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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Rescuing Oiled Birds, Leave it to the Experts

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.

Yellow gloved hands holding bird's head with suds.

Oiled Northern Gannet is cleaned at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (FWS)

By Allison O’Brien, Department of the Interior

Birds, especially those that spend most of their time on the water, are vulnerable to the effects of oiling. Oil can clog feathers and cause them to mat, separate, or lose their natural waterproofing. Birds coated with oil may not be able to fly, may get sick from accidentally ingesting oil while trying to clean their feathers, or may drown from reduced buoyancy.

Many people love birds, and it’s normal to want to help during an oil spill – especially when you’re seeing photos of impacted birds on the news – but it’s a myth that just a bit of dish soap can restore an oiled bird to health. So, before you hit the beach with your scrub brush and your handy-dandy dish soap, read these answers to some frequently asked questions on how to help oiled birds.

What should I do if I see an oiled bird? 

If there is an established oiled wildlife reporting hotline available, then please, call it as soon as possible. If not, then call your local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office.

 The bird seemed to be in distress, wouldn’t it be faster for me and my dog to chase it down and transport it in my trunk?

No – birds are wild animals. It’s important to let a trained professional with the appropriate safety gear (think safety goggles, gloves, etc.) handle bird removal. Plus, depending on the species, a permit may be needed to touch or handle it.

I’m actually less concerned with own my safety than with helping this bird. Is there a problem with the dog chase and trunk transport method?

Picture this: You reach into your fridge for a snack and, when you pull out your arm, it’s covered in a gooey, smelly substance. The next thing you know, aliens chase you, grab you, and take you away in the trunk of their spaceship. How would you feel? Confused?  Terrified? Exactly. Please, let a trained professional handle the bird rescue.

Two people hosing a bird in a sink.

An oiled gannet being cleaned at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. (FWS)

I saw an oiled bird, but I think it’s dead. Is it still worth calling it in?

Yes, other animals may see that bird as an easy meal and become ill from eating it, so it’s important the oiled bird to be removed by trained workers.

It seems like it would be faster for me to just grab the dead, oiled bird and bring it in – can I do that?

No, not only is a permit needed to handle the carcass, it is considered legal evidence and needs to be handled properly, and an appropriate chain of custody needs to be maintained.

Are there ever opportunities to volunteer to help clean birds?

Yes – Under some circumstances, the response officials may issue a public service announcement to request pre-trained volunteer assistance. A bird rehabilitation center is like a hospital emergency room, so please understand that it’s critical for any volunteers to have the appropriate training.

Is it true that liquid dish soap is used to clean oiled birds?

Yes it is. Specifically, Dawn dish soap (not antibacterial) has been approved for use in cleaning oiled birds.

Allison O’Brien is the Department of the Interior’s Regional Environmental Officer for the Pacific Northwest Region, covering Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. For more information, please visit https://www.doi.gov/oepc/regional-offices/portland.  


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Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Sea Turtles and Marine Mammals

 

Dolphins on water surface.

Studies showed dolphins were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill resulted in significant environmental harm over a large area of the Gulf of Mexico and adjacent shorelines, and affected numerous species including endangered and threatened sea turtles and protected marine mammals. These populations will require significant restoration efforts to offset impacts from the spill.

A special issue of Endangered Species Research published Jan. 31, 2017, features 20 scientific articles summarizing the impacts of the oil spill on marine mammals and sea turtles.

The scientific studies, conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration authors and partners, document the unprecedented mortality rate and long-term environmental impacts of the oil’s exposure and presents a synthesis of more than five years’ worth of data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Findings from these research studies, in addition to other studies on other parts of the ecosystem, formed the basis of the natural resources damage assessment settlement with BP for up to $8.8 billion.

All of the data associated with the settlement is available publicly in the Data Integration Visualization Exploration and Reporting database, but the Endangered Species Research special issue is the first time this information on sea turtles and marine mammals has been compiled together in peer-reviewed scientific publications. Find out more about Deepwater Horizon here.

 

 


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10 Common Words with Uncommon Meanings in Spill Response

A ship run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico is surrounded by protective oil boom.

A ship run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico is surrounded by protective oil boom. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite an effort to use plain language, government agencies often use jargon that only makes sense to insiders. Here is list of common words that can become head-scratchers when used in the context of spill response.

Boom

Not the loud deep resonating sound described in a dictionary. In oil response booms are floating, physical barriers to oil, made of plastic, metal, or other materials, which slow the spread of oil and keep it contained. Read more on the history of booms in spill response here.

Crude

A vulgar comment? Nope. in this case the spill response definition fits more into the traditional understanding of the word, something in a raw or unrefined state. Crude oil is unrefined petroleum, usually liquid, consisting of a mixture of hydrocarbons. Crude oil may be refined into any of hundreds of components, such as commercial gasoline, kerosene, heating oils, diesel oils, lubricating oils, waxes, and asphalts. Read more on crude and other oil types here.

Hazing

Usually defined as a rigorous initiation process into an organization of some sort, in spill response hazing is about exclusion, “hazing” methods are used to keep whales out of harm’s way. Read more about hazing methods here.

Mousse

The first thing that pops into the mind when someone uses the word mousse is that silky pudding-like dessert, or a product to sculpt unruly hair. In spill response, mousse is a term to describe a water-in-oil emulsion that resembles chocolate mousse in color and texture. These emulsions are often very stable, and often have a pudding-like consistency. Typically, a mousse forms when relatively fresh oil is exposed to strong wave action. Mousse colors can range from orange or tan to dark brown. A mousse may contain up to 75 percent water, and may have a volume up to four times that of the original oil. Learn how to make an oil and water mousse here.

Pancakes

Nope, not the breakfast food. In this case pancakes refer to isolated, roughly circular patches of spilled oil ranging in size from a few feet across to hundreds of yards (or meters) in diameter. These oil patches can form tarballs sometimes found along sandy beaches. Read more on tarballs here.

Pom-poms

Similar to the equipment used by many a cheer-squad member, pom-poms in spill response are used to absorb oil for removal. Made of synthetic fibers, pom-poms are used individually or tied on long ropes and used to catch oil as it leaches from beaches and rocky areas. Strings of pom-poms are effective in collecting oil in rock or difficult to reach areas where the tide rises and falls. Read about how pom-poms were used to cleanup an oil spill here.

SOS

Save our ship? How about Science of Oil Spills. Every year the Emergency Response Division educates emergency spill responders increasing their understanding of oil spill science. Read about SOS classes here.

Slick

Typically defined as something done in a smooth way, a slick is the common term used to describe a film of oil (usually less than 2 microns thick) on the water surface. Oil spilled on water absorbs energy and dampens out surface waves, making the oil appear smoother—or slicker—than the surrounding water. Read about oil slicks and sea turtles here.

Streamer

Those paper ribbons hanging from the ceiling at a party, right? Wrong. In spill response a streamer, also called fingers or ribbons, are narrow lines of oil, mousse, or sheen on the water surface, surrounded on both sides by clean water. Streamers result from the combined effects of wind, currents, and/or natural convergence zones. Often, heavier concentrations of mousse or sheen will be present in the center of a streamer, with progressively lighter sheen along the edges. Read about techniques for cleaning up streamers in oil spills here.

Weathering

OK, in this instance, the meaning used in spill response is similar to the general definition. In oil response weathering is the physical and chemical characteristics of oil interacting with the physical and biochemical features of the habitat where a spill occurs. These factors determine how the oil will behave and ultimately what will happen to it. Read more about weathering here.

 


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Argo Merchant: A Woods Hole Scientist’s Personal Perspective

Large ship on the ocean.

WHOI RV Oceanus carried scientists to the 1976 Argo Merchant oil spill. Courtesy of the Image Gallery Archive of WHOI

By John W. Farrington

The scientific community at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) responded to the oil spill from tanker Argo Merchant on Dec. 15, 1976, out of a sense of public responsibility to assist in minimizing adverse effects on Georges Bank and nearby coastal regions. This was driven by a heightened awareness among scientists and the general public of humankind’s abuse of the environment. The first Earth Day had occurred six years earlier in 1970.

In addition, WHOI wanted to learn more about oil spills in the marine environment. It is important to view the scientific response to this oil spill within a broad framework of other ongoing activities. The United States government, through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of land Management (BLM), had just initiated a Baselines Study Program in the U. S. Outer Continental Shelf areas in anticipation of potential leasing, exploration and development activities, including the Georges Bank area.

Because of these activities and ongoing concerns about oil tanker and barge accidental spills, the United States Coast Guard and NOAA had developed a contingency plan for assessment responses that included other federal agencies. They also reached out widely to academic scientists and others in the region with possible experience and resources to bring to spill studies.

Several researchers at WHOI, led by Max Blumer, Howard Sanders, and John Teal, had been studying the fate and effects of two No. 2 fuel oil spills in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts — one in 1969 and another in 1974. I joined these efforts as a postdoc in Blumer’s laboratory in 1971 after conducting research on chronic oil pollution in Narragansett Bay with my advisor, Professor James G. Quinn in the Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) at the University of Rhode Island (URI). WHOI researchers, along with colleagues at the United States Geological Survey and National Marine Fisheries Service, had been studying the Georges Bank region for years. ERCO, a consulting company funded by the BLM, was spinning up measurements of petroleum hydrocarbons in the Georges Bank ecosystem led by Paul Boehm, a recent graduate of Professor Quinn’s laboratory.

Thus, when phone calls came in from the NOAA folks in the first days after the spill, there were meetings of the aforementioned groups, already familiar with each other’s capabilities, planning what should, and could, be done from a research response. The Coast Guard and NOAA were on the front lines of the spill, innovating frequently for unanticipated situations and keeping all research groups informed of conditions at the scene.

The WHOI vessel R/V Oceanus was on a research cruise in the nearby North Atlantic. The WHOI leadership recalled the vessel and it sailed for the area near the spill site on Monday, Dec. 20. Sedimentologist  John Milliman was the chief scientist and wrote about the cruise in 1977 in OCEANUS magazine. The mix of scientists on board (see Fig. 1) included NOAA physical oceanographer Jerry Galt. Our local Massachusetts State Representative Richard Kendall came with us, proving a valued liaison with state government.

After only a few samples were obtained, a winter storm struck and forced us back to Woods Hole early on Dec. 21. The Oceanus sailed on a second cruise Dec. 28-29, 1976 (see Fig. 2 for the list of scientists on board). Thereafter, R/V Oceanus’ sister ship, R/V Endeavor — new and just delivered to GSO-URI— took over the task for academic research cruises. In short, fortunately the wind and water circulation pushed much of the spilled oil away from nearby coastal areas and away from Georges Bank, thereby minimizing adverse effects in the region.

A debt of gratitude is owed by all to the Coast Guard and NOAA personnel responding to the Argo Merchant spill. They devoted many hours during the December 1976-January 1977 holiday season to this pioneering effort which informed future oil spill responses.

 

John W. Farrington is Dean emeritus at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

This is the sixth 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.

Typed letter authroizing research vessel to the Argo Merchant spill.

Fig. 1. Authorization letter from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution director for the Dec. 20, 1976 cruise to the Argo Merchant spill with the ships roster of scientists. Credit: WHOI

Fig. 2. Authorization letter from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution director for the Dec. 28, 1976 cruise to the Argo Merchant spill with the ships roster of scientists. Credit: WHOI

Fig. 2. Authorization letter from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution director for the Dec. 28, 1976 cruise to the Argo Merchant spill with the ships roster of scientists. Credit: WHOI

 

 

 

 

 


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Argo Merchant: What if It Happened Today?

Large oil slick swirl on ocean with ship.

Oil slick from the Argo Merchant, December 1976. NASA

Whenever oil is transported there is a risk of accidents and spills, but the 40 years since the Argo Merchant oil spill have seen improvements in laws, shipping technology and spill response.

Tankers today are much safer, but they are also much larger. The Argo Merchant was carrying about 8 million gallons of oil, while modern tankers can carry 10 times that amount. A large spill is a rare event, but the impacts are still potentially catastrophic.

Improvements in ship construction and navigation

The Argo Merchant’s single-hull design is often cited as a factor to the spill. Tankers now have double hulls that have proven to be safer. Had the Argo Merchant been constructed with double hulls, it may have survived longer on the shoals, allowing more time to refloat or unload the ship. But even with a double hull, survival of the Argo Merchant through December storms in North Atlantic seas would be questionable.

In the same way a car’s air bag is useful only in a crash, a double hull helps only in preventing or reducing spillage once a ship runs aground. Preventing accidents is the key. Fortunately, there have been significant improvements in navigation technology since 1976. The Argo Merchant officers relied on a magnetic compass and celestial navigation during the last voyage, ending up more than 25 miles off course. Even after running aground, the captain was unsure of the ship’s location, hampering the ability of United States Coast Guard (USCG) pilots to find the ship. The owners were not legally required to install the then-new LORAN-C technology that would have given the ship’s position within 500 feet. Additionally, their radio direction finder and gyrocompasses were faulty and their charts out of date.

Today’s navigation technology could have pinpointed the ship within a few feet. Modern electronic charts have real-time updates. Today, the average cell phone has more navigation tools than were available to the officers of the Argo Merchant.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990

Tankers today are subject to much more stringent inspection. Even in 1976, the Coast Guard had plans to inspect the Argo Merchant in Boston. The ship had a number of known deficiencies, but of course the ship never made it to port.

The geopolitics of the world have also changed in the past 40 years. When the Argo Merchant ran aground 29 miles off Nantucket, it was considered to be in international waters. Congress had just declared the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, but that wouldn’t go into effect for a few months.

Under maritime policies of the time, the Coast Guard could rescue the crew, but the commandant had to declare the ship a “grave and imminent danger” before taking salvage and pollution action. And the USCG had only a few million dollars in a pollution fund. There was a strong incentive to let the ship’s owner mount the salvage and response plans.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed after the Exxon Valdez spill, has a dedicated fund, and clear liability for pollution that includes natural resource damages. The law in effect then, the Oil Pollution Act of 1924, provided little help for a ship aground in international waters.

In 1976 a tanker owner had limited liability for spills, and an owner had little incentive to spend money to keep their vessel in top condition (or install the latest navigation electronics). The investigation and litigation after the grounding showed the Argo Merchant was a decrepit and poorly managed ship.

The 1990 act clarified liability for natural resource damages. Forty years ago, there was environmental concern about impacts to the fisheries and wildlife, but no way to hold the spiller responsible for damages. Today, NOAA and other resource agencies can conduct assessments and make claims for restoration, giving ship owners incentive to ensure vessels are well maintained.

Improvements in response and preparedness

Organizationally, the Unites States is in a much stronger position today to respond to spills. The Coast Guard does not have to wait to declare a threat. The ad-hoc science response in 1976 is now codified in the National Contingency Plan. National and regional response teams are in place, along with local area plans. Federal, state, and industry stockpiles of spill response gear are pre-deployed around the country. NOAA has a collection of response tools now, including satellites and models to track spilled oil, and environmental sensitivity index maps of all the coastline.

But some things are the same. Responding to a stranded tanker in rough waters offshore will always be tough. High sea booms are better, and skimmers and pumping systems are improved. Despite the heroic efforts of the USCG and salvage operators in 1976, no oil was recovered from the ship and none of the floating oil was skimmed.

Even with today’s advanced technologies, only a fraction of spilled oil is removed. The best solution, then as now, is to keep ships in good condition, and keep the oil from spilling in the first place.

This is the fifth 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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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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Emergency Response and Assessment 40 Years after Argo Merchant

Ship sinking in ocean.

The Argo Merchant spilling its heavy fuel oil southeast of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. (NOAA)

By Robin Garcia

On Dec. 15, 1976, the tanker Argo Merchant ran aground off the coast of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Despite attempts to refloat the tanker, the Argo Merchant split in half in strong winds and high waves, spilling more than 7.5 million gallons of oil. It was the largest oil spill in United States history at the time.

In responding to the grounding and oil spill, the U. S. Coast Guard (USCG) was overwhelmed with competing, and often conflicting, scientific recommendations. The Coast Guard asked NOAA’s recently formed Spilled Oil Research Team to serve as its scientific advisor and unofficial liaison with the scientific community.

As a result of that collaboration, NOAA formed the Hazardous Material Response Division, now the Emergency Response Division (ERD) of the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Scientific Support Coordinators were strategically located across the country. ERD now represents NOAA as the primary scientific support during oil and hazardous chemical spills as indicated in the National Contingency Plan. ERD also provides annual trainings to prepare government and industry responders and planners for future spills.

In the wake of Argo Merchant, trajectory and fate modeling programs were developed to further assist USCG with spill response. OR&R currently has a suite of preparedness, response and assessment tools for oil spills and chemical spills to support responders and planners.

NOAA also created standard methods for damage assessment after oil spills following the Argo Merchant; this activity is now carried out by OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division (ARD). Today, ARD provides environmental protection during cleanup and conducts Natural Resource Damage Assessments. ARD is also a partner in Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program (DARRP) a collaboration among OR&R, NOAA General Counsel, and the National Marine Fisheries Restoration Center.

The sinking of the Argo Merchant was NOAA’s first coordinated oil spill response. Today, the Office of Response and Restoration is a center of expertise in preparing for, responding to, and evaluating threats to coastal environments including oil spills. OR&R is looking back on the 40 years following Argo Merchant this week, highlighting the history of emergency oil spill response and assessment, the advances that have been made and what a response would look like if Argo Merchant ran aground today.

Robin Garcia is the Policy Analyst for the Office of Response and Restoration. She supports congressional and partner outreach for the Emergency Response Division, the Assessment and Restoration Division, and NOAA’s Disaster Response Center.