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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Little Sand Island Back in Business for Burn Testing

Black smoke coming from controlled fire on island.

Initial testing of burn pan at Joint Maritime Test Facility located in Mobile on Little Sand island, November 2015. NOAA

By NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis

Recently, I had the privilege of joining folks from the United States Coast Guard (USCG) Research and Development Center as well as researchers from Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) for a portion of a test burn conducted on Little Sand Island located at the mouth of the Mobile River in Alabama. Having participated in a successful in situ—controlled burn—at the Delta Wildlife Refuge back in June of 2014 with my colleagues from NOAA’s Emergency Response Division, I was eager to learn more about what research is being conducted in the field and jumped at the opportunity to see some of this testing being performed in my backyard, so to speak.

A little background on Little Sand Island

The Joint Maritime Test Facility (JMTF) in Mobile, Alabama, is a partnership between the Coast Guard Research and Development Center and the U.S. Navy’s Naval Research Laboratories. It is the only national federal testing facility for maritime fire protection research and includes the ex-USS Shadwell. Little Sand Island also has a refurbished test tank for large-scale oil burn testing and research.

Damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the facility figured prominently in past burn research and was recently resurrected with funding from Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). The initial series of burn testing at the facility in the late ‘90s led to many advances in burn science, including the establishment of standards on fire resistant booms. Renewed interest of in situ burning (ISB) research has resulted in part from lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

In situ burning was employed extensively during the spill and many viewed its role as critical in the overall spill response. Approximately 400 safe and effective controlled burns were conducted during the Deepwater Horizon spill, removing an estimated 220,000 to 310,000 barrels (29,700 to 41,800 tons) of oil from the water. According to the Oil Budget Calculator report provided to the National Incident Command in November 2010, approximately 50,000 to 70,000 barrels were burned in one day alone.

‘You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows’

But it certainly helps if you want to know which way it is going to blow tomorrow when you are planning a burn. One of the key requirements for burning at the Little Sand Island facility is to ensure that smoke from the burn does not carry over the urban western side of the river, or north over the interstate where it could obscure visibility for motorists.

When the newly refurbished facility had its first test burn in November 2015, having support from the National Weather Service in Mobile during the planning and operational phases was important in determining when conditions on the island were favorable for burning.

Another benefit of planning a burn at a test facility is that other support conducted during an actual burn can also be planned. That was exactly the approach in November as members of the USCG Gulf Strike Team used the opportunity to deploy Special Monitoring of Applied Response Technologies, air monitoring equipment, at the facility. Although not a primary objective of the testing, we were able to use the opportunity to deploy the Strike Team as part of a practical exercise. Having the opportunity to plan and deploy the equipment in a realistic field setting and assessing actual results from a burn of a known quantity of oil was very beneficial both for the Strike Team and folks from the facility.

Two men on dock with island in background.

USCG Gulf Strike Team deploying air monitoring equipment, November 2016. Little Sand Island in the background. NOAA

Latest research on the horizon

Now that the facility burn pan has had the ‘tires kicked’ so to speak and is ready for use, a number of research projects are planned and underway. USCG Research and Development is currently working with BSEE on two additional ISB research projects which will be conducted in part on Little Sand Island. The most recent testing included initial evaluation of an aggregate compound made from pine saw dust and a fatty acid binding agent. This material is designed to help burn oil in layer thickness ranges that are otherwise too thin to sustain a burn. Additional testing at the facility is scheduled for this spring. Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to join in as the testing continues.

 

 

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


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Argo Merchant: The Birth of Modern Oil Spill Response

Black and White photo of ship sinking in ocean.

The Argo Merchant was carrying 7.7 million gallons of fuel oil when it went off course and became stuck on Dec. 15, 1976. Credit: Coast Guard Historian

When the Argo Merchant ran aground on Nantucket Shoals off Massachusetts early on Dec. 15, 1976, and spilled nearly 8 million gallons of heavy fuel oil, it became the worst marine oil spill the United States had seen. It also led to the eventual creation of the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R).

The maverick research team

In 1974, as work began on the Alaska pipeline, NOAA scientists and academics realized there were important unanswered questions about oil spills.

“How does oil behave in water, that’s what we wanted to know,” recalled Peter Grose, who was then at NOAA’s Environmental Data Services Center in the District of Columbia. “The Environmental Research Lab in Boulder were looking at impacts from Alaskan drilling. We had the simplest models then of how oil moved with wind and waves. Jerry Galt was the modeler in ERL. …. He was kind of leader of the pack.”

Santa Barbara oil spill research

“What made me stand out at the moment was I was focusing my work on oil trajectories,” Galt said. The Boulder group was looking for a way to study oil spills. It was suggested they go to Santa Barbara, where they could observe natural ocean oil seeps. Galt, along with other interested NOAA researchers, formed the first Spilled Oil Response (SOR) team.

“We were sort of mavericks,” Galt said. “This was all sort of unofficial.”

The team set some ground rules for that first trip, Galt said. All equipment had to fit into a suitcase and ocean flyovers would be from a Cessna 172, the  most commonly available rent-a-plane and already certified by Federal Aviation Administration to fly with the doors off. That made it easier for the team to drop dye into the ocean and photograph how it spread.

After a week in Santa Barbara, according to Galt, “We said well, let’s think about this and what we learned, make some notes and get together after Christmas. … Well, we didn’t make Christmas.”

The Argo Merchant spill

Word of the Argo Merchant spill spread quickly, and because the loosely formed SOR team (Galt’s colleagues from Boulder and Grose’s in D.C.) had a preliminary oil spill plan, it was decided they would head to Massachusetts.

“We took planes and shuttles to Hyannis,” said Grose. “We wanted to know if the oil stayed together or broke into smaller chunks. Did it absorb into the water column? We wanted to look at weather.”

On the trip with Grose, a physical oceanographer, was chemical oceanographer James Mattson and marine ecologist Elaine Chan. Galt’s team from Boulder included David Kennedy. The team embarked on two weeks of intense observations.

“We started being obnoxious, asking scientific questions,” Galt said. “I immediately contacted people in Woods Hole and MIT doing oceanography there and we went and talked to the Coast Guard about getting on over-flights.”

At first, the team was not there in an official capacity, but that soon changed.

“We found out a truism of oil spills: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” said Galt. “So, the Coast Guard said, ‘You want to go out on our airplanes? We need observers. You work for us, all right?’ We said OK and off we went.”

The team rose at dawn to catch the Coast Guard’s flight over the spill, taking photos. For perhaps the first time, divers were enlisted to go under the spill to determine if the oil was getting into the water column. Oil samples were taken. Then the team would convene at a local hotel to analyze the day’s data.

“We learned how to develop film in a hotel room,” Galt said. “I was there for a week to start with and during that week I think I spent 10 hours in bed. … I went home for Christmas dinner and fell asleep at the table, and after I woke up I went back to the spill.”

From HAZMAT to OR&R

In addition to publishing a report in record time, the team’s experiences resulted in the improvement of science equipment and oil-spill-response techniques.

“With Argo Merchant we developed a camera that could record time,” said Grose. “It’s hard to photograph a spill in intervals when you don’t have a timestamp on the photo. That seems like a little thing, but when you come back with 10 rolls of film it ends up being a big thing.”

The experience with the Argo Merchant spill answered some of team’s questions, and showed the need for more spill information, leading to the creations of the Hazardous Materials Response Division (HAZMAT), and finally to the Office of Response and Restoration.

“In the end,” Grose said, “what we learned was how much there was to still learn about oil spills.”

This is the third 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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Argo Merchant: The Growth of Scientific Support

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

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

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

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

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

Filling a gap in science coordination

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

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

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

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

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

Several other synthesis reports were published in the following year.

From HAZMAT to the Emergency Response Division

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

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

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

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


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1976: A Winter of Ship Accidents

Ship broken in two in water.

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

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

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

The rash of incidents continued into the New Year.

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

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

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

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


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Transportation of Crude Oil Along the West Coast

Boats on water

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

By Sarah Brace

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

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

Map drawing of crude oil routes.

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

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

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

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

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


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In Some Situations, Ships Dump Oil on Purpose

Oil on water.

Port Sulphur, La. (Nov. 29)–An aerial view of a section of the Mississippi River containing a dense amount of the Nigerian ‘sweet’ crude oil spilled by the M/V Westchester Nov. 28, 2000. USCG photo by PA1 Jeff Hall

 

We generally think of oil being accidentally spilled, but there are situations when oil might be intentionally spilled.

Historically, ships at sea have sometimes intentionally dumped some of their cargo to save the ship and perhaps prevent a complete loss. However, this is a thorny area of maritime and environmental law, made even more complex by the engineering stresses on a foundering vessel and the political dynamics underlying a decision to intentionally dump oil.

On March 18, 1973, the tanker Zoe Colocotronis ran aground on a reef 3.5 miles off the southwest coast of Puerto Rico. The master unilaterally ordered cargo from the forward tank jettisoned to help get the vessel off the reef, and 1.5 million gallons of crude oil were intentionally released. The tanker was refloated with the remaining 6.3 million-gallon cargo, but the captain was later convicted for multiple violations.

When the Argo Merchant ran aground on Nantucket Shoals in 1976, jettisoning was suggested but rejected. The vessel eventually broke apart and the entire cargo was lost. In 1996, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences developed a lengthy report, “Purposeful Jettison of Petroleum Cargo,” to clarify when such a drastic measure might be the best way to prevent a larger spill.

Aircraft in distress may also sometimes intentionally jettison fuel to reduce landing weight. Even though the dumped fuel is thought to vaporize rapidly, this technique is rare, in part because of environmental concerns.

Dumping oil at sea hasn’t always been prohibited. In fact, steamships and lifeboats were required to carry equipment to slowly release oil (generally vegetable or fish oil) at sea during storms. The lifeboats carried by the Titanic fell under British Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 that required carriage of “oil for use in stormy weather.”

The USCG regulations also used to require that lifeboats be equipped with storm oil. What? How does spilling oil help you in a lifeboat?

One of the behaviors that makes oil hard to clean up — its ability to spread rapidly into thin layers — has the effect of reducing the wave height and breaking waves. This is also why spilled oil becomes a “slick”. Oil spilled on the water absorbs energy and dampens out the surface waves making the oil appear smoother or “slicker” than the surrounding water.

Drawing of a cone-shaped container with labels.

A commercial ship’s lifeboat sea anchor. From the U.S. Coast Guard Manual for Lifeboatmen, Able Seamen, and Qualified Members of the Engine Department. “Oil, storm. One gallon of vegetable, fish, or animal oil must be provided in a suitable metal container so constructed as to permit a controlled distribution of oil on the water, and so arranged that it can be attached to the sea anchor.”

This phenomenon has been studied for a long time. The U.S. Navy produced several reports on the topic back in the 1880s, but my favorite is the research conducted by Benjamin Franklin. Everyone knows about his famous kite flying during an electrical storm, but in the 1760s, he also did some intentional oil spill experiments. On a sea voyage to Europe he noted that the greasy discharge from a nearby ship’s galley had smoothed the water, and later did studies on lakes to test his theories (these lakes were in England, not his home state of Pennsylvania). His letters were later summarized in a journal report on the “stilling of waves.” Franklin reported that “not more than a tea spoonful produced an instant calm, over a space several yards square, which spread amazingly, and extended itself gradually till it reached the lee side, making all that quarter of the pond, perhaps half an acre, as smooth as a looking glass.”

U.S and international regulations no longer require equipping life boats with storm oil. The requirement was removed in 1983, the same year the United States Coast Guard replaced open lifeboats with the requirement to carry fully and partially enclosed lifeboats.

Photo with old type from a 1774 document.

 


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Restoring Marsh Habitat by Sharing Assessment Techniques

Group of four people stand in a marsh.

Training participants examine a one meter square quadrant transect (rod at bottom) to illustrate how new metrics could be applied for a northeast assessment. (NOAA)

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to environmental assessments for oil spills or hazardous waste events. We must therefore custom-tailor our technical approach for each pollution incident.

We first determine whether impacts to natural resources have occurred and whether it is appropriate to proceed with a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). We collect time-sensitive data, evaluate available research and information about the type of injury, and determine what species and habitats are likely to have been affected. If we determine that habitats, wildlife or human uses have been harmed or could experience significant impacts, we often proceed with a full damage assessment.

This type of scientific assessment is particularly challenging in a marsh environment given potential injury due to both oil persistence and toxicity. For example, a home heating oil released by the North Cape barge in 1996 caused acute injury to lobsters, clams, fish, crabs, and mussels in, and adjacent to, the marshes of southern Rhode Island. The light oil was highly toxic, but quickly dissipated, thereby causing a lot of immediate injury, but less long-term problems. By contrast, a more chronic impact was the result of persistent fuel oil released by the Barge Bouchard 120 in the salt marshes of Massachusetts in 2003. That oil saturated 100 miles of shoreline, impacting tidal marshes, mudflats, beaches, and rocky shorelines. These evolving factors are why we constantly share best practices and lessons learned among our colleagues in the northeast and nationwide.

Members of the Northeast and Spatial Data Branch of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and NOAA’s Restoration Center recently met at Spermaceti Cove, Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to participate in a hands-on workshop to improve our salt marsh damage assessment techniques and data compilation.

They were building on previous findings presented at a 2015 salt marsh assessment workshop in Massachusetts, that information learned there should be shared in other locales. Of note were the variety of vegetation and native invertebrates around the coastal United States that necessitate region-specific marsh field training.

Two people standing in shallow water holding a seining net.

Scientists seining salt marsh tidal channel collecting native small fish for injury determination. (NOAA)

To address the study of natural resource damages in a mid-north Atlantic salt marsh environ, this 2016 effort included the count of flora and fauna species within a 2 meter square quadrant along a designated transect (see photo) to provide a measure of diversity and species richness.  Also they used a seine, a lift net, and minnow traps to collect fish adjacent to the marsh for species identification and to measure body size and observe possible abnormalities, both external and internal.

Additionally, NOAA scientists discussed and demonstrated current best practices to perform our work regarding health and safety, sample custody, and data management.

In an actual future marsh injury assessment, the Trustees would develop a conceptual site model for guidance in testing the hypotheses, the specific study design, and the proper site and habitat injury measures.

Ken Finkelstein and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.