rash of incidents continued into the New Year.

  • On Jan. 4, 1977, the tanker Universe Leader, loaded with 21 million gallons, ran aground in the Delaware River, New Jersey. It was refloated without a spill.
  • Also on Jan. 4, 1977, the tanker Grand Zenith, loaded with 8 million gallons of oil, was lost with all hands off the coast of New England. Only a few pieces of debris and an oil slick were found.
  • On Jan. 10, 1977, the tanker Chester A. Poling broke in half and sank off Gloucester, Massachusetts. It had just discharged its cargo and was only carrying ballast, but still spilled 14,000 gallons of diesel. One crew member was killed.

The large number of tanker accidents and loss of life alarmed the public and Congress. Hearings were quickly held in the District of Columbia in January, 1977. The hearing transcripts provide an insight into shipping and pollution concerns of the time. These concerns included the risk of spills from the still-under-construction Trans-Alaska Pipeline System that would open in a few months. The hearings concluded, but the rash of spills that winter did not.

  • On Jan. 17, 1977, the tanker Irene’s Challenger, loaded with 9.6 million gallons of crude oil, broke apart and sank near Midway Island in North Pacific Ocean. Three crew were lost.
  • On Feb. 2, 1977, the tank barge Ethel H spilled 480,000 gallons of crude oil into New York Harbor.
  • On Feb. 26, 1977, the tanker Hawaiian Patriot broke apart and sank off Hawaii, spilling 31 million gallons of crude oil. All but one of the crew were rescued. This little known incident is still considered the largest tanker spill in United States waters.

This winter marks the 40th anniversary of NOAA’s spill response program — a program that began, not surprisingly, in the wake of all of these incidents. In December, the Office of Response and Restorations (OR&R) will post a series of stories on NOAA’s leading role in oil spill response.


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Transportation of Crude Oil Along the West Coast

Boats on water

Oil spill cleanup demonstration at Clean Pacific 2015, Vancouver B.C. Credit Pacific States/B.C. Oil Spill Task Force.

By Sarah Brace

The Pacific States/B.C. Oil Spill Task Force has updated its West Coast crude oil transport map. The map depicts the routes of crude traveling by rail, tanker vessel, pipeline and barge across the western states and British Columbia. It also captures the locations of current and proposed facilities, refineries and terminals. The rapid growth in crude by rail transport has highlighted response and preparedness gaps along the rail line.

The task force also tracks the volumes of crude transported across the region. This data is collected on an annual basis and summarized in a report available to the public. The task force continues to track the volumes of crude movement annually to assist in oil spill prevention, preparedness and response across the West Coast.

Map drawing of crude oil routes.

Map of current rail routes, interstate
pipelines and barges transporting crude across the West Coast.

Recently, the task force partnered with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to incorporate its oil spill data into NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps, ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers.

Since 2002, the task force has been collecting data on oil spills in Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii, providing information on the size of spill, location, type of material and substrate (on land or water).

The Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force was formed in 1988 by the governor of Washington and premier of British Columbia, after the oil barge Nestucca collided with its tug along the Washington coast. The following year, the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound led to Alaska, California, and Oregon joining the Task Force. Hawaii became a member in 2001, creating a broad coalition of western Pacific states and British Columbia, united in their efforts to prevent and respond to oil spills across the West Coast.

Sarah Brace is the Executive Coordinator of the Task Force. She leads the Task Force projects, studies and outreach activities focused on spill prevention, preparedness and response across the western States of AK, CA, HI, OR and WA and British Columbia.


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Keeping the Great Lakes’ Freshwater Clean is a Tall Order

Lighthouse with waves.

Lake Michigan waves at Michigan City lighthouse following superstorm Sandy. October 29, 2012. Credit: S. Lashley, NOAA NWS.

North America’s Great Lakes contain 6 quadrillion gallons of freshwater within the five lakes of Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. With roughly 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, the Great Lakes are the world’s largest freshwater system, and contain enough water to cover the entire lower 48 states to a depth of almost 10 feet.

Shared by two countries, eight states, and one province; the Great Lakes’ centralized location, favorable geography, climate, and water rich environment culminate into a natural hub for manufacturing, business, agriculture and tourism, and home to over 40 million people who depend on the lakes for their domestic and industrial water supply.

In addition to their freshwater needs, many of these same economies are equally dependent on petroleum products, which travel to and through the region via a mix of transportation modes. While all environments are sensitive to oil spills, the Great Lakes are especially sensitive due to a number of unique risk factors.

Unique Risk Factors

Freshwater is the most obvious unique risk factor for the Great Lakes and for good reason. Approximately 44 billion gallons of water is withdrawn each day for industrial and domestic use. The first question for every spill in the Great Lakes is location of the closest freshwater intake. Shutting down freshwater intakes can cause widespread economic and political impacts, not normally associated with a spill in the marine environment.

Take for example the 2014 harmful algal bloom event that shut down Toledo, Ohio water intakes for 500,000 residents. That emergency shut down local businesses and universities at a cost of millions for the city and state. This is a very real and unique concern for spills in the Great Lakes and other freshwater environments.

The density of freshwater can make spills in the Great Lakes more challenging as well. Oil usually floats because it is less dense than the water it is floating on. Density is the mass, or weight, of a substance divided by its volume. The density of freshwater is usually about 1 gram per cubic centimeter (g/cc). Ocean saltwater is denser (usually around 1.02 to 1.03 g/cc) because it contains more salt. The higher the salinity of water, the denser it is. Densities of oils generally range from 0.85 g/cc for a very light oil, like gasoline, to 1.04 g/cc for a very, very heavy oil. Most types of oils have densities between about 0.90 and 0.98 g/cc. These oils will float in either fresh or salt water. However, heavy oils, which have a density of 1.01 g/cc, would float in salt water, but sink in the freshwater of the Great Lakes.

Water in the Great Lakes originates from thousands of streams and rivers covering a drainage basin of approximately 201,000 square miles. This water exits the Great Lakes so slowly through the St. Lawrence River that it essentially makes the Great Lakes a closed system. The retention time — the amount of time it takes for lakes to discharge water and pollutants — ranges from 2.6 years for Lake Erie to 191 years for Lake Superior. With no more than one percent of the water in the Great Lakes exiting the system each year, any residual oil spill contaminants have the potential to reside within the lakes for a substantial time.

LT Greg Schweitzer is a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator in the Great Lakes and Midwest Region with OR&R.


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You Know What’s Scary? Halloween Debris

Great reminder for Halloween!

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Halloween is almost here and with it comes lots of scary, spooky things—monsters, mayhem, and… marine debris!

Child's drawing of a marine debris monster. Drawing by Teeger B., Grade 8, California, art contest winner featured in the 2013 Marine Debris Calendar.

Unfortunately, Halloween often means more trash that can become marine debris. Wrappers are one of the top debris items in general and the many candy wrappers that are part of this spooky holiday can substantially add to their accumulation. On top of that, some of those cool Halloween decorations that are placed in our yards blow away, never to return to their storage boxes. So, as you’re trick-or-treating, handing out candy, or getting into other kinds of Halloween mischief, make sure to keep in mind that we can all do our part to make sure Halloween ends with buckets full of candy, and not waters full of debris.

Make sure those spooky decorations are securely…

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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.