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: Six Years Since Deepwater

beach-grasses (4)Wednesday, April 20, is the six-year anniversary of the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.  That terrible incident was the start of a three month-long oil spill that spilled millions of gallons per day until the well was capped on July 15, 2010.    The cleanup took years to complete, the natural resource damage assessment was just finalized this spring, and restoration activities will take decades to complete.  Many long-term research projects are underway and we are still learning about the effects of the spill on the environmental and the coastal communities of the Gulf of Mexico.

On April 4, 2016, the court approved a settlement with BP for natural resource injuries stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This settlement concludes the largest natural resource damage assessment ever undertaken. It is safe to say that scientists will be publishing papers and results for decades.  For many of the people involved, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered THE SPILL, the same way the generation of scientists that worked on the Exxon Valdez Spill in Alaska almost 30 years ago consider that event.  We even keep track of events in a rough vernacular based on those incidents.  Post-Deepwater, or Pre-OPA (the Oil Pollution Act, passed in 1990, the summer after the Exxon Valdez spill).  But while those spills generate most of the publicity, policy interest, and research, responders in NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies know that spills are a routine occurrence.  Since the Deepwater Horizon spill, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has responded to over 800 other incidents.  Most are ones that you’ve probably never heard off, but here are a few of the larger incidents since Deepwater.

Enbridge Pipeline Leak, Kalamazoo, Michigan:  On July 25, 2010, while the nation was fixated on the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an underground pipeline in Michigan also began gushing oil. More than 800,000 gallons of crude oil poured out of the leaking pipeline and flowed along 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River, one of the largest rivers in southern Michigan. The spill impacted over 1,560 acres of stream and river habitat as well as floodplain and upland areas, and reduced recreational and tribal uses of the river. A natural resource damage assessment was settled in 2015 that will result in multiple resource restoration projects along the Kalamazoo River.

Two kayakers on the river with vegetation visible on the water in foreground.

Kayaking on the Kalamazoo River. (NOAA)

Exxon Mobil Pipeline Rupture, Yellowstone River, Montana:  On July 1, 2011, an ExxonMobil Pipeline near Billings, Montana, ruptured, releasing an estimated 31,500 to 42,000 gallons of oil into the iconic river, which was at flood-stage level at the time of the spill.  Oil spread downstream affecting sensitive habitats.

Paulsboro, New Jersey Rail Accident and Release: On November 30, 2012, a train transporting the chemical vinyl chloride derailed while crossing a bridge that collapsed over Mantua Creek, in Paulsboro, N.J., near Philadelphia. Four rail cars fell into the creek, breaching one tank and releasing approximately 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride. A voluntary evacuation zone was established for the area, and nearby schools were ordered to immediately take shelter and seal off their buildings.

Molasses Spill, Honolulu, Hawaii: On September 8, 2013, a faulty pipeline operated by Matson Shipping Company leaked 233,000 gallons (1,400 tons) of molasses into Hawaii’s Honolulu Harbor.  A large fish kill resulted.

Texas “Y” collision, Galveston, Texas:  On March 22, 2014, the 585 foot bulk carrier ‘M/V Summer Wind’ collided with an oil tank-barge, containing 924,000 gallons of fuel oil.  The collision occurred at the intersection or “Y” in Lower Galveston Bay, where three lanes of marine traffic converge: vessels from the Port of Texas City, the Houston Ship Channel and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.   The collision breached the hull of the tank barge, spilling about 168,000 gallons of fuel oil spilled into the waterway. A natural resource damage assessment is underway, evaluating impacts to shoreline habitats, birds, bottlenose dolphins, and recreational uses.

Refugio State Beach Pipeline Rupture, California:   On May 19, 2015, a 24-inch crude pipeline ruptured near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California. Of the approximately 100,000 gallons of crude oil released, some was captured and some flowed into the Pacific Ocean.  The spill raised many challenges. The spill occurred in an especially sensitive region of the coast, known for its incredible diversity of marine life and home to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The Refugio spill site is also the site of one of the most historically significant spills in U.S. history. Just over 46 years ago, off the coast of Santa Barbara, a well blowout occurred, spilling as much as 4.2 million gallons of oil into the ocean. A natural resource damage assessment for the Refugio spill is underway, focusing on impacts to wildlife, habitat, and lost recreational uses.

Two people in cleanup suits with a shovel stand on a beach with oiled rocks.

Two cleanup crew members work to remove oil from the sand along a portion of soiled coastline near Refugio State Beach, on May 23, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Barge APEX 3508 Collision, Columbus, Kentucky:  On September 2, 2015, two tug boats collided on the Mississippi River near Columbus, Kentucky, spilling an estimated 120,500 gallons of heavy oil.  The oil sank to the river bottom and had to be recovered by dredge.

Train Derailment, West Virginia:  On February 16, 2015, a CSX oil train derailed and caught fire in West Virginia near the confluence of Armstrong Creek and the Kanawha River. The train was hauling 3.1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a facility in Virginia. Of the 109 train cars, 27 of them derailed on the banks of the Kanawha River, but none of them entered the river. Much of the oil they were carrying was consumed in the fire, which affected 19 train cars, and an unknown amount of oil reached the icy creek and river.

Each year NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is asked to respond to an average of 150 incidents, and so far this year we have been asked for help with 43 incidents. Most of these were not huge, and include groundings in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii; five sunken vessels, fires at two marinas, a burning vessel, and an oil platform fire; nine oil spills and a chemical spill; and multiple “mystery sheens”—slicks of oil or chemicals that are spotted on the surface of the water and don’t have a clear origin. Since 1990, we have responded to thousands of incidents, helping to guide effective cleanups and protect sensitive resources. Also since 1990 and with our co-trustees, we have settled almost 60 spills for more than $9.7 billion for restoration. We hope that we will never have to respond to another “Deepwater” or “Exxon Valdez”, but should a large disaster occur, we will be ready. In the meantime, smaller accidents happen frequently and we are ready for those, too.

Doug Helton and Vicki Loe contributed to this post.


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Supporting the Response to a Platform Fire and Oil Spill in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana

Fire burns in one of several oil tanks on a platform in a bayou.

The Coast Guard, with state and local partners, is responding to an oil production platform fire in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana, March 15, 2016. One of the tanks reportedly collapsed, releasing an unknown amount of crude oil into a canal. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On the morning of March 15, 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard requested assistance from NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration for an oil production platform fire near Berry Lake in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana.

While crews were working to dismantle the platform, one of the oil storage tanks caught fire. No injuries have been reported. The U.S. Coast Guard is leading the response with state and local agencies.

The platform and one of its storage tanks burned throughout the day on March 15 before the tank partially collapsed, releasing crude oil into a canal. Most of the oil released from the tank continued to burn on the water surface and was consumed.

Responders contained the remaining oil and burn residue in the canal with boom.

Fire-fighting vessel sprays water on an oil tank on a platform in a bayou.

Response crews extinguished the fire on the oil production platform and will continue to monitor the scene in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A second tank on the platform subsequently caught fire but has been extinguished. The two storage tanks had a maximum capacity of more than 33,000 gallons of crude oil.

We are assisting the Coast Guard’s response by coordinating local weather forecast support, modeling the potential trajectory of spills of oil or burn residue, and outlining the wildlife and habitats that could be at risk in the area. A NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator has reported to the response to provide further help and assess potential impacts of the oil spill.

Bayou Sorrel is predominantly composed of seasonally flooded, forested wetlands with some patches of freshwater marshes and open canals. While oil is unlikely to penetrate flooded or water-saturated soils, it will readily coat and become mixed with floating debris such as branches and leaves.

A variety of birds, particularly diving and wading birds and waterfowl, may be present in the area and might be at risk of coming into contact with oil, which can coat their feathers, be ingested, or inhaled. In addition, fish and invertebrates such as crawfish may be present or spawning in the marshy habitats surrounding the oil platform, and alligators and small-to-medium-sized mammals including mink and river otters may be nearby.

In 2013, NOAA provided on-site technical support for an oil spill from a pipeline in Bayou Sorrel and helped coordinate a controlled burn of the spilled oil in the area’s flooded, wooded swamps. Additionally, we assisted with other oil spills in this area in 2015, 2007, and 1988.

Look for more information about the current oil spill and fire here and at the U.S. Coast Guard’s media site.


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For the First Time in Decades, Scientists Examine How Oil Spills Might Affect Baleen Whales

A North Atlantic right whale's mouth is visible at the ocean surface.

NOAA scientists and partners recently collaborated to examine how oil and dispersants might affect the function of baleen in humpback, bowhead, and right whales (pictured). Hundreds of baleen plates hang from these whales’ top jaws and allow them to filter food from the water. (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Permit 15488)

Several days of unseasonably warm weather in late September had Gary Shigenaka starting to wonder how much longer he and his colleagues would be welcome at Ohmsett, a national oil spill research facility in New Jersey.

They were working with whale baleen, and although the gum tissue anchoring their baleen samples had been preserved with formalin, the balmy fall weather was taking a toll. As a result, things were starting to smell a little rank.

Fortunately, cooler weather rounded out that first week of experiments, and the group, of course, was invited back again. Over the course of three week-long trials in September, December, and January, they were trying to tease out the potential impacts of oil and dispersants on whale baleen.

As a marine biologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Shigenaka’s job is to consider how oil spills might threaten marine life and advise the U.S. Coast Guard on this issue during a spill response.

But the last time scientists had examined how oil might affect whale baleen was in a handful of studies back in the 1980s. This research took place before the 1989 Exxon Valdez and 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spills and predated numerous advances in scientific technique, technology, and understanding.

Thanks to a recent opportunity provided by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which runs the Ohmsett facility, Shigenaka and a team of scientists, engineers, and oil spill experts have been able to revisit this question in the facility’s 2.6 million gallon saltwater tank.

The diverse team that made this study possible hails not just from NOAA but also Alaska’s North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management (Dr. Todd Sformo), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Dr. Michael Moore and Tom Lanagan), Hampden-Sydney College (Dr. Alexander Werth), and Oil Spill Response Limited (Paul Schuler). In addition, NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program provided substantial support for the project, including funding and regulatory expertise, and was coordinated by Dr. Teri Rowles.

Getting a Mouthful

To understand why this group is focused on baleen and how an oil spill might affect this particular part of a whale, you first need to understand what baleen is and how a whale uses it. Similar to fingernails and hooves, baleen is composed of the protein keratin, along with a few calcium salts, giving it a tough but pliable character.

A hand holds a ruler next to oiled baleen hanging from a clamp next to a man.

Made of the flexible substance keratin, baleen plates have tangles of “fringe hair” that act as nets to strain marine life from mouthfuls of ocean water. This study examined how oil and dispersants might affect the performance of baleen. (NOAA)

Twelve species of whales, including humpback and bowhead, have hundreds of long plates of baleen hanging from the top jaw, lined up like the teeth on a comb, which they use to filter feed. A whale’s tongue rubs against its baleen plates, fraying their inner edges and creating tangles of “fringe hair” that act like nets to catch tiny sea creatures as the whale strains massive gulps of ocean water back out through the baleen plates.

Baleen does vary somewhat between species of whales. Some might have longer or shorter baleen plates, for example, depending on what the whale eats. Bowhead whales, which are Arctic plankton-eaters, can have plates up to 13 feet long.

This study was, at least in part, inspired by scientists wondering what would happen to a bowhead whale if a mouthful of water brought not just lunch but also crude oil from an ill-fated tanker traversing its Arctic waters.

Would oil pass through a whale’s hundreds of baleen plates and coat their mats of fringe hairs? Would that oil make it more difficult for the whale to push huge volumes of water through the oily baleen, causing the whale to use more energy as it tried? Does that result change whether the oil is freshly spilled, or weathered with age, or dispersed with chemicals? Would dispersant make it easier for oil to reach a whale’s gut?

Using more energy to get food would mean the whales then would need to eat even more food to make up for the energy difference, creating a tiring cycle that could tax these gargantuan marine mammals.

Testing this hypothesis has been the objective of Shigenaka’s team. While it might sound simple, almost nothing about the project has been straightforward.

Challenges as Big as a Whale

One of the first challenges was tackled by the engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. They were tasked with turning the mechanical features of Ohmsett’s giant saltwater tank into, essentially, a baleen whale’s mouth.

Woods Hole fabricated a special clamp and then worked with the Ohmsett engineering staff to attach it to a corresponding mount on the mechanical bridges that move back and forth over the giant tank. The clamp gripped the sections of baleen and allowed them to be held at different angles as they moved through the water. In addition, this custom clamp had a load cell, which was connected to a computer on the bridge. As the bridge moved the clamp and baleen at different speeds and angles through the water, the team could measure change in drag on the baleen via the load cell.

With the mechanical portion set up, the Ohmsett staff released oil into the test tank on the surface of the water, and the team watched expectantly how the bridges moved the baleen through the thin oil slick. It turned out to be a pretty inefficient way to get oil on baleen. “How might a whale deal with oil on the surface of the water?” asked Shigenaka. “If it’s feeding, it might scoop up a mouthful of water and oil and run it through the baleen.” But how could they simulate that experience?

They tried using paintbrushes to apply crude oil to the baleen, but that seemed to alter the character of the baleen too much, matting down the fringe hairs. After discussions with the Ohmsett engineering staff, the research team finally settled on dipping the baleen into a pool of floating oil that was contained by a floating ring. This set-up allowed a relatively heavy amount of oil to contact baleen in the water and would help the scientists calibrate their expectations about potential impacts.

Testing the Waters

Four black plumes of dispersed oil are released underwater onto long plates of baleen moving behind the applicator.

After mixing chemical dispersant with oil, the research team released plumes of it underwater in Ohmsett’s test tank as baleen samples moved through the water behind the applicator. Researchers also tested the effects of dispersant alone on baleen function. (NOAA)

In all, Shigenaka and his teammates ran 127 different trials across this experiment. They measured the drag values for baleen in a variety of combinations: through saltwater alone, with fresh oil, with weathered oil, with dispersed oil (pre-mixed and released underwater through a custom array designed and built by Ohmsett staff), and with chemical dispersant alone. They tested during temperate weather as well as lower temperature conditions, which clearly thickened the consistency of the oil. They conducted the tests using baleen from three different species of whales: bowhead, humpback, and right whale.

Following all the required regulations and with the proper permits, the bowhead baleen was donated by subsistence whalers from Barrow, Alaska. The baleen from other species came from whales that had stranded on beaches from locations outside of Alaska.

In addition to testing the potential changes in drag on the baleen, the team of researchers used an electric razor to shave off baleen fringe hairs as samples for chemical analysis to determine whether the oil or dispersant had any effects on baleen at the molecular level. They also determined how much oil, dispersed oil, and dispersant were retained on the baleen fringe hairs after the trials.

At this point, the team is analyzing the data from the experimental trials and plans to submit the results for publication in a scientific journal. NOAA is also beginning to create a guidance document on oil and cetaceans (whales and dolphins), which will incorporate the conclusions of this research.

While the scientific community has learned a lot about the apparent effects of oil on dolphins in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, there is very little information on large whales. The body of research on oil’s effects on baleen from the 1980s concluded that there were few and transient effects, but whether that conclusion holds up today remains to be seen.

“This is another piece of the puzzle,” said Shigenaka. “If we can distill response-relevant guidance that helps to mediate spill impacts to whales, then we will have been successful.”

Work was conducted under NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Permits 17350 and 18786.


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During the Chaos of Oil Spills, Seeking a System to Test Potential Solutions

This is a post by Ed Levine of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Response workers load oil containment boom onto a supply ship in Louisiana.

NOAA helped develop a systematic approach to vetting new and non-traditional spill response products and techniques during the fast-paced atmosphere of an oil spill. We helped implement this system during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to evaluate the tens of thousands of ideas proposed during the spill. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the pre-dawn hours of January 7, 1994, the tank barge Morris J Berman ran aground near San Juan, Puerto Rico, damaging coral and spilling more than 800,000 gallons of a thick, black fuel oil. Strong winds and waves battered the barge as it continued to leak and created dangerous conditions for spill responders.

During the hectic but organized spill response that followed [PDF] the barge’s grounding, a number of vendors appeared at the command post with spill cleanup products which they assured responders would fix everything. This scenario had played out at many earlier oil spills, and nearly every time, these peddled products were treated differently, at various times sidelined, ignored, tested, or put to use.

It’s not unexpected for the initial situation at any emergency response—be it medical, natural disaster, fire, or oil spill—to be chaotic. Responders are dealing with limited resources, expertise, and information at the very beginning.

As the situation progresses, additional help, information, and experts typically arrive to make things more manageable. Usually, in the middle of all this, people are trying to be helpful, or make a buck, and sometimes both.

At the spill response in Puerto Rico, the responders formed an official ad hoc group charged with cataloging and evaluating each new suggested cleanup product or technology. The group involved local government agencies, NOAA, and the U.S. Coast Guard. It began to develop a systematic approach to what had typically been a widely varying process at previous oil spills.

The methodology the group developed for this case was rough and quickly implemented for the situation at hand. Over the course of the several months required to deal with the damaged barge and oil spill, the ad hoc group tested several, though not all, of the potential cleanup products.

Approaching Order

A few years later, another group took this process a step further through the Regional Response Team III, a state-federal entity for response policy, planning, and coordination for West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

This working group set out to develop a more organized and systematic way to deal with alternative oil spill response techniques and technologies, those which aren’t typically used during oil spill responses. After many months of working collaboratively, this multi-agency working group, which included me and other colleagues in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, produced the approach known as the Alternative Response Tools Evaluation System (ARTES).

This system allows a special response team to rapidly evaluate a proposed response tool and provide feedback in the form of a recommendation to the on-scene coordinator, who directs spill responses for a specified area. This coordinator then can make an informed decision on the use of the proposed tool.

artes-process-flow-chart_noaa_720

The Alternative Response Tools Evaluation System (ARTES) process is designed for use both before and after a spill. “OSC” stands for on-scene coordinator, the person who directs a spill response, and “RRT” stands for Regional Response Team, the multi-agency group charged with spill response policy, planning, and coordination for different regions of the United States.

The ARTES process is designed for two uses. First, it can be used to assess a product’s appropriateness for use during a specific incident, under specific circumstances, such as a diesel spill resulting from a damaged tug boat on the Mississippi River. Second, the process can serve as a pre-evaluation tool during pre-spill planning to identify conditions when a proposed product would be most effective.

One advantage of the ARTES process is that it provides a management system for addressing the numerous proposals submitted by vendors and others during a spill. Subjecting all proposals to the same degree of evaluation also ensures that vendors are considered on a “level playing field.”

Although developed for one geographic region, the ARTES process quickly became adopted by others around the country and has been included in numerous local and regional response plans.

Once the ARTES process was codified, several products including an oil solidifier and a bioremediation agent underwent regional pre-spill evaluations. Personally, I was involved in several of those evaluations as well as one during an actual spill.

A Flood of Oil … and Ideas

A super tanker ship with a large slit in the bow anchored in the Gulf of Mexico.

The super tanker “A Whale” after testing during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The skimming slits on its bow are being sealed because it was not able to perform as designed. This vessel design was one of more than 80,000 proposals for surface oil spill response submitted during the spill. (NOAA)

Another defining moment for the ARTES process came in 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Within the first week of the spill, the unified command, the multi-agency organization which coordinates the response and includes those responsible for the spill, was inundated with suggestions to cap the leaking well and clean up the oil released into the Gulf of Mexico.

At one of the morning coordination meetings, the BP incident commander shared his frustration in keeping up with the deluge of offers. He asked if anyone had a suggestion for dealing with all of them. My hand shot up immediately.

After the meeting I spoke with leaders from both BP and the U.S. Coast Guard and described the ARTES process to them. They gave me the go-ahead to implement it. Boy, did I not know what we were in for!

As the days went by, the number of submissions kept growing, and growing, and growing. What started out as a one-person responsibility—recording submissions by phone and email—was soon taken over by a larger group staffed by the Coast Guard and California Office of Spill Prevention and Response and which eventually grew into a special unit of the response.

A dedicated website was created to receive product proposals and ideas, separate them into either a spill response or well capping method, track their progress through the evaluation system, and report the final decision to archive the idea, test it, or put it to use during the spill.

People who submitted ideas were able to track submissions and remain apprised of each one’s progress. Eventually, 123,000 individual ideas were submitted and tracked, 470 made the initial cut, 100 were formally evaluated, and about 30 were implemented during response field operations. Of the original 123,000 submissions, there were 80,000 subsurface and 43,000 surface oil spill response ideas.

One of the many proposals for cleaning up the oil took the form of the ship A Whale. It was a super tanker with a large slit in the bow at the waterline that was meant to serve as a huge skimmer, pulling oil off the ocean surface. Unfortunately, testing revealed that it didn’t work.

Some other examples of submissions included sand-cleaning machines and a barge designed to be an oil skimming and storage device (nicknamed the “Bubba Barge”) that actually did work. On the other hand, popular proposals such as human hair, feathers, and pool “noodles” didn’t perform very well.

Even under the weight of this incredible outpouring of proposals, the ARTES process held up, offering a great example of how far pre-planning can go.

Ed Levine.

Ed Levine is the Response Operations Supervisor – East for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, managing Scientific Support Coordinators from Maine to Texas.

 


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Accidents on a Flooded Lower Mississippi River Keep NOAA Busy with a Rash of Spills

Damaged barge on the Mississippi River.

A barge carrying slurry oil being pushed by the towing vessel Amy Francis hit the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge, Jan. 21, 2016. The barge reportedly has a maximum potential of more than 1 million gallons of slurry oil on board. (U.S. Coast Guard)

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Donna Roberts.

Did you know that oil spills occur every day in U.S. waters? Rivers bustling with ship traffic, such as the Mississippi, are no exception to this rule.

In the past few weeks, we’ve been involved with quite a few accidents involving vessels carrying oil and chemicals on the Lower Mississippi River.

These river accidents coincided with high water and swift currents. Despite safeguards for vessel traffic put in place by the U.S. Coast Guard, the river conditions resulted in ships colliding, hitting bridges and ground, and breaking away from their towing vessels. One unlucky railroad bridge in Vicksburg, Mississippi, has been hit by vessels five times already this year.

Even now, the NOAA River Forecast Center reports that the Lower Mississippi is experiencing moderate flood conditions. It’s difficult to navigate a river with a tow of barges at any flow—and extremely challenging when the flow is high and fast. In spite of everyone’s best efforts, under conditions like these, accidents can and do still happen, and investigations are ongoing into the precise causes.

Luckily, most of the incidents that have occurred were relatively minor, resulted in no injuries to vessel crews, and all spills received immediate responses from state and federal agencies. Still, when oil or chemicals spill into rivers, we know that they differ from spills in the ocean or along coasts, and therefore present different challenges for spill responders.

Here are just a few of the dozen or so spills and near-spills we know of and which have been keeping our spill modelers, chemists, and Scientific Support Coordinators busy over the past few weeks.

January 21, 2016: A barge being towed by the UTV Amy Frances struck the Natchez Bridge, where Highway 84 crosses over the Lower Mississippi River between Mississippi and Louisiana, in the vicinity of Mile Marker 363. As a result, two of the barge’s tanks were damaged, spilling slurry oil, which our chemical lab confirmed was denser than water. That means this oil sinks.

In the wake of this oil spill, one of our Scientific Support Coordinators helped survey the river to detect sunken oil. Given the river’s very fast and turbulent water at the time, we think any oil released from the damaged tanks was immediately broken into small droplets and carried downstream while also sinking below the river surface. Any oil that reached the bottom was probably mixed with or buried by the sand moving downstream near the river bottom. This is because rivers that move a lot of water also move a lot of sediment.

In addition, we provided information on the expected fate and effects of the barge’s spilled slurry oil and on the animals and habitats that could be at risk.

Workers on a river edge pump oil from a damaged barge.

Response crews remove oil from the damaged MM-46 barge, Jan. 23, 2016, on the Mississippi River. Crews estimate that approximately 76,000 gallons of clarified oil mixture is still unaccounted for. Crews continue to take soundings of the damaged barge tank to determine the amount spilled while assessment teams work to locate missing product. (U.S. Coast Guard)

January 25, 2016: Just a few days later, the Coast Guard called on us for advice related to a barge containing liquid urea ammonium nitrate (liquid fertilizer), which sank south of Valewood, Mississippi, at Mile Marker 501 on the Mississippi River. Side-scan sonar indicates the barge is upside-down on the river bottom, approximately 80 feet down.

Given the position and water pressure, we believe the chemical cargo stored on the barge was likely released into the river. The chemical is heavier than water and will mix quickly into the water column. Because elevated levels of ammonia can affect aquatic life, our focus was on predicting and tracking where the chemical would go downriver and what would happen to it. Salvage efforts for the barge itself continue.

January 26, 2016: The next day, two vessel tows collided upriver of New Orleans, Louisiana, near Mile Marker 130 on the Lower Mississippi River. The collision capsized one of two barges carrying caustic soda, or sodium hydroxide. We provided the Coast Guard with an initial chemical hazard assessment for this chemical, which is a strong base. The release of a large enough quantity of sodium hydroxide could raise the pH of the water around it, posing a risk to local fish and other aquatic life nearby. The barge is secure, but righting it is difficult in the swift currents. No pollution release has been reported to date.

Science for Spills of All Kinds

During these kinds of spills, we have to be ready to provide the same round-the-clock, science-based support to the Coast Guard and other agencies as big spills like the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

For example, if a chemical has spilled into a river, we need to know where it’s going to go, what’s going to happen to it, and what, if any, species will be harmed by it. To help answer the “where’s it going?” question, our response specialists use the spill trajectory tool, GNOME, to predict the possible route the pollutant might follow.

To better understand the pollutant and its possible effects, we use software tools such as CAMEO Chemicals to provide information about the chemical’s properties, toxicity, and behavior as it is diluted by the river water. Our Chemical Aquatic Fate and Effects (CAFE) database contains information on the effects of thousands of chemicals, oils, and dispersants on aquatic life.

The Mississippi River and its floodplain are home to a diverse population of living things. On the Lower Mississippi, there may be as many as 60 separate species of mussel. To protect vulnerable species, we use our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps and data to report what animals or habitats could be at risk, particularly those that are threatened or endangered. Keeping responders and the public safe and minimizing environmental harm are two of our top priorities during any spill, no matter the size.

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts is a writer for the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Her work supports the OR&R website and the Environmental Sensitivity Index mapping program.


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Apply Now for NOAA’s First Class Examining the Science of Chemical Spills

People standing in a lab next to chemical testing equipment.

This three and a half day class will provide a broad, science-based approach to understanding chemical release response. (NOAA)

For years, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been offering our popular Science of Oil Spills classes to oil spill responders and planners. But oil isn’t the only hazardous material for which we have expertise. This March, we’ll launch our first official Science of Chemical Releases (SOCR) class to share this expertise in new ways.

This class is designed to help spill responders and planners increase their scientific understanding when preparing for and analyzing chemical spills, which could range from toluene to sulfuric acid, and when making risk-based decisions to protect public health, safety, and the environment in the event of such a release.

The three and a half day class will take place at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Alabama, from March 21–24, 2016.

We are accepting applications for this class until Friday, February 19, 2016. We will notify accepted participants by email no later than Friday, February 26.

The class is primarily intended for new and mid-level spill responders, planners, and stakeholders from all levels of government, industry, and academia.

During the class, participants will be introduced to a realistic scenario to demonstrate the use of scientific tools, resources, and knowledge to aid in response to chemical releases. The scenario will be centered on a hypothetical chemical incident involving the derailment of multiple railcars containing hazardous chemicals, resulting in a fire and release of dangerous chemicals into the environment.

Through this new training, we hope to provide a broad, science-based approach to understanding chemical release response, thereby increasing awareness and preparedness and reducing uncertainty and risk associated with this type of incident.

There is no tuition for this class. However, students are responsible for all miscellaneous expenses, including lodging, travel, and food.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOCR Classes page.

If you have any questions or experience any problems with your application, please send us an email.

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Alaska Updates Plan for Using Dispersants During Oil Spills

Humpback whale and seabirds at surface of Bering Sea with NOAA ship beyond.

By breaking crude oils into smaller droplets, chemical dispersants reduce the surface area of an oil slick as well as the threats to marine life at the ocean surface, such as whales and seabirds. (NOAA)

While the best way to deal with oil spills in the ocean is to prevent them in the first place, when they do happen, we need to be ready. Cleanup is difficult, and there are no magic remedies to remove all the oil. Most big oil spills require a combination of cleanup tools.

This week the Alaska Regional Response Team, an advisory council for oil spill responses in Alaska, has adopted a revised plan for one of the most controversial tools in the toolbox: Chemical dispersants.

How Dispersants Are Used in Oil Spills

Dispersants are chemical compounds which, when applied correctly under the right conditions, break crude oils into smaller droplets that mix down into the water column. This reduces not only the surface area of an oil slick but also the threats to marine life at the ocean surface. By making the oil droplets smaller, they become much more available to natural degradation by oil-eating microbes.

Dispersants are controversial for many reasons, notably because they don’t remove oil from the marine environment. Mechanical removal methods are always preferred, but we also know that during large oil spills, containment booms and skimmers can get overwhelmed and other pollution response tools may be necessary. This is a big concern especially in Alaska, where weather and remote locations increase the logistical challenges inherent in a large scale oil spill response.

Although dispersants get a lot of attention because of their extensive use after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they actually are used rarely during oil spills. In fact, dispersants have only been applied to about two dozen spills in the United States in the last 40 years. The only time they were tested during an actual spill in Alaska was during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Some oils like light and medium crude are often dispersible and others, like heavy fuel oils, often are not. In some cases dispersants have worked and in others they haven’t. The results of the Exxon Valdez testing were unclear and still subject to debate. So, why have a plan for something that is rarely used and may not be successful?

Probably the biggest reason is pragmatic. Dispersants work best on fresh, unweathered oil. Ideally, they should be applied to oil within hours or days of a spill. Because time is such a critical factor to their effectiveness, dispersants need to be stockpiled in key locations, along with the associated aircraft spraying and testing equipment. People properly trained to use that equipment need to be ready to go too.

A New Plan for Alaska

Airplane sprays dispersants over an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although only used once in an Alaskan oil spill, dispersants have already been an approved oil spill response tool in the state for a number of years. This new plan improves the decision procedures and designates areas where dispersant use may be initiated rapidly. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Now, dispersants have already been an approved oil spill response tool in Alaska [PDF] for a number of years. This new plan improves the decision procedures and designates areas where dispersant use may be initiated rapidly while still requiring notification of the natural resource trustees, local and tribal governments, and other stakeholders before actual use.

Alaska’s new plan specifies all the requirements for applying dispersants on an oil spill in Alaskan waters and includes detailed checklists to ensure that if dispersants are used, they have a high probability of success.

The new plan sets up a limited preauthorization zone in central and western Alaska, and case-by-case procedures for dispersant use elsewhere in Alaska. The plan also recognizes that there are highly sensitive habitats where dispersant use should be avoided.

In addition, preauthorization for using dispersants exists only for oil spills that happen far offshore. Most states have similar preauthorization plans that allow dispersant use starting three nautical miles offshore. The new Alaska plan starts at 24 miles offshore.

We realize that even far offshore, there may be areas to avoid, which is why all of the spill response plans in central and western Alaska will be revised over the next two years. This will occur through a public process to identify sensitive habitats where dispersant use would be subject to additional restrictions.

Planning for the Worst, Hoping for the Best

As the NOAA representative to the Alaska Regional Response Team, I appreciate all of the effort that has gone into this plan. I am grateful we developed the many procedures through a long and inclusive planning process, rather than in a rush on a dark and stormy night on the way to an oil spill.

But I hope this plan will never be needed, because that will mean that a big oil spill has happened. Nobody wants that, especially in pristine Alaskan waters.

Any decision to use dispersants will need to be made cautiously, combining the best available science with the particular circumstances of an oil spill. In some cases, dispersants may not be the best option, but in other scenarios, there may be a net environmental benefit from using dispersants. Having the dispersants, equipment, plans, and training in place will allow us to be better prepared to make that critical decision should the time come.

At the same time, NOAA and our partners are continuing to research and better understand the potential harm and trades-offs of dispersant use following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We are participating in an ongoing effort to understand the state of the science on dispersants and their potential use in Arctic waters. (The University of New Hampshire is now accepting comments on the topic of dispersant efficacy and effectiveness.)

You can find Alaska’s new dispersant policy and additional information at the Alaska Regional Response Team website at www.alaskarrt.org.

For more information on our work on dispersants, read the April 2015 article, “What Have We Learned About Using Dispersants During the Next Big Oil Spill?” and July 2013 article, “Watching Chemical Dispersants at Work in an Oil Spill Research Facility.”

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