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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Preparing for Hurricanes

Houses, trees, and powerlines in a New Orleans neighborhood flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina flooded much of New Orleans, trapping many residents who did not evacuate. (NOAA)

Hurricane Matthew is the latest storm to wreak havoc on our nation’s shores. Being involved in disaster response, we at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration know what can go wrong when a hurricane hits the coast—after all, we’ve seen it firsthand:

Boats scattered in a marsh and onshore next to damaged buildings.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, thousands of boats were scattered along the shores and waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Dealing with these vessels and their resulting pollution can be a long and difficult process. (NOAA)

Clearly, a lot is at stake when a hurricane sweeps through an area, which is why preparing for hurricanes and other disasters is so important. We can’t stop these powerful storms, but we can prepare ourselves, our homes, and our coastal communities to lessen the impacts and bounce back more quickly after storms hit. NOAA’s National Weather Service has plenty of tips and guidelines for preparing to weather these storms.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also takes care to prepare for hurricanes and other disasters.

Sometimes that means building internet and phone access into the stormproof bathrooms of our facilities so that we can continue providing sound science and support to deal with pollution from a storm. Other times that means working with coastal regions to create response plans for disaster debris, training other emergency responders to address oil and chemical spills, and developing software tools that pull together and display key information necessary for making critical response decisions during disasters.

NOAA’s National Weather Service has plenty of tips and guidelines for preparing to weather these storms.

Learn more about how to protect yourself and your belongings from a hurricane.

NOAA’s National Weather Service has the latest information on Hurricane Matthew.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damaged barge on the Mississippi River.

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

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

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

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

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

Reining in Hypothetical Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak.

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


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Preparing for What Can Go Wrong Because of Hurricanes

A view of the houses and highways along the New Jersey coast which were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

A view of the houses and highways along the New Jersey coast which were damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Sandy. Katrina. Andrew. These and many other names stand out in our memories for the power of wind and wave—and the accompanying devastation—which these storms have brought to U.S. shores. Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1 and ends November 30, but disasters can and do strike unexpectedly.

Being involved in disaster response, we at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration know what can go wrong when a hurricane hits the coast—after all, we’ve seen it firsthand:

Clearly, a lot is at stake when a hurricane sweeps through an area, which is why preparing for hurricanes and other disasters is so important. We can’t stop these powerful storms, but we can prepare ourselves, our homes, and our coastal communities to lessen the impacts and bounce back more quickly after storms hit.

Hurricane Preparedness Week comes as a reminder each May before the Atlantic hurricane season begins. NOAA’s National Weather Service has plenty of tips and guidelines for preparing to weather these storms:

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also takes care to prepare for hurricanes and other disasters.

Sometimes that means building internet and phone access into the stormproof bathrooms of our facilities so that we can continue providing sound science and support to deal with pollution from a storm. Other times that means working with coastal regions to create response plans for disaster debris, training other emergency responders to address oil and chemical spills, and developing software tools that pull together and display key information necessary for making critical response decisions during disasters.

Learn more about how to protect yourself and your belongings from a hurricane.


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How Do You Keep Killer Whales Away From an Oil Spill?

This is a guest post by Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries.

Two killer whales (orcas) breach in front a boat.

NOAA developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly to keep these endangered animals away from a spill. (NOAA)

I sleep better at night knowing that we have a plan in place to keep endangered Southern Resident killer whales away from an oil spill. Preventing oil spills is key, but since killer whales, also known as orcas, spend much of their time in the busy waters around Seattle, the San Juan Islands, and Vancouver, British Columbia, there is always a chance a spill could happen.

The Southern Residents are a small and social population of killer whales, so an oil spill could have major impacts on the entire population if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We’ve learned from past experience with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that killer whales and other marine mammals don’t avoid oiled areas on their own and exposure to oil likely can affect their populations. New information on impacts from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on bottlenose dolphins (a close relative of killer whales) gives us a better idea of how oil exposure can affect the health and reproduction of marine mammals.

Oil spills are a significant threat to the Southern Resident population, which totals less than 90 animals, and the 2008 recovery plan [PDF] calls for a response plan to protect them. We brought experts together in 2007 to help us identify tools and techniques to deter killer whales from oil and develop a response plan so that we’d be prepared in case a major oil spill does happen.

The Sound of Readiness

Killer whales are acoustic animals. They use sound to communicate with each other and find food through echolocation, a type of biosonar. Because sound is so important, using loud or annoying sounds is one way that we can try to keep the whales away from an area contaminated with oil. We brainstormed a variety of ideas based on experience with killer whales and other animals and evaluated a long list of ideas, including sounds, as well as more experimental approaches, such as underwater lights, air bubble curtains, and hoses.

After receiving lots of input and carefully evaluating each option, we developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly if the whales are headed straight toward a spill. Helicopter hazing, banging pipes (oikomi pipes), and underwater firecrackers are on the short list of options. Here’s a little more about each approach:

  • Helicopters are often available to do surveillance of oil and look for animals when a spill occurs. By moving at certain altitudes toward the whales, a helicopter creates sound and disturbs the water’s surface, which can motivate or “haze” whales to move away from oiled areas.
  • Banging pipes, called oikomi pipes, are metal pipes about eight feet long which are lowered into the water and struck with a hammer to make a loud noise. These pipes have been used to drive or herd marine mammals. For killer whales, pipes were successfully used to help move several whales that were trapped in a freshwater lake in Alaska.
  • Underwater firecrackers can also be used to deter whales. These small explosives are called “seal bombs” because they were developed and can be used to keep seals and sea lions away [PDF] from fishing gear. These small charges were used in the 1960s and 1970s to help capture killer whales for public display in aquaria. Now we are using historical knowledge of the whales’ behavior during those captures to support conservation of the whales.

In addition, our plan includes strict safety instructions about how close to get and how to implement these deterrents in order to prevent injury of oil spill responders and the whales. In the case of an actual spill, the wildlife branch within the Incident Command (the official response team dealing with the spill, usually led by the Coast Guard) would direct qualified responders to implement the different techniques based on specific information about the oil and whales.

Planning in Practice

Several killer whales break the surface of Washington's Puget Sound.

Killer whales use sound to communicate with each other and find food through echolocation. That’s why NOAA’s plan for keeping these acoustic animals away from oil spills involves using sound as a deterrent. (NOAA)

After incorporating the killer whale response plan into our overall Northwest Area Contingency Plan for oil spills, I felt better but knew we still had some work to do.

Since finalizing the plan in 2009, we’ve been focused on securing equipment, learning more about the techniques, and practicing them during oil spill drills. Working with the U.S. Coast Guard and local hydrophone networks (which record underwater sound), we’ve flown helicopters over underwater microphones to record sound levels at different distances and altitudes.

With our partners at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Island Oil Spill Association, we built several sets of banging pipes and have them strategically staged around Puget Sound. In 2013 we conducted a drill with our partners and several researchers to test banging pipes in the San Juan Islands. It takes practice to line up several small boats, coordinate the movement of the boats, and synchronize banging a set of the pipes to create a continuous wall of sound that will discourage whales from getting close to oil. We learned a few critical lessons to update our implementation plans and to incorporate into plans for future drills.

A large oil spill in Southern Resident killer whale habitat would be a nightmare. I’m so glad we have partners focused on preventing and preparing for oil spills, and it is good to know we have a plan to keep an oil spill from becoming a catastrophe for endangered killer whales. That knowledge helps me rest easier and focus on good news like the boom in killer whale calves born to mothers in Washington’s Puget Sound.

You can find more information on our killer whale response plan and our recovery program for Southern Resident killer whales.

Lynne Barre in front of icy waters and snowy cliffs.Lynne Barre is a Branch Chief for the Protected Resources Division of NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region. She is the Recovery Coordinator for Southern Resident killer whales and works on marine mammal and endangered species conservation and recovery.


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Who Pays for Oil Spills?

This is a post by Kate Clark, Acting Chief of Staff with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Oiled boom and marsh in Louisiana.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 states that those responsible for releasing oil and other hazardous materials pay for all costs associated with the cleanup operations, as well as the assessment of environmental impacts and necessary restoration. (U.S. Coast Guard)

After every major oil spill, one question comes up again and again: Who is going to pay for this mess?

While the American public and the environment pay the ultimate price (metaphorically speaking), the polluter most often foots the bill for cleanup, response, and restoration after oil spills.

In sum: You break it, you buy it. But our unspoiled coasts are priceless, and we would rather protect—or at least minimize impacts to—them as much as possible. Which means federal dollars are invested in ensuring top-notch experts are ready to act when oil spills do strike. (Stay tuned for more on that.)

So, Who Pays to Clean up an Oil Spill?

When an oil spill occurs, there are very clear rules about who pays for the direct response activities, the cost of assessing environmental damages, and implementing the necessary restoration.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, one legacy of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, spells out that those responsible for the pollution pay for all costs associated with the cleanup operations. However, similar to a car accident, insurance companies aren’t going to start writing checks without first looking at the circumstances.

But time is of the essence when oil hits the water, so oil companies and transporting vessels are required to have plans in place to respond immediately. In the rare instances when insurance companies investigate the details of legal (and hence, monetary) responsibility and hesitate to pay additional costs, the U.S. Coast Guard is able to set up an immediate source of funding for federal and state agencies and tribes who support the oil spill cleanup, which pays for their contributions to the response.

If the polluter is ultimately deemed liable for the spill, then they reimburse all expenses to the U.S. Coast Guard. Meaning the polluter pays for the cost of the oil spilled.

What About Restoration After Oil Spills?

Well, what about the environmental impacts left behind after the cleanup ends and everyone goes home? Does the American public pay to restore the animals and plants harmed by the spill?

Scientist leans over a boat to retrieve a dead Kemp's ridley sea turtle from the water.

It takes an average of four years to reach a settlement for environmental damages and then begin restoration after an oil spill. As a result, our job is not only to enforce pollution regulations but to ensure the right type and amount of restoration is achieved. (NOAA)

Nope. Again, the Oil Pollution Act states that parties that release hazardous materials and oil into the environment are responsible not only for the cost of cleaning up the release, but also for restoring any “injuries” (harm) to natural resources that result.

As the primary federal steward (“trustee”) for coastal animals and habitat, NOAA is responsible for ensuring the restoration of coastal resources in at least two specific cases.

First, for coastal resources harmed by releases of hazardous materials (e.g., oil and chemicals) and second, for national marine sanctuary resources harmed by physical impacts (e.g., when a ship grounds on coral reefs in a marine sanctuary).

But What if Polluters Don’t Have to Pay for Everything?

It is possible, though extremely rare, that a polluter can be found not to be liable (e.g., the pollution was caused by an act of war) or the polluter can reach its limit of liability under the law.

So, does the money for cleanup and restoration then come from American taxpayers?

Nope. In these cases, the costs are then covered by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. This fund accrues from taxes on most domestically produced and imported oil. The oil companies, often those responsible for spills, are paying into this fund.

When a spill occurs, those involved in the response, cleanup, and damage assessment can access these funds if the polluter is unknown, unwilling, unable, or not liable for paying the spill’s full costs. For response activities, the fund will cover costs associated with preventing (in the case of a grounded ship that hasn’t released oil yet), minimizing, mitigating, or cleaning up an oil spill.

For natural resource damage assessment, the fund will cover costs associated with assessing an area’s natural resource damages, restoring the natural resources, and compensating the public for the lost use of the affected resources.

Of course, polluters aren’t always eager to accept liability, and accurately assessing environmental damages can take time. In fact, it takes an average of four years to reach a settlement for these damages and then begin restoration after an oil spill. As a result, our job is not only to enforce pollution regulations but to ensure the right type and amount of restoration is achieved.

That means, once again, dollars from polluters are essentially paying for oil spills.

So, the Public Doesn’t Pay for Anything?

Well, okay. The same as with your local fire department, public tax dollars are spent developing a highly trained group of professional emergency response and restoration experts. The more prepared we are to respond when an oil spill happens, the sooner a community can recover, environmentally and economically, from these unfortunate events.

When we aren’t providing direct support to an oil spill (or other marine pollution event), NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is hard at work training ourselves (and others) and developing tools and best practices for emergency response and assessment of impacts to natural resources.

Better Safe (and Prepared) Than Sorry

Oil spills can happen at any time of day and any time of year (including holidays). We have to be ready at any time to bring our scientific understanding of how oil behaves in the environment, where it might go, what it might impact, what can be done to address it, and what restoration may be needed.

And we think being prepared before a spill happens is a worthy investment.

Kate Clark is the Acting Chief of Staff for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. For nearly 12 years she has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has also managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.


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It Took More Than the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill to Pass the Historic Oil Pollution Act of 1990

Aerial view of Exxon Valdez tanker with boom and oil on water.

While the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Alaskan waters, a trifecta of other sizable oil spills followed on its heels. These spills helped pave the way for passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which would vastly improve oil spill prevention, response, and restoration. (NOAA)

If you, like many, believe oil shouldn’t just be spilled without consequence into the ocean, then you, like us, should be grateful for a very important U.S. law known as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Congress passed this legislation and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law 25 years ago on August 18, 1990, which was the summer after the tanker Exxon Valdez hit ground in Prince William Sound, Alaska. On March 24, 1989, this tanker unleashed almost 11 million gallons of oil into relatively pristine Alaskan waters.

The powerful images from this huge oil spill—streams of dark oil spreading over the water, birds and sea otters coated in oil, workers in shiny plastic suits trying to clean the rocky coastline—both shocked and galvanized the nation. They ultimately motivated the 101st Congress to investigate the causes of recent oil spills, develop guidelines to prevent and clean up pollution, and pass this valuable legislation.

Yet that monumental spill didn’t fully drive home just how inadequate the patchwork of existing federal, state, and local laws were at addressing oil spill prevention, cleanup, liability, and restoration. Nearly a year and a half passed between the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the enactment of the Oil Pollution Act. What happened in the mean time?

The summer of 1989 experienced a trifecta of oil spills that drained any resources left from the ongoing spill response in Alaska. In rapid succession and over the course of less than 24 hours, three other oil tankers poured their cargo into U.S. coastal waters. Between June 23 and 24, the T/V World Prodigy spilled 290,000 gallons of oil in Newport, Rhode Island; the T/V Presidente Rivera emptied 307,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware River; and the T/V Rachel B hit Tank Barge 2514, releasing 239,000 gallons of oil into Texas’s Houston Ship Channel.

But these were far from the only oil spills plaguing U.S. waters during that time. Between the summers of 1989 and 1990, a series of ship collisions, groundings, and pipeline leaks spilled an additional 8 million gallons along the United States coastline. And that doesn’t even include another million gallons of thick fuel oil released from a shore-side facility in the U.S. Virgin Islands after it was damaged by Hurricane Hugo.

Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, federal and state agencies can more easily evaluate the full environmental impacts of oil spills — and then enact restoration to make up for that harm. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

Can you imagine—or perhaps remember—sitting at home watching the news and hearing again and again about yet another oil spill? And wondering what the government was going to do about it? Fortunately, in August of 1990, Congress voted unanimously to pass the Oil Pollution Act, which promised—and has largely delivered—significantly improved measures to prevent, prepare for, and respond to oil spills in U.S. waters.

Now, 25 years later, the shipping industry has undergone a makeover in oil spill prevention, preparedness, and response. A couple examples include the phasing out of tankers with easily punctured single hulls and new regulations for driving tankers that require the use of knowledgeable pilots, maneuverable tug escorts, and an appropriate number of people on the ship’s bridge during transit.

Oil spill response research also received a boost thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, which reopened a national research facility dedicated to this topic and shuttered just before the Exxon Valdez spill.

But perhaps one of the most important elements of this law required those responsible for oil spills to foot the bill for both cleaning up the oil and for economic and natural resource damages resulting from it.

This provision also requires oil companies to pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a fund theoretically created by Congress in 1986 but not given the necessary authorization until the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This fund helps the U.S. Coast Guard—and indirectly, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration—pay for the upfront costs of responding to marine and coastal accidents that threaten to release hazardous materials such as oil and also of assessing the potential environmental and cultural impacts (and implementing restoration to make up for them).

This week we’re saying thank you to the Oil Pollution Act by highlighting some of its successes in restoring the environment after oil spills. You can join us on social media using the hashtag #Thanks2OilPollutionAct.


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Melting Permafrost and Camping with Muskoxen: Planning for Oil Spills on Arctic Coasts

 Muskoxen near the scientists' field camp on Alaska's Espenberg River.

Muskoxen near the scientists’ field camp on Alaska’s Espenberg River. (NOAA)

This is a post by Dr. Sarah Allan, Alaska Regional Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Assessment and Restoration Division.

Alaska’s high Arctic coastline is anything but a monotonous stretch of beach. Over the course of more than 6,500 miles, this shoreline at the top of the world shows dramatic transformations, featuring everything from peat and permafrost to rocky shores, sandy beaches, and wetlands. It starts at the Canadian border in the east, wraps around the northernmost point in the United States, and follows the numerous inlets, bays, and peninsulas of northwest Alaska before coming to the Bering Strait.

Planning for potential oil spills along such a lengthy and varied coastline leaves a lot for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to consider. We have to take into account a wide variety of shorelines, habitats, and other dynamics specific to the Arctic region.

This is why fellow NOAA Office of Response and Restoration scientist Catherine Berg and I, normally based in Anchorage, jumped at the opportunity to join a National Park Service–led effort supporting oil spill response planning in the state’s Northwest Arctic region.

Our goal was to gain on-the-ground familiarity with its diverse shorelines, nearshore habitats, and the basics of working out there. That way, we would be better prepared to support an emergency pollution response and carry out the ensuing environmental impact assessments.

Arctic Endeavors

Man inflating boat next to ATV and woman kneeling on beach.

At right, NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator Dr. Sarah Allan collects sediment samples while National Park Service scientist Paul Burger inflates the boat near the mouth of the Kitluk River in northwest Alaska. (National Park Service)

Many oil spill planning efforts have focused on oil drilling sites on Alaska’s North Slope, especially in Prudhoe Bay and the offshore drilling areas in the Chukchi Sea. However, with increased oil exploration and a longer ice-free season in the Arctic, more ship traffic—and a heightened risk of oil spills—extends to the transit routes throughout Arctic waters.

This risk is especially apparent in the Northwest Arctic around the Bering Strait, where vessel traffic is squeezed between Alaska’s mainland and two small islands. On top of the growing risk, the Northwest Arctic coast, like much of Alaska, presents daunting logistical challenges for spill response due to its remoteness and limited infrastructure and support services.

To help get a handle on the challenges along this region’s coast, Catherine Berg and I traveled to northwest Alaska in July 2015 and, in tag-team fashion, visited the shorelines of the Chukchi Sea in coordination with the National Park Service. Berg is the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for emergency response and I’m the Regional Resource Coordinator for environmental assessment and restoration.

The National Park Service is collecting data to improve Geographic Response Strategies in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and the Cape Krusenstern National Monument, both flanking Kotzebue Sound in northwest Alaska. These strategies, a series of which have been developed for the Northwest Arctic, are plans meant to protect specific sensitive coastal environments from an oil spill, outlining recommendations for containment boom and other response tools.

Because our office is interested in understanding the potential effects of oil on Arctic shorelines, we worked with the Park Service on this trip to collect information related to oil spill response and environmental assessment planning in northwest Alaska’s Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

The Wild Life

From the village of Kotzebue, two National Park Service scientists and I—along with our all-terrain vehicle (ATV), trailer, and all of our personal, camping, and scientific gear—were taken by boat to a field camp on the Espenberg River. After arriving, we could see signs of bear, wolf, and wolverine activity near where this meandering river empties into the Bering Sea. Herds of muskoxen passed near camp.

Considering most of the Northwest Arctic’s shorelines are just as wild and hard-to-reach, we should expect to be set up in a similar field camp, with similarly complex planning and logistics, in order to collect environmental impact data after an oil spill. As I saw firsthand, things only got more complicated as weather, mechanics, shallow water, and low visibility forced us to constantly adapt our plans.

Heading west, we used ATVs to get to the mouth of the Kitluk River, where the Park Service collected data for the Geographic Response Strategies, while I collected sediment samples from the intertidal area for chemical analysis. These samples would serve as set of baseline comparisons should there be an oil spill in a similar area.

Traveling there, we saw dramatic signs of coastal erosion, a reminder of the many changes the Arctic is experiencing.

The next day, the boat took us around Espendberg Point into Kotzebue Sound to the Goodhope River estuary. There, we used a small inflatable boat with a motor to check out the different sites identified for special protection in the Geographic Response Strategy. I also took the opportunity to field test the “Vegetated Habitats” sampling guideline I helped develop for collecting time-sensitive data in the Arctic. Unfortunately, the very shallow coastal water presented a challenge for both our vessels; the water was only a few feet deep even three miles offshore.

After an unplanned overnight in Kotzebue (more improvising!), I returned to the field camp via float plane and got an amazing aerial view of the coastline. The Arctic’s permafrost and tundra shorelines are unique among U.S. coastlines and will require special oil spill response, cleanup, and impact assessment considerations.

Sound Lessons

After I returned to the metropolitan comforts of Anchorage, my colleague Catherine Berg swapped places, joining the Northwest Arctic field team.

As the lead NOAA scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard during oil spill response in Alaska, her objective was to evaluate Arctic shoreline types not previously encountered during oil spills. Using our Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique method, she targeted shorelines within Kupik Lagoon on the Chukchi Sea coast and in the Nugnugaluktuk River in Kotzebue Sound. She surveyed the profile of these shorelines and recorded other information that will inform and improve Arctic-specific protocols and considerations for surveying oiled shorelines.

Though we only saw a small part of the Northwest Arctic coastline, it was an excellent opportunity to gauge how its coastal characteristics would influence the transport and fate of spilled oil, to improve how we would survey oiled Arctic shorelines, to gather critical baseline data for this environment, and to field test our guidelines for collecting time-sensitive data after an oil spill.

One of the greatest challenges for responding to and evaluating the impacts of an Arctic oil spill is dealing with the logistics of safety, access, transportation, and personnel support. Collaborating with the Park Service and local community in Kotzebue and gaining experience in the field camp gave us invaluable insight into what we would need to do to work effectively in the event of a spill in this remote area.

First, be prepared. Then, be flexible.

Thank you to the National Park Service, especially Tahzay Jones and Paul Burger, for the opportunity to join their field team in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Dr. Sarah Allan.

Dr. Sarah Allan has been working with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Emergency Response Division and as the Alaska Regional Coordinator for the Assessment and Restoration Division, based in Anchorage, Alaska, since February of 2012. Her work focuses on planning for natural resource damage assessment and restoration in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic.