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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Preventing and Preparing for Oil Spills in the Arctic

Talking with NOAA Scientist Amy Merten about her time chairing the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group.

Ice bank in the Arctic ocean. Image credit: NOAA.

View off the coast of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway. Taken during a search and rescue demonstration for an Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group meeting. Image Credit: NOAA

As rising temperatures and thinning ice in the Arctic create openings for increased human activities, it also increases the potential for oil spills and chemical releases into the remote environment of the region.

Planning emergency response operations for the Arctic falls to the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group, an Arctic Council body. The emergency working group has representatives from each of the member states with expertise in oil spill response, search and rescue, and response to radiological events.

NOAA’s Amy Merten, chief of the Spatial Data Branch, will finish her two-year stint as chair of the working group in May 2017. The chair is elected every two years from among the working group’s members including: Canada, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, the United States and permanent participants. Merten served on the working group for 5 years before becoming chair. She will leave the position on May 11, 2017. Jens Peter Holst-Andersen, from the Kingdom of Denmark will be the new chair at the next meeting in Vologda, Russia.

Merten, who holds a doctorate in marine sciences/environmental chemistry, shared her insights into the complexities of planning for emergencies in the remote regions of the Arctic and about what it’s like working with other nations to protect the Arctic environments.

What are the biggest challenges facing spill response in the Arctic? 

There are many; remote locations, short windows of open-water and daylight in which to respond, and lack of infrastructure—you can’t send a massive response community to Arctic communities there is not enough food, hotel space, or fuel to sustain larger groups.  Lack of communication is another challenge. Things that we take for granted working at moderate temperatures (cameras, GPS), don’t work at cold temperatures. For search and rescue, there is not adequate hospital space or expertise. Therefore, if a large cruise ship gets into trouble in the Arctic, the rescue, triage and sustainability of the passengers will be a major challenge.

Why is it important to have international cooperation when developing response plans?

Each country has unique experiences and may have developed a way to respond to oil spills in ice or Arctic conditions that can be shared with other countries facing potential spills in ice. Because of the remoteness of the Arctic, with little to no infrastructure, particularly in the United States and Canada, countries will have to rely on equipment and support from others.

Additionally, there are parts of the Arctic Ocean that are international waters, and should a vessel founder there, the countries would collectively respond. We share thoughts on high-risk scenarios, best practices, and identification of research needs. We also share ideas and findings on the latest technologies in communications, oil-in-ice modeling, data management and response technologies.

How does communication with other countries during an emergency work?

We have an up-to-date communication list and protocol. This is part of our agreement, the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. We also practice our communication connectivity once a year, and conduct an international exercise every two years.

What role do satellites have in preparing for and responding to emergencies in the region?

We rely on satellite information for monitoring conditions (weather and ice) and vessel traffic. We would certainly rely on satellite data for an incident in order to plan the response, monitor the extent of the oiling, and understand the weather and ice conditions.

How do the member countries work to share plans so that emergency response is not being duplicated?

This is one of the functions of Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. It ensures we communicate about domestic projects and plans that may benefit the other nations to maximize the collective effectiveness and avoid duplications.

NOAA’s online environmental mapping tool for the region, Arctic ERMA, now includes polar projections; do the other council countries use Arctic ERMA?

They use it during our joint exercises, and we use it to visualize other working group projects, like the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement-led Pan-Arctic response assets database. We also discuss sharing data across systems and are developing data sharing agreements.

What are the three biggest threats to the Arctic environment? 

Keeping it a peaceful governance, climate change, and oil spills/chemical spills.

Why is the Arctic environment important to the United States?

Arctic weather and climate affects the world’s oceans, weather, and climate, including the Lower 48. The Arctic is replete with energy, mineral, and fishing resources. The Arctic is inhabited by indigenous communities with unique lifestyles that are threatened and need protection. The Arctic is also home to unique flora and fauna that are important for biodiversity, ecological services, and overall healthy environments.  As the Arctic becomes more accessible, national security pressures increase.

 What would be the worst types of oil spills in the Arctic?

This is a hard question to answer but I’d say a spill of a persistent oil that occurs in broken ice during freeze up or thawing periods. During freeze up because it will be difficult to respond, and difficult to track the oil.

During thawing because it’s the emergence of primary production for the food web, hunting subsistence practices would be threatened and it could be unsafe to respond due to of the changing ice conditions. It all depends on how far away and difficult it is to get vessels, aircraft, people, and skimmers onsite, and in a way they can operate safely in a meaningful way.

A “worst spill” doesn’t have to be a “large” spill if it impacts sensitive resources at key reproductive and growth cycles, or if it impacts Arctic communities’ food security, subsistence activities, and ways of life.

How has being chair added to your understanding of the emergency response in the Arctic?

I think it’s increased my concern that it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” a spill will happen. The logistics of a response will be complicated, slow, and likely, fairly ineffective. The potential for long-term impacts on stressed communities and stressed environments is high. I do have a good feeling that international cooperation will be at its best, but the challenges are daunting for all of us.

Amy Merten on boat with sea and ice behind her. Image credit: NOAA.

NOAA scientist Amy Merten in the Arctic. Merten is chief of the Spatial Data Branch of the Office of Response and Restoration and served as chair of the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. Image credit: NOAA.


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Using Dogs to Find Oil During Spill Response

Man and woman with black dog. IMage credit: NOAA.

Catherine Berg, Pepper, and Gary Shigenaka. Image credit: NOAA.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division returned to Prince William Sound to use some of the old buried oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill to improve how we can find oil on the shoreline in the future.

This time, the key player was an enthusiastic black Labrador retriever named Pepper. This project is to validate and better understand the capabilities of trained oil detection canines to locate and delineate subsurface stranded oil. The results of the study have a high probability of immediate, short-term applications and long-term real benefits in the design and implementation of shoreline cleanup and assessment technique surveys for stranded oil.

Usually, teams of people trained in the shoreline assessment techniques, called SCAT, comb for oil buried along shorelines and other areas affected by oil spills. The technique has been an integral part of oil spill response since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.  It is a systematic approach to describing the “where” and “how much” for spilled oil, and directs cleanup activities during moderate and larger spill incidents.

The process is labor-intensive and time-consuming, and requires trained personnel to survey areas possibly impacted by an oil spill. In certain habitats—like gravel or sand beaches—oil either penetrates deeply below the surface or becomes buried by material deposited on top, making oil assessment even more difficult. In these cases, SCAT teams must dig pits to determine the existence and extent of buried oil that would require excavation and other more complicated cleanup approaches.

The limitations of human-centric SCAT surveys led one of the originators of the first SCAT programs during Exxon Valdez, Ed Owens of Owens Coastal Consultants, to begin discussions with Paul Bunker’s K2 Solutions to determine if the high sensitivity, accuracy and precision of canine noses could be adapted and applied to the task of oil spill shoreline assessment.

Three people on rocky shore with black dog. Image credit: NOAA>

Paul Bunker and Haiden Montgomery assessing the odor of residual Exxon Valdez oil, while Pepper closely supervises the collection of an oil sample by Scott Pegau of the Oil Spill Recovery Institute. Image credit: NOAA.

This is what led Ed, Paul, Pepper the black lab, her handler Haiden Montgomery, and a host of interested observers from NOAA, the Coast Guard, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Polaris Environmental, and the Oil Spill Recovery Institute to make the trip to Prince William Sound, the Alaskan region impacted by Exxon Valdez. The institute sponsored the project.

Dog teams are already being productively employed for oil assessment in actual spills (Pepper will be traveling to Canada to join her canine colleagues for a river spill assessment).

Scientists from the Office of Response and Restoration observed the trials, assisted in the verification of oil presence, and provided feedback on the use of oil detection dogs in real-time spill situations.

Canine detection of buried oil holds real promise for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of oil spill assessment surveys. The methodology will continue to be refined and improved as it is used in real oil spill situations, and as we increase our understanding of how and what the dogs are actually detecting.

 

Gary Shigenaka and Catherine Berg with the Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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Oil Spill Incident Responses for April 2017

Close up of skimming device on side of a boat with oil and boom. Image credit: U.S. coast Guard

The Emergency Response Division provides scientific expertise and services to the U.S. Coast Guard, including what equipment may be most efficient for containing spilled oil. Skimmers come in various designs but all basically work by removing the oil layer from the surface of the water. Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Oil spills come in all sizes from a pleasure boat’s small leak, to an oil platform explosion that results in environmental devastation, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident.

Every month our Emergency Response Division provides scientific expertise and services to the U.S. Coast Guard on everything from running oil spill trajectories to where the spill may spread, to possible effects on wildlife and fisheries, and estimates on how long the oil may stay in the environment. Our Incident News website has information on oil spills and other incidents where we provided scientific support.

Here are this month’s responses:

Sunken Pleasure Craft, Pass a Loutre

Tug Powhatan

M/V Todd Brown

Mystery Sheen, NESDIS Report

BP Exploration Well #3, Prudhoe Bay, AK

U.S. Steel Hexavalent Chrome Release

F/V Bendora Aground

Vengeance crane barge sinking

Breton Sound Natural Gas Well Head 46D

UTV Michael Nadicksbernd

ATB Meredith Reinauer, Catskill, NY

MV Dawn

Anna Platform Pipeline Leak


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Closing Down Damage Assessment After Deepwater Horizon

Shelves filled with jars.

The plankton archive contains over 130,000 samples from 19 different surveys conducted as part of the natural resources damage assessment. Plankton archive located at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Image credit: NOAA

The environmental toll from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster was enormous, demanding a massive deployment of people and materials to measure the adverse effects.

Federal and state agencies worked quickly to scale up the emergency response, clean up the spill, mount a large-scale effort to assess the injuries to wildlife and other natural resources, and record how these lost resources adversely affected the public.

When the cleanup was finished, and the injuries were determined, another challenge came: NOAA and other agencies had to close down the largest damage assessment field operation in the nation’s history.

During five years of field studies assessing the injuries to natural resources, more than one hundred thousand samples were collected.

Instead of discarding the samples once the assessment was over, and the BP settlement was completed, it made more sense to find other uses for the samples, and the valuable laboratory, field, and office equipment attained during the assessment work. In many cases, the cost of finding new homes for samples and equipment was cheaper than disposal.

Repurposing samples and equipment: the work goes on

Shutting down the assessment operations involved clearing out laboratories and warehouses filled with samples, field equipment, and supplies.

In most instances, only a portion of each sample was needed for analysis and by the end of 2015, NOAA had an extensive trove of environmental samples.

Recognizing that many research scientists might put these samples to good use, NOAA made the materials available by publishing announcements in professional society newsletters. After receiving about one hundred inquiries, staff and contractors began distributing more than 5,000 samples.

Additionally, some sample collections were archived in publicly available repositories, with other historical and scientifically valuable collections. Thousands of samples of plankton, fish, and other organisms collected during post-spill trawls in Gulf waters went to a NOAA archive in Stennis, Mississippi.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. received rare deep-sea corals. Later this year the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank will host thousands of samples from species of dolphins and other marine mammals found dead after the oil spill.

Universities across the United States received samples for research. Sediment samples sent to Florida State University in Tallahassee are supporting studies on the long-term fate of Deepwater Horizon oil deposited on Gulf beaches and in nearshore environments.

Researchers at Jacksonville University in Florida are using samples to compare the weathering of tar balls found submerged to tar balls those stranded on land. Additionally, researchers at Texas A&M University obtained samples of the spilled oil for studies of bacteria that biodegrade oil.

Graphic with gloved hands pouring liquid from sample jar into beaker and numbers of samples, results, and studies resulting from NOAA efforts.

Finding new homes for scientific instruments and other equipment

Field samples were not the only items distributed to advance oil spill science. NOAA shipped hundreds of large and small pieces of equipment to universities and other research partners to aid ongoing investigations about the effects of oil spills on the environment, and the ongoing monitoring of the Gulf environment.

Repurposed supplies and equipment found a second life at many institutions including the:

  • University of Miami
  • NOVA Southeastern University
  • Dauphin Island Sea Lab
  • University of Southern Mississippi
  • University of South Florida
  • Louisiana State University
  • Texas A & M
  • Smithsonian Institution

In addition to laboratory equipment, some university researchers received practical items such as anchors, battery packs, buoys, forceps, freezer packs, glassware, preservatives such as alcohol and formalin, and thermometers.

NOAA coordinated with BP to recover and repurpose thousands of items BP purchased for the assessment. While clearing out office buildings and trailers, NOAA staff identified and requested valuable pieces of laboratory and field equipment, and other supplies. Some of these items, such as microscopes, initially cost tens of thousands of dollars.

First responders from NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard also received field safety equipment including:

  • Personal floatation devices
  • Safety goggles
  • Pallets of nitrile gloves
  • Lightning detectors
  • Sorbent boom

All of which support preparedness for future incidents.

Countless NOAA staff rose to the enormous challenges of responding to, assessing impacts from, and restoring the natural resources injured by the Deepwater Horizon incident. This work continues, assisted by the creative reuse and repurposing of materials across the country to support ongoing efforts to advance oil spill science and improve preparedness for future spills.

Read more about and the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and partners in responding to the spill, documenting the environmental damage, and holding BP accountable for restoring injured resources:

 

Greg Baker, Rob Ricker, and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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High Water and Sunken Oil on the Great Mississippi

Man in orange uniform inspecting wrecked barge.

U.S. Coast Guard conducting initial damage survey of barge from the UTV Amy Frances. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

If you can’t see spilled oil, how do you find it and clean it up?

That’s the situation emergency responders faced in two oil spills on the Mississippi River that challenged their understanding of how to approach evaluating oil spill conditions.

The first incident was Sept. 3, 2015 when two tow barges collided on the Lower Mississippi River near Columbus, Kentucky. The second was Jan. 21, 2016 when a barge towed by the UTV Amy Frances struck the Natchez Bridge on the Lower Mississippi River. The Lower Mississippi is the most traveled and commercially important portion of the river’s system.

In both instances, the U.S. Coast Guard requested assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has scientific support coordinators stationed throughout the country to respond to spill emergencies.

The two incidents also spilled slurry oil—a byproduct of the oil refining process, which is denser than water and so, sinks instead of floating on the water’s surface. Despite understanding the scientific attributes of the oil, the responders needed to know where it was and how it would react to the river’s high water conditions.

“Just because you know the physical properties doesn’t tell you it will stay in one piece or get torn to bits and scattered all over the river bottom,” said Adam Davis, NOAA scientific support coordinator in the Gulf of Mexico who responded to both spills. “What we didn’t know was how it would interact with the river bottom and whether the best practice assessment tools would work given the river conditions at the time.”

In other words, would the oil sink and go straight to the bottom as one coherent mass or, would the currents tear it into pieces and take it downstream over a larger area? Or, would the oil be rapidly buried and evade the ability to locate and recover it?

Damaged barge.

A view of the damaged barge Apex 3508, whose tug boat collided with another on Sept. 2, 2015, causing an oil spill on the Mississippi River near Columbus, Kentucky. The rest of the oil on board the barge was removed. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Locating sunken oil in a large, dynamic river like the Lower Mississippi can be daunting. Fortunately, In the case of the Apex 3508 barge collision in Kentucky, the response team was able to use sophisticated side scan sonar and multibeam sonar to locate the oil and map the river bottom. Additionally, a novel dredging technique using an environmental clamshell-dredging device proved effective in recovery.

By the time of the Natchez Bridge incident, the river had moved from its low water condition typical of late summer to the extreme high water associated with seasonal spring flooding. Measurements showed the river raged from 8-13 knots (9-14 miles per hour) and was discharging about 1.8 million cubic feet of water per second. The response team again used side scan and multibeam sonar, but in this instance more to understand how the high flow conditions would affect what was going on along the river bottom. The multibeam imagery showed 30-50 foot tall sand waves were moving along the river bottom at a rate of about 30 feet in about two hours.

“Given the immense amount of sediment being transported rapidly downstream as evidenced by the multibeam imagery, we immediately knew that any oil that had found its way to the bottom near mid channel had been rapidly buried by the next massive sand wave and was unlikely to be recovered any time soon,” Davis said.

When the river is moving swiftly, the safest place for a damaged barge that can’t be transported to a fixed facility is often along the riverbank. The problem with a leaking barge pushed in along a flooded riverbank is that it is hard and often dangerous to assess the leakage. This was certainly the case in the Natchez incident.

“We knew the side scan and multibeam tools simply wouldn’t work well up close to the barge, Davis said. “There was just too much interference caused by the barge and the flooded trees along the bank to be able to see what was going on.”

The typical snare drag or probing for oil would not work in the high water conditions either. The equipment would snag on debris and vegetation below the water’s surface, and operating a vessel in a flooded tree line was unsafe.

“In order to probe we needed an object that could be easily and quickly fabricated from items on-hand,” Davis said. “The right tool didn’t exist, the solution called for a little ingenuity and quick action.”

Pole with oil dripping from the end onto a white pad.

The makeshift “cotton swab” tool created to collect oil samples from the submerged trees along the flooded riverbank during the response to the Amy Frances incident. Credit: NOAA

With the barge pushed in to the bank, securely tied off, and under the control of the tow, it offered a stable and safe enough platform for the response team to take a long pole with its ends wrapped in sorbent material and probe along the shore side. The new tool looked like a giant cotton swab and proved effective in quickly confirming the presence of sunken oil along the bank.

“Often I find that people are quite surprised that oil spill response strategies can be pretty low-tech sometimes and still be effective,” Davis said. “In the ‘NCIS’ age of ‘isn’t there a high tech gadget that can just easily fix your complex and dynamic problem’? Sometimes it is hard to convey that to people.”

Despite standards for evaluating oil spills, every spill has its unique challenges that require a deep understanding of science and an ability to think creatively.


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Showcasing Our Partnership with Coast Guard on Instagram

Ship's upper deck with rainbow.

A NOAA research team journeyed to the icy Arctic north of Alaska in 2014 on board the USCG Cutter Healy. A rain shower through Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands provided a rainbow, visible from an Arctic survey boat accompanying the Healy. (Credit NOAA)

This week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Response and Restoration will be taking over U.S. Coast Guard’s Instagram to showcase our long partnership.

Coming up at the end of this week, March 24, is the anniversary of Exxon Valdez – one of the largest oils spills in the nation’s history. However, our history actually goes back prior to Exxon Valdez to the grounding of the tanker Argo Merchant in 1976.

During the week, we’ll post photos of our work with the Coast Guard from our beginning to the present spotlighting our  work together in the Arctic, during hurricanes, Deepwater Horizon, and other incidents.

Head on over to USCG Instagram and view how we partner to keep the nation’s coasts and waterways safe for maritime commerce, recreational activities, and wildlife.

Read these recent articles about our partnership:

5 Ways the Coast Guard and NOAA Partner

Below Zero: Partnership between the Coast Guard and NOAA


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5 Ways the Coast Guard and NOAA Partner

Large ship on reef with small boat beside it.

On September 18, 2003, M/V Kent Reliant grounded at the entrance to San Juan Harbor, Puerto Rico. USCG and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration responded to the incident. (NOAA)

How do the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration work together? There are many ways the two government organizations partner to keep the nation’s coasts and waterways safe for maritime commerce, recreational activities, and wildlife. Here are five:

1. It all began with surveyors and smugglers

Actually, it was an effort to suppress smuggling and collect tariffs that prompted President George Washington to create the Coast Guard Revenue Cutter Service in 1790, launching what would become the U.S. Coast Guard known today. It was President Jefferson’s approval of the surveying of the nation’s coasts in 1807 to promote “lives of our seamen, the interest of our merchants and the benefits to revenue,” that created the nation’s first science agency, which evolved into NOAA.

2. Coast Guard responds to spills; we supply the scientific support

The Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for managing oil and chemical spill clean-up activities. NOAA Office of Response and Restoration provides the science-based expertise and support needed to make informed decisions during emergency responses. Scientific Support Coordinators provide response information for each incident that spill’s characteristics, working closely with the Coast Guard’s federal On-Scene Coordinator. The scientific coordinator can offer models that forecast the movement and behavior of spilled oil, evaluation of the risk to resources, and suggest appropriate clean-up actions.

3. Coast Guard and NOAA Marine Debris Program keep waters clear for navigation

The Coast Guard sits on the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee, of which NOAA is the chair. The committee is a multi-agency body responsible for streamlining the federal government’s efforts to address marine debris. In some circumstances, the Coast Guard helps to locate reported marine debris or address larger items that are hazardous to navigation. For instance, in certain circumstances, the Coast Guard may destroy or sink a hazard to navigation at sea, as was the case with a Japanese vessel in the Gulf of Alaska in March 2011.

4. NOAA and Coast Guard train for oil spills in the Arctic

As Arctic ice contracts, shipping within and across the Arctic, oil and gas exploration, and tourism likely will increase, as will fishing, if fisheries continue migrating north to cooler waters. With more oil-powered activity in the Arctic and potentially out-of-date nautical charts, the region has an increased risk of oil spills. Although the Arctic may have “ice-free” summers, it will remain a difficult place to respond to spills, still facing conditions such as low visibility, mobilized icebergs, and extreme cold. The Office of Response and Restoration typically participates in oil spill response exercises with the Coast Guard.

5. It’s not just spills we partner on, sometimes it’s about birds

The 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 in the Florida. 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. In 2016, the Coast Guard called Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis with an unusual complication in their efforts: A pair of osprey had taken up residence on one of these abandoned vessels. 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. Davis was able to assist in keeping the project moving forward and the vessel was eventually removed from the Florida Panhandle.