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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Clean up spilled oil at all costs? Not always

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Man holding hose spraying water on oiled rocks.

Cleanup worker spraying oiled rocks with high pressure hoses following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. (NOAA)

The images of an oil spill—brown water, blackened beaches, wildlife slicked and sticky—can create such an emotional response that it  leads to the myth that oil is so hazardous it’s worth any and all environmental trade-offs to get it cleaned up.

The outcry to rid oil from the rocky shoreline of Prince William Sound, Alaska, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill led to the use of high-pressure, hot-water washing. While the technique is successful at removing stranded oil, we now know it can damage plants and animals in the treated area directly and indirectly, short-term and long-term.

Activities to clean up oiled coastal salt marshes after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, like flushing with water or raking to remove oil, delayed marsh recovery and exacerbated the loss of oysters, though it was not always possible to separate effects of oiling from effects of response actions.

Lessons learned from decades of responding to oil spills have shown that a haste to clean up a spill may cause additional damage. Part of the job of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration emergency responders is to step back and objectively evaluate the situation.

The perception of potential environmental harm that a spill may cause may be worse than reality, making it critical for responders to communicate a science-based analysis of a spill’s possible harm with affected parties and organizations, according to Jerry Galt, physical oceanographer and pioneer in oil and chemical spill response and modeling.

Gathering accurate information on what natural resources are in the spill area and forecasting where the oil is likely to go, based on currents and weather conditions, will give a realistic picture of the situation, Galt said.

In an effort to improve spill response methods, NOAA Office of Response and Restoration is continually improving the accuracy of its trajectory models and other response tools. In addition, hundreds of emergency responders attend Science of Oil Spills and Science of Chemical Releases classes to learn the latest in spill response planning and analysis.

Spills are always a serious matter, but the coordinated efforts of multiple federal, state and local responders work to minimize the injury during the event, and then work to mitigate the effects after the spill. While images from news footage can paint a picture of huge and permanent devastation, the reality on the ground can be less dire.


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Tools and Products: 40 Years of Spill Technology

 

A bright orange Saildrone floats in front of a NOAA ship in the Bering Sea

NOAA has deployed the Saildrone to study fisheries in the Bering Sea. (NOAA)

Earlier stories have described the Argo Merchant oil spill as the catalyst for the creation of the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Its ongoing partnership with the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and other agencies has expanded from scientific support to include the latest developments in spill response technology.

Over the years, OR&R has continued to provide scientific support to the Coast Guard when it responds to oil or chemical spills. On its own, or in partnership with other agencies, OR&R provides software, guidance documents, and training on the scientific aspects of oil and chemical spill response. In addition, OR&R is constantly refining techniques, tools, and training in spill response.

Expanding OR&R’s Tools and Products

Modeling marine spills: After the Argo Merchant spill, standard methods for assessing marine spills were established, and a series of trajectory and fate modeling programs were created.

In 1979, the On-Scene Spill Model (OSSM) was developed to predict the possible route, or trajectory, a pollutant might follow in, or on, water. In 1999, OSSM became GNOME, General NOAA Operational Modeling Environment program.

The GNOME Online Oceanographic Data Server (GOODS), helps GNOME users access the base maps, ocean currents, and winds needed to run trajectories in their own regions. In addition, OR&R is nearing completion of a multi-year project to produce the next generation of GNOME, which will include integration of ADIOS, a program modeling how different types of oil weather (undergo physical and chemical changes) in the marine environment.

Mapping sensitive shorelines and species: In 1979 the Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps were created after the Ixtoc 1 exploratory oil well blowout. ESI provides information about coastal shoreline sensitivity, biological species and habitats, and human-use resources. The maps allow spill responders to quickly identify resources at risk before and during an oil spill, in order to establish cleanup methods and priorities.

Providing a Common Operational Picture (COP): Developed after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the online mapping tool ERMA® soon became the COP for the Deepwater Horizon response as well as other spills. ERMA integrates both static and real-time data, such as ESI maps, ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers.

ERMA is designed to:

Learn more about the ever-evolving tools and techniques that OR&R uses to respond to environmental spills.

Looking to the Future

Drone technologies to assess shorelines: OR&R is exploring emerging technologies such as drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), for shoreline assessment during spills and exercises, particularly when the shoreline is steep or inaccessible. The UAS imagery can be quickly displayed in the COP for response during a spill, and for a Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Recently, OR&R teamed up with the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response, USCG, and Chevron Corporation to explore the utility of drones as a reconnaissance tool for shoreline oiling. During an oil spill, the nature and extent of shoreline oiling are usually determined by ground-based surveys using the Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique (SCAT). In situations when shorelines cannot be safely accessed or when they include sensitive habitats like marshes, SCAT may be limited to conducting helicopter-based and/or ground-based binocular surveys, or no surveys at all. Emerging technologies like drones may become important elements in future SCAT survey efforts.

This is the fourth in a series of six stories examining the oil spill in 1976 of tanker Argo Merchant that resulted in the creation of the Office of Response and Restoration.


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Argo Merchant: The Growth of Scientific Support

Black and white photo of ship with waves crashing on it.

Heavy seas cover the decks of the Argo Merchant while the tanker lies aground near Nantucket Island. Credit: Coast Guard Historian

Disasters often spark major changes. The sinking of the Titanic led to increased international requirements for lifesaving equipment, and the Exxon Valdez led to double-hull tankers and a host of other safety improvements. The 1976 grounding of the Argo Merchant led to the creation of the Scientific Support Coordinator (SSC) program that today is the backbone of the marine spill response.

The road to SSC program started with the nation’s first National Contingency Plan (NCP) in 1968, a result of the massive oil 1967 spill from the tanker Torrey Canyon off the coast of the United Kingdom. There was no plan in place to cope with the more than 37 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the water, causing governmental confusion and massive environmental damage.

To avoid the problems England faced by response officials involved in the Torrey Canyon incident, the United States developed a coordinated approach to cope with potential spills in the nation’s waters. The 1968 plan provided the first comprehensive system of accident reporting, spill containment and cleanup. The plan also established a response headquarters, a national reaction team and regional reaction teams (precursors to the current National Response Team and Regional Response Teams).

Filling a gap in science coordination

But that 1968 NCP had some gaps. One was science coordination. The 1976 Argo Merchant spill threatened one of the most productive fishing grounds in the nation, and raised the immediate attention of the high concentration of federal, state and academic science institutions in the region.  And those scientists had no shortage of ideas, predictions, and samples they wanted collected as well as studies they wanted to conduct. However, the United States Coast Guard (USCG), the federal agency tasked with responding to spills, had its hands full with the stricken tanker, growing slicks, and mounting public concerns.

Earlier that year, NOAA and USCG had established the Spilled Oil Research (SOR) team to study the effects of oil and gas exploration in Alaska. This team was a network of coastal geologists, marine biologists, chemists, and oceanographers that could go on-scene at “spills of opportunity” with the goal of investigating oil spill impacts and improve oil spill forecasting models.

The Argo Merchant spill was the first major deployment of the SOR Team. After arriving on scene, the Coast Guard quickly asked the SOR Team to act as its scientific adviser and be an informal liaison with the scientific community concerned with the spill.

The coordination was rocky at first, but within a few months of the spill, the NOAA team compiled and published “The Argo Merchant Oil Spill; a Preliminary Scientific Report.”  The 200+ page initial report represented the work of over 100 scientists from numerous agencies and institutions:

  • NOAA
  • USCG
  • NASA
  • The U.S. Navy
  • Department of the Interior
  • The Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • University of Rhode Island
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • University of Southern California
  • Manomet Bird Observatory
  • Marine Biological Laboratory

Several other synthesis reports were published in the following year.

From HAZMAT to the Emergency Response Division

After the Argo Merchant spill, NOAA created the Hazardous Material Response Division (HAZMAT team) to provide scientific expertise during a response incident. Now called the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, it has grown from a handful of oceanographers, mathematicians, and computer modelers in 1976, into a highly diverse team of chemists, biologists, geologists, information management specialists, and technical and administrative support staff.

The once-informal role of scientific coordination is now formally recognized in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan. NOAA has a dozen Scientific Support Coordinators (SSCs) attached to USCG offices around the country. During spills, training, and exercises, the SSC is a direct science advisor to the Federal On-scene Coordinator.

In 2016, the SSC team responded to 178 spills around the country. The SSCs still serve USCG to help protect the public, the environment, and economic interests — in the nation’s ports and waterways, along the coast, on international waters, or in any maritime region as required to support national security and help maintain the health and vibrancy of our nation’s oceans and coasts.

This is the second in a series of six stories examining the oil spill in 1976 of tanker Argo Merchant resulting in the creation of the Office of Response and Restoration.


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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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Bay Long Oil Spill in Louisiana

Woman looking out at water with boom floating in it.

Overseeing cleanup operations on Chenier Ronquille Island. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On September 5, 2016, a marsh excavator operated by Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company tracked over pipeline while performing restoration activities in Bay Long, a sub-estuary of Barataria Bay, discharging approximately 5,300 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline was shut in and is no longer leaking. The incident occurred at an active restoration site for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The cause of the incident is still under investigation.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been providing scientific support including trajectories and fate of oil, resources at risk, information on tides and currents, and technical guidance towards the response. Other roles provided by NOAA are guidance on Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT), a systematic method for surveying an affected shoreline after an oil spill, as well as data management and updates through Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®). OR&R’s Emergency Response Division has a team of six on site.

For more information, read the September 11, 2016 news release from the U.S. Coast Guard.


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Abandoned Vessels of Florida’s Forgotten Coast

This is a post by NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis of the Office of Response and Restoration.

Derelict vessel with osprey nest on top of broken mast.

Along Florida’s Forgotten Coast, a pair of osprey had built a nest on an abandoned vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard called in NOAA for assistance as they were trying to remove fuel from that boat with minimal impact to wildlife. (NOAA)

There is a stretch of the Florida Panhandle east of the more heavily developed beach destinations of Destin and Panama City that some refer to as the “Forgotten Coast.” This area has vast tracts of pine forest including large stands of longleaf pine and savanna, towering dunes and nearly undeveloped barrier islands, seemingly endless coastal marsh, and miles and miles of winding shoreline along its expansive bays and coastal rivers.

It is no coincidence that much of the area is undeveloped; reserves, wildlife refuges, and other federal and state protected lands and waters occupy a large percentage of the area.

However, this flattened landscape of wild greens and blues is occasionally punctuated by the unnatural texture of human influence of a certain type: rusting hulls, broken masts, boats half-submerged in the muddy waters. It was one of these abandoned and decaying vessels that brought me to Florida’s Forgotten Coast.

Birds-Eye View of a Problem

The U.S. Coast Guard as well as state and local agencies and organizations have been working to address potential pollution threats from a number of abandoned and derelict boats sprinkled throughout this region. Vessels like these often still have oils and other hazardous materials on board, which can leak into the surrounding waters, posing a threat to public and environmental health and safety.

Half-sunken boat surrounded by oil containment boom.

Even a small release of marine fuel in sensitive environmental areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Many abandoned vessels still have fuel and other hazardous materials on board. (NOAA)

As a Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, I provide assistance to the Coast Guard in their pollution response efforts. This support often involves analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment.

In this case, the Coast Guard called me with an unusual complication in their efforts: A pair of osprey had taken up residence on one of these abandoned vessels. Their nest of sticks was perched atop the ship’s mast, now bent at a precarious 45 degree angle. The Coast Guard needed to know what kind of impacts might result from assessing the vessel’s pollution potential and what might be involved in potentially moving the osprey nest, or the vessel, if needed.

As a federal agency, the Coast Guard must adhere to federal statutes that protect wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Essentially, these statutes require the Coast Guard (or other person or organization) to consider what effect their actions might have on protected species, in this case, osprey.

This is where we Scientific Support Coordinators often can provide some assistance.  A large part of our support in this area involves coordinating with the “trustee” agencies responsible for the stewardship of the relevant natural resources.

My challenge is evaluating the scientific and technical aspects of the planned action (disturbing the chicks and their parents or possibly moving the osprey nest in order to remove the vessel), weighing possible effects of those actions against threats posed by no action, and communicating all of that in an intelligible way to trustees, stakeholders, and the agency undertaking the action in question.

Fortunately, the pollution assessment and removal in the case of the osprey-inhabited vessel proved very straightforward and the abandoned vessels project got off to a good start.

Abandoned But Not Forgotten

Aerial view of abandoned vessels with osprey nest on mast, located in Florida waterway.

NOAA’s Adam Davis helped the U.S. Coast Guard with a project spanning more than 230 miles of Florida coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. (NOAA)

Over the course of eight weeks, I was fortunate to contribute in a number of ways to this project. For example, I joined several aerial overflights of the coast from Panama City to St. Marks, Florida, and participated in numerous boat rides throughout the Apalachicola Bay watershed to identify, assess, and craft strategies for pollution removal from abandoned vessels.

Ultimately, the project spanned more than 230 miles of coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. Most of the fuel was removed from vessels located in highly sensitive and valuable habitats, such as those located along the Jackson and Brother’s Rivers.

Portions of both of these rivers are located within the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve and are designated as critical habitat for Gulf sturgeon, a federally threatened species of fish that, like salmon, migrates between rivers and the ocean.

Even a small release of marine fuel in areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Impacts can be even more severe if they occur during a time when species are most vulnerable, such as when actively spawning, breeding, or nesting.  In addition, spills in these otherwise pristine, protected areas can have negative consequences for important commercial and recreational activities that rely upon the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

People on boats on a Florida coastal river.

When NOAA supports the Coast Guard with abandoned vessels work, our efforts often involve analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment. These Coast Guard boats are equipped to remove fuel from abandoned vessels. (NOAA)

While we’d like to be able to remove the entire vessels every time, which can be navigation hazards and create marine debris, funding options are often limited for abandoned vessels. However, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 enables us to remove the hazardous materials on board and reduce that environmental threat.

I find working in the field directly alongside my Coast Guard colleagues to be invaluable. Inevitably, I come away from these experiences having learned a bit more and increased my appreciation for the uniqueness of both the people and the place. Hopefully, that makes me even better prepared to work with them in the future—and in the beautiful and remote wilds of the Forgotten Coast.

NOAA's Adam Davis, left, on a Coast Guard boat removing oil from a derelict vessel.Adam Davis serves as NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for U.S. Coast Guard District 8 and NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. He graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham before entering the United States Army where he served as a nuclear, biological, and chemical operations specialist. Upon completing his tour in the Army, Adam returned home and completed a second degree in environmental science at the University of West Florida. He comes with a strong background in federal emergency and disaster response and has worked on a wide range of contaminant and environmental issues. He considers himself very fortunate to be a part of NOAA and a resident of the Gulf Coast, where he and his family enjoy the great food, culture, and natural beauty of the coast.


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Preparing for Anything: What to Do When a Hypothetical Ferry Disaster Overlaps with a National Presidential Convention

This is a post by NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

A small boat on the Delaware River with Philadelphia's skyline in the background

In June 2016, team of federal and state emergency responders practiced responding to a hypothetical ferry disaster and oil spill scenario in anticipation of the Democratic National Convention, which occurred in Philadelphia at the end of July. (Credit: Kevin Harber, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When you’re in the business of emergency response, you need to be prepared for all kinds of disasters and all kinds of scenarios. Being a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator, the disaster scenarios I’m usually involved with have some connection to the coast or major U.S. waterways.

And being ready for a disaster means practicing pretty much exactly what you would do during an emergency response, even if it’s for a relatively unlikely scenario, such as a catastrophic ferry explosion, collision, and oil spill during a major political party convention.

What follows is the hypothetical scenario that a team of federal and state emergency responders walked through at a training workshop from June 12-14, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

U.S Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay hosted this practice scenario in anticipation of the Democratic National Convention, which occurred (thankfully without any major security incidents) in Philadelphia at the end of July. The team involved was comprised of members from the U.S. Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New Jersey and Pennsylvania state police, U.S. Coast Guard, and NOAA.

Ready for Anything You Can Imagine (And This Is Imagined)

Exercise scenario: It is the first day of the Democratic National Convention, which is taking place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of elected officials and the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential candidate, are just arriving at the event.

The Secret Service reports that VIPs continue to land at Philadelphia International Airport. Security is tight. A large safety perimeter has been established around the convention center, with surrounding streets and highways closed to all traffic and thousands of law enforcement officers posted at strategic locations throughout the city.

Meanwhile, the RiverLink Ferry is making the 2:00 p.m. trip from Philadelphia to Camden, New Jersey. There are 21 passengers and two crew members on board. The ferry is crossing the federal channel of the Delaware River when an explosion of unknown cause erupts from the ferry’s engine room. The explosion causes the vessel to lose propulsion and steering. It begins listing to the starboard side and drifting down the Delaware River. Smoke can be seen billowing from vents and openings.

Simultaneously, the tug The Caribbean Sea II is pushing the barge The Resource II upriver. The barge attempted to avoid the distressed ferry but is unsuccessful, striking the ferry and causing significant structural damage to both vessels.

Damaged barge on the Mississippi River.

A damaged barge which caused an oil spill on the Mississippi River in early 2016. Responders need to prepare for all kinds of maritime disasters. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Numerous ferry passengers are thrown onto the deck or into the river; others begin jumping into the water. Responders from the U.S. Coast Guard, New Jersey State Police Marine Services Bureau, and the marine units of the Philadelphia Fire and Police Departments all rushed to the scene. Already, they encounter both seriously injured survivors and casualties as far as 200 yards down river of the vessels.

Rescue boats pick up eight survivors from the water and begin offloading them at Penn’s Landing Marina. Responders continue to evacuate people from the sinking ferry until it slips completely under water in the vicinity of the Penn’s Landing helicopter port. A total of 14 people are rescued and three bodies recovered, some found as far as a quarter mile down river. Six people remain missing.

Thankfully, no injuries are reported among the tugboat’s four person crew. However, one of the two crewmembers on the barge, a 60-year-old male, has fallen and broken his arm. He appears to be going into shock and needs to be evacuated.

As a result of the collision, the tug only has partial steering capabilities but continues to push the barge several hundred yards up river, where it drops anchor. The two damaged vessels remain in the river channel, and as responders assess the vessels’ conditions, they uncover that the barge is leaking oil. Manhole-sized bubbles of oil are burping to the water’s surface, coming from the port side damage below the water line. Oil appears to be leaking from a tank which is holding 5,000 barrels of oil. In all, the barge is carrying 50,000 barrels of heavy bunker fuel oil.

Reining in Hypothetical Chaos

Three damaged vessels. People injured, dead, and missing. A potentially large oil spill on a busy river. First responders diverted from a high-security national event to a local aquatic incident In other words, quite a hypothetical mess.

Was the explosion on the ferry due to terrorism? Was it due to human error? Or was it due to a mechanical malfunction in the engine room? We had to imagine how we would deal with these many complicated issues in the heat of the moment.

Group of responders in safety vests standing and sitting around tables.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak, standing at right, briefing the Unified Command during another U.S. Coast Guard oil spill training exercise in Virginia in 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

As a member of the local Coast Guard’s response team during this exercise, I helped with many key decisions and procedures and with establishing priorities for response. I acted as a member of what’s known in the emergency response community as the “Unified Command,” or the established hierarchy of agencies and organizations responding to an emergency, such as an oil spill or hurricane.

In this scenario, I was specifically charged with commanding, coordinating, and managing the oil spill response, which is my specialty. I started by identifying and obtaining resources to support the spill response and cleanup and conducting an assessment of natural resources at risk from the oil. Meanwhile, I coordinated with my NOAA support team of scientists back in Seattle, Washington, to provide information on local weather conditions, tides, oil trajectory forecasts, and modeling of the oil’s fate and effects.

In addition, I had to coordinate a variety of notifications and consultations required under the Endangered Species Act, the Essential Fish Habitat provision of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act, which protects historical and archaeological sites.

As you can see, my role during a disaster like this hypothetical one is far-reaching. And that’s not even everything. I also helped protect nearby wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas from the thick, spreading oil; prioritized which areas needed protective booming to prevent contact with oil; and led the response’s environmental team, which had representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Of course, all of this was an exercise and there was no ferry incident and no oil spill.

During the actual Democratic National Convention, which took place July 25–29, 2016, I was ready and waiting for any call for help from Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay. I’m pleased to report that it never came, but if it did, I’d know what to do.

Editor’s note: NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also supported the U.S. Coast Guard’s maritime security activities surrounding the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 18–21, 2016. Two NOAA staff members worked as part of the Coast Guard’s Incident Management Team in Cleveland, managing the event’s data in our online mapping tool known as ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application), and coordinating with the several other agencies involved with the convention’s security.

The Coast Guard provided maritime security and monitored potential situations along the Lake Erie shoreline and the Cuyahoga River during the convention. ERMA allowed Coast Guard leadership and others in the command post to access near real-time data, such as locations of field teams and tracked vessels, as well as other agency data such as Department of Homeland Security safety zones, infrastructure status, and protest locations. This gave them a comprehensive picture of the Coast Guard’s efforts and the ability to assess potential issues from any location.

Photo of Philadelphia waterfront courtesy of Kevin Harber and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

Frank Csulak is a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration. Based in New Jersey, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the Mid-Atlantic region, covering New York, Delaware Bay, Baltimore, Hampton Roads, and North Carolina.