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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NOAA Assists with Response to Bakken Oil Train Derailment and Fire in West Virginia

Smoldering train cars derailed from the railroad tracks in snowy West Virginia.

On Feb. 18, 2015, response crews for the West Virginia train derailment were continuing to monitor the burning of the derailed rail cars near Mount Carbon next to the Kanawha River. The West Virginia Train Derailment Unified Command continues to work with federal, state and local agencies on the response efforts for the train derailment that occurred near Mount Carbon on February 15, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On February 16, 2015, a CSX oil train derailed and caught fire in West Virginia near the confluence of Armstrong Creek and the Kanawha River. The train was hauling 3.1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a facility in Virginia. Oil coming from the Bakken Shale oil fields in North Dakota and Montana is highly volatile, and according to an industry report [PDF] prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation, it contains “higher amounts of dissolved flammable gases compared to some heavy crude oils.”

Of the 109 train cars, 27 of them derailed on the banks of the Kanawha River, but none of them entered the river. Much of the oil they were carrying was consumed in the fire, which affected 19 train cars, and an unknown amount of oil has reached the icy creek and river. Initially, the derailed train cars caused a huge fire, which burned down a nearby house, and resulted in the evacuation of several nearby towns. The evacuation order, which affected at least 100 residents, has now been lifted for all but five homes immediately next to the accident site.

The fires have been contained, and now the focus is on cleaning up the accident site, removing any remaining oil from the damaged train cars, and protecting drinking water intakes downstream. So far, responders have collected approximately 6,800 gallons of oily water from containment trenches dug along the river embankment.

Heavy equipment and oily boom on the edge of a frozen river.

Some oil from the derailed train cars has been observed frozen into the river ice, but no signs of oil appear downstream. (NOAA)

The area, near Mount Carbon, West Virginia, has been experiencing heavy snow and extremely cold temperatures, and the river is largely frozen. Some oil has been observed frozen into the river ice, but testing downstream water intakes for the presence of oil has so far shown negative results. NOAA has been assisting the response by providing custom weather and river forecasting, which includes modeling the potential fate of any oil that has reached the river.

The rapid growth of oil shipments by rail in the past few years has led to a number of high-profile train accidents. A similar incident in Lynchburg, Virginia, last year involved a train also headed to Yorktown, Virginia. In July 2013, 47 people were killed in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, after a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded. NOAA continues to prepare for the emerging risks associated with this shift in oil transport in the United States.

Look for more updates on this incident from the U.S. Coast Guard News Room and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.


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NOAA Experts Help Students Study up on Oil Spills and Ocean Science

Person on boat looking oiled sargassum in the ocean.

Mark Dodd, wildlife biologist from Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, surveying oiled sargassum in the Gulf of Mexico. (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

Every year high school students across the country compete in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl to test their knowledge of the marine sciences, ranging from biology and oceanography to policy and technology. This year’s competition will quiz students on “The Science of Oil in the Ocean.” As NOAA’s center for expertise on oil spills, the Office of Response and Restoration has been a natural study buddy for these aspiring ocean scientists.

In addition to providing some of our reports as study resources, three of our experts recently answered students’ questions about the science of oil spills in a live video Q&A. In an online event hosted by the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, NOAA environmental scientist Ken Finkelstein, oceanographer Amy MacFadyen, and policy analyst Meg Imholt fielded questions on oil-eating microbes, oil’s movement in the ocean, and much more.

Here is a sampling of the more than a dozen questions asked and answered, plus a bit of extra research to help you learn more. (You also can view the full hour-long video of the Q&A.)

What are the most important policies that relate to the oil industry?

There are lots of policies related to the oil industry. Here are a few that impact our work:

  • The Clean Water Act establishes rules about water pollution.
  • The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 establishes the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to support oil spill response and holds companies responsible for damages to natural resources caused by a spill.
  • The National Contingency Plan guides preparedness and response for oil and hazardous material spills. It also regulates the use of some response tools such as dispersants.
  • The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act gives the Department of Interior authority to lease areas in federal waters for oil and gas development and to regulate offshore drilling.
  • The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act establish rules for protected species that companies must consider in their operations.

How do waves help transport oil?

Waves move oil in a few ways. First is surface transport. Waves move suspended particles in circles. If oil is floating on the surface, waves can move it toward the shore. However, ocean currents and winds blowing over the surface of the ocean are generally much more important in transporting surface oil. For example, tidal currents associated with rising and falling water levels can be very fast — these currents can move oil in the coastal zone at speeds of several miles per hour. Over time, all these processes act to spread oil out.

Waves are also important for a mixing process called dispersion. Most oils float on the surface because they are less dense than water. However, breaking waves can drive oil into the water column as droplets. Larger, buoyant droplets rise to the surface. Smaller droplets stay in the water column and move around in the subsurface until they are dissolved and degraded.

How widespread is the use of bacteria to remediate oil spills?

Some bacteria have evolved over millions of years to eat oil around natural oil seeps. In places without much of this bacteria, responders may boost existing populations by adding nutrients, rather than adding new bacteria.

This works best as a polishing tool. After an initial response, particles of oil are left behind.  Combined with wave movement, nutrient-boosted bacteria help clean up those particles.

Are oil dispersants such as Corexit proven to be poisonous, and if so, what are potential adverse effects as a result of its use?

Both oil and dispersants can have toxicological effects, and responders must weigh the trade-offs. Dispersants can help mitigate oil’s impacts to the shoreline. When oil reaches shore, it is difficult to remove and can create a domino effect in the ecosystem. Still, dispersants break oil into tiny droplets that enter the water column. This protects the shoreline, but has potential consequences for organisms that swim and live at the bottom of the sea.

To help answer questions like these, we partnered with the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire to fund research on dispersants and dispersed oil. Already, this research is being used to improve scientific support during spills.

What are the sources of oil in the ocean? How much comes from natural sources and how much comes from man-made sources?

Oil can come from natural seeps, oil spills, and also runoff from land, but total volumes are difficult to estimate. Natural seeps of oil account for approximately 60 percent of the estimated total load in North American waters and 40 percent worldwide, according to the National Academy of Sciences in a 2003 report. In 2014, NOAA provided scientific support to over 100 incidents involving oil, totaling more than 8 million gallons of oil potentially spilled. Scientists can identify the source of oil through a chemical technique known as oil fingerprinting. This provides evidence of where oil found in the ocean is from.

An important factor is not only how much oil is in the environment, but also the type of oil and how quickly it is released. Natural oil seeps release oil slowly over time, allowing ecosystems to adapt. In a spill, the amount of oil released in a short time can overwhelm the ecosystem.

What is the most effective order of oil spill procedure? What is currently the best method?

It depends on what happened, where it’s going, what’s at risk, and the chemistry of the oil.  Sometimes responders might skim oil off the surface, burn it, or use pads to absorb oil. The best response is determined by the experts at the incident.

Bag of oiled waste on a beach.

Oiled waste on the beach in Port Fourchon, Louisiana. On average, oil spill cleanups generate waste 10 times the amount of oil spilled. (NOAA)

What do you do with the oil once it is collected? Is there any way to use recovered oil for a later use?

Oil weathers in the environment, mixing with water and making it unusable in that state. Typically, collected oil has to be either processed before being recycled or sent to the landfill, along with some oiled equipment. Oil spill cleanups create a large amount of waste that is a separate issue from the oil spill itself.

Are the effects of oil spills as bad on plants as they are on animals?

Oil can have significant effects on plants, especially in coastal habitat. For example, mangroves and marshes are particularly sensitive to oil. Oil can be challenging to remove in these areas, and deploying responders and equipment can sometimes trample sensitive habitat, so responders need to consider how to minimize the potential unintended adverse impact of cleanup actions.

Does some of the crude oil settle on the seafloor? What effect does it have?

Oil usually floats, but can sometimes reach the seafloor. Oil can mix with sediment, separate into lighter and heavier components, or be ingested and excreted by plankton, all causing it to sink, with potential impacts for benthic (bottom-dwelling) creatures and other organisms.

When oil does reach the seafloor, removing it has trade-offs. In some cases, removing oil could require removing sediment, which is home to many important benthic (bottom-dwelling) organisms. Responders work with scientists to decide this on a case-by-case basis.

To what extent is the oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill still affecting the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem?

NOAA and our co-trustees have released a number of studies as part of the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment for this spill and continue to release new research. Some public research has shown impacts on dolphins, deep sea ecosystems, and tuna. Other groups, like the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, are conducting research outside of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

How effective are materials such as saw dust and hair when soaking up oil from the ocean surface?

Oil spill responders use specialized products, such as sorbent materials, which are much more effective.


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How NOAA Oil Spill Experts Got Involved With Chemical Spill Software

Fire and smoke on a container ship carrying hazardous materials at sea.

The aftermath of a March 2006 explosion of hazardous cargo on the container ship M/V Hyundai Fortune. The risks of transporting hazardous chemicals on ships at sea sparked the inspiration for NOAA oil spill responders to start designing chemical spill software. (Credit: Royal Netherlands Navy)

It was late February of 1979, and the Italian container ship Maria Costa [PDF] had sprung a leak. Rough seas had damaged its hull and the ship now was heading to Chesapeake Bay for repairs. Water was flooding the Maria Costa’s cargo holds.

This was a particular problem not because of its loads of carpets and tobacco, but because the vessel was also carrying 65 tons of pesticide. Stored in thick brown paper bags, this unregulated insecticide was being released from the clay it was transported with into the waters now flooding the cargo holds.

Ethoprop, the major ingredient of this organophosphate insecticide, was not only poisonous to humans but also to marine life at very low concentrations (50 parts per billion in water). Waters around Norfolk, Virginia, had recently suffered another pesticide spill affecting crabs and shrimp, and the leaking Maria Costa was denied entry to Chesapeake Bay because of the risk of polluting its waters again.

During the Maria Costa incident, two NOAA spill responders boarded the ship to take samples of the contaminated water and assess the environmental threat. Even though this event predated the current organization of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, NOAA had been providing direct support to oil spills and marine accidents since showing up as hazardous materials (hazmat) researchers during the Argo Merchant oil spill in 1976.

Blood and Water

The NOAA scientists had blood samples taken before and after spending an hour and a half aboard the damaged vessel taking samples of their own. The results indicated that water in the ship’s tanks had 130 parts per million of ethoprop and the two men’s blood showed tell-tale signs of organophosphate poisoning.

After the resolution of that incident and an ensuing hospital visit by the two NOAA scientists, the head of the NOAA Hazardous Materials Response Program, John Robinson, realized that responding to releases of chemicals other than oil would take a very different kind of response. And that would take a different set of tools than currently existed.

From Book Stacks to Computer Code

John Robinson leaning on the edge of a boat.

John Robinson led the NOAA Hazardous Materials Response Program in its early years and helped guide the team’s pioneering development of chemical spill software tools for emergency responders. (NOAA)

Following the Maria Costa, Robinson got to work with the Seattle Fire Department’s newly formed hazmat team, allowing NOAA to observe how local chemical incidents were managed. Then, he initiated four large-scale exercises around the nation to test how the scientific coordination of a federal response would integrate with local first responder activities during larger-scale chemical incidents.

It didn’t take long to understand how important it was for first responders to have the right tools for applying science in a chemical response. During the first exercise, responders laid out several reference books on the hoods of cars in an attempt to assess the threat from the chemicals involved.

Researching and synthesizing complex information from multiple sources during a stressful situation proved to be the main challenge. Because the threat from chemical spills can evolve so much more rapidly than oil spills—a toxic cloud of chemical vapor can move and disappear within minutes—it was very clear that local efforts would always be front and center during these responses.

Meanwhile, NOAA scientists created a computer program employing a simple set of equations to predict how a toxic chemical gas would move and disperse and started examining how to synthesize chemical information from multiple sources into a resource first responders could trust and use quickly.

Learning from Tragedy

Then, in December of 1984, tragedy struck Bhopal, India, when a deadly chemical cloud released from a Union Carbide plant killed more than 2,000 people. This accidental release of methyl isocyanate, a toxic chemical used to produce pesticides, and its impact on the unprepared surrounding community led the U.S. government to examine how communities in the United States would have been prepared for such an accident.

By 1986, Congress, motivated by the Bhopal accident, passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). As a result, certain facilities dealing with hazardous chemicals must report these chemicals and any spills each year to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Apple II+ computer hooked up to Apple graphics tablet, color TV, and printer.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, NOAA’s hazmat team wrote the first version of the ALOHA chemical plume modeling program, now part of the CAMEO software suite for hazardous material response, for this Apple II+ computer. (NOAA)

Because NOAA had already started working with first responders to address the science of chemical spill response, EPA turned to NOAA as a partner in developing tools for first responders and community awareness. From those efforts, CAMEO was born. CAMEO, which stands for Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations, is a suite of software products for hazardous materials response and planning.

Getting the Right Information, Right Now

The goal was to consolidate chemical information customized for each community and be able to model potential scenarios. In addition, that information needed to be readily available to the public and to first responders.

In 1986, attempting to do this on a computer was a big deal. At that time, the Internet was in its infancy and not readily accessible. Computers were large desktop affairs, but Apple had just come out with a “portable” computer. NOAA’s Robinson was convinced that with a computer on board first response vehicles, science-based decisions would become the norm for chemical preparedness and response. Today, responders can access that information from their smartphone.

NOAA and EPA still partner on the CAMEO program, which is used by tens of thousands of planners and responders around the world. Almost 30 years later, the program and technology have evolved—and continue to do so—but the vision and goal are the same: providing timely and critical science-based information and tools to people dealing with chemical accidents. Learn more about the CAMEO suite of chemical planning and response products.


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What Does It Take to Clean up the Cleanup From an Oil Spill?

Bags of oiled waste on a beach next to a No Smoking sign.

Bags and bags of oiled waste on the beach of Prince William Sound, Alaska, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in March 1989. (NOAA)

Imagine spilling a can of paint on your basement floor (note: I have done this more than once.). Luckily, you have some paper towels nearby, and maybe some rags or an old towel you can use to mop up the mess. When you’re finished, all of those items probably will end up in the garbage. Maybe along with some of the old clothes you had on.

You might not think much about the amount of waste you generated, but it was probably a lot more than the volume of paint you spilled—maybe even 10 times as much. That number is actually a rule of thumb for oil spill cleanup. The amount of waste generated is typically about 10 times the volume of oil spilled.

Our colleagues at the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) did a study on this very topic, looking at the oil-to-waste ratio for nearly 20 spills [PDF]. (A messy job, for sure.) ITOPF found that the general rule for estimating waste at oil spills still held true at about 10 times the amount spilled.

The Mess of a Cleanup

Cleanup workers collect oily debris in bags on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Responders collect oily debris during the M/V Westchester oil spill in the Mississippi River near Empire, Louisiana, in November 2000. (NOAA)

What kinds of wastes are we talking about? Well, there is the oil recovered itself. In many cases, this can be recycled. Then there are oily liquids. These are the result of skimming oil off of the water surface, which tends to recover a lot of water too, and this has to be processed before it can be properly disposed. Shoreline cleanup is even messier, due to the large amounts of oily sands and gravel, along with seaweed, driftwood, and other debris that can end up getting oiled and need to be removed from beaches.

Some response equipment such as hard containment booms can be cleaned and reused, but that cleaning generates oily wastes too. Then there are the many sorbent materials used to mop up oil; these sorbent pads and soft booms may not be reusable and would be sent to a landfill. Finally, don’t forget about the oil-contaminated protective clothing, plastic bags, and all of the domestic garbage generated by an army of cleanup workers at the site of a spill response.

Aiming for Less Mess

A large U.S. oil spill response will have an entire section of personnel devoted to waste management. Their job is to provide the necessary storage and waste processing facilities, figure out what can be recycled, what will need to be taken to a proper landfill or incineration facility, and how to get it all there. That includes ensuring everything is in compliance with the necessary shipping, tracking, and disposal paperwork.

The amount of waste generated is a serious matter, particularly because oil spills often can occur in remote areas. In far-off locales, proper handling and transport of wastes is often as big a challenge as cleaning up the oil. Dealing with oily wastes is even more difficult in the Arctic and remote Pacific Islands such as Samoa because of the lack of adequate landfill space. One of the common goals of a spill response is to minimize wastes and segregate materials as much as possible to reduce disposal costs.

In a 2008 article [PDF], the U.S. Coast Guard explores in more detail the various sources of waste during an oil spill response and includes suggestions for incentivizing waste reduction during a response.


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NOAA Partners with University of Washington to Examine How Citizen Science Can Help Support Oil Spill Response

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño.

Volunteers sample mussels at a Mussel Watch beach site near Edmonds, Wash.

Volunteers sample mussels at a Mussel Watch site in Washington, one of NOAA’s National Mussel Watch Program sites. This program relies on citizen scientists to gather data on water pollution levels and seafood safety by regularly sampling mussels at established locations across the nation. (Alan Mearns/NOAA)

Citizen science—characterized by public participation in the scientific process—is a growing trend in scientific research. As technology opens up new opportunities, more and more people are able to collaborate on scientific efforts where widespread geographic location or project scope previously may have been a barrier.

Citizen science can take a number of forms, ranging from small-scale environmental monitoring to massive crowdsourced classification efforts, and there is a great deal of benefit to be realized when managed properly. For example, the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory developed the mPING smartphone app to allow anyone in the United States to file hyper-local weather reports, which in turn helps the NOAA National Weather Service fine-tune their weather forecasts.

The Citizen Science Management Project

Our team of University of Washington graduate students is working with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to research the potential for incorporating citizen science into its oil spill response efforts.

Thanks to improvements in technology, the public is more interested in and better able to contribute help during oil spills than ever before. During recent oil spills, notably the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident, large numbers of citizens have expressed interest in supporting monitoring and recovery efforts. As the lead science agency for oil spills, NOAA is considering how to best engage the public in order to respond to oil spills even more effectively.

The goal of the project is to provide recommendations for NOAA on effective citizen science management. To do this, we began working to find the most current and relevant information on citizen science by conducting a broad review of the published scientific literature and speaking with experts in the fields of oil spill response, citizen science, and coastal volunteer management. Our next steps are to analyze the research and come up with possible options for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration on how to best adopt and incorporate citizen science into its work.

Initial Findings

NOAA’s Role. NOAA’s role in an oil spill response is primarily that of scientific support. During a response, NOAA begins by addressing a few core questions. Phrased simply, they are:

  • What got spilled?
  • Where will it go and what will it hit?
  • What harm will it cause and how can the effects of the spill be reduced?

We believe that using citizen scientists to help answer these fundamental questions may help NOAA better engage communities in the overall response effort and produce additional usable data to strengthen the response.

Aerial view of Deepwater Horizon oil spill and response vessels.

A view of the oil source and response vessels during the Deepwater Horizon incident as seen during an overflight on May 20, 2010. This spill piqued public interest in oil spills. (NOAA)

Changing Trends and New Opportunities. Technology is changing quickly. More than half of Americans own a smartphone, mapping programs are readily available and easy-to-use, and the Internet provides an unparalleled platform for crowdsourced data collection and analysis, as well as a venue for communication and outreach. These advances in technology are adding a new dimension to citizen science by creating the ability to convey information more quickly and by increasing visibility for citizen science projects. Increased exposure to citizen science efforts spurs interest in participation and the additional data collection capacity provided by smartphones and other technology allows more people to contribute. One such trend is the digital mapping of crowdsourced information, such as the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Marine Debris Tracker app, which enables people to map and track different types of litter and marine debris they find around the world.

Oil Spills, NOAA, and Citizen Science. In 2012 the National Response Team prepared a document on the “Use of Volunteers: Guidelines for Oil Spills,” outlining ways in which oil spill responders can move toward improved citizen involvement before, during, and after an oil spill. We will use this as a framework to assess potential citizen science programs that could be adopted or incorporated by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Challenges. All citizen science programs face certain challenges, such as ensuring data reliability with increased participation from non-experts, finding and maintaining the capacity required to manage a citizen science program and incorporate new data, and working with liability concerns around public participation. The challenges become even greater when incorporating citizen science into oil spill response. The unique challenges we have identified are the compressed timeline associated with a spill situation; the unpredictability in scope, geography, and nature of a spill; and the heightened risk and liability that come from having volunteers involved with hazardous material spill scenarios. We will keep all of these concerns in mind as we develop our recommendations.

Next Steps

From here, our team will be analyzing our findings and developing some recommendations for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. We hope to identify, categorize, and assess different citizen science models that may work in a response situation, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each model. These findings will be presented in a final report to NOAA in March 2015.

If you would like to learn more about the Citizen Science Management Project or check on our progress, please visit the project website: https://citizensciencemanagement.wordpress.com. If you have ideas about the project, feel free to reach out to us through the contact page. We would love to hear from you!

Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño are graduate students at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. The Citizen Science Management Project is being facilitated through the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment. It is the most recent project in an ongoing relationship between NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment.


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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Winter 2015

Two people talking on a beach with a ferry in the background.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills, and also include a field trip to a beach to apply newly learned skills. (NOAA)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of February 23–27, 2015 at the NOAA Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Alabama.

We will accept applications for this class through Friday, January 9, 2015, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, January 16, 2015, via email.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

These trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

Additional SOS courses will be held in 2015 in Houston, Texas, (April 27–May 1, 2015) and Seattle, Washington (date to be determined).

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


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When the Dynamics of an Oil Spill Shut Down a Nuclear Power Plant

Yellow containment boom floats on a river next to a nuclear power plant.

Precautionary containment boom is visible around the water intake system at the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey on December 6, 2004. The nuclear plant was shut down for 11 days to prevent the heavy, submerged oil from the Athos spill from clogging the water intakes. (NOAA)

“I’ve never reopened a nuclear power plant,” thought NOAA’s Ed Levine. Despite that, Levine knew it was his job to get the right information to the people who ultimately would make that decision. This was his role as a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator during oil spills. However, most major oil spills do not affect nuclear power plants. This wintry day in 2004 was an exception.

Forty miles north of the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey, an oil tanker called the Athos I had struck an object hidden beneath the Delaware River. As it was preparing to dock at the CITGO refinery near Philadelphia on November 26, the ship began tilting to one side, the engine shut down, and oil started gushing out.

“Not your typical oil spill,” later reflected Jonathan Sarubbi, who served as U.S. Coast Guard Captain of the Port and led the federal response during this incident. Not only did no one immediately know what the ship had hit—or where that object was located in the river channel—but the Athos, now sitting too low in the water to reach the dock, was stuck where it was. And it was still leaking its cargo of heavy Venezuelan crude oil.

Capt. Sarubbi ordered vessel traffic through this busy East Coast shipping channel to stop until the object the Athos hit could be found. Little did Capt. Sarubbi, Levine, and the other responders know that even more challenges would be in store beneath the water and down the river.

Getting Mixed up

Most oils, most of the time, float on the surface of water. This was precisely what responders expected the oil coming out of the Athos to do. But within a couple days of the spill, they realized that was not the case. This oil was a little on the heavier side. As it shot out of the ship’s punctured bottom, some of the oil mixed with sediment from the river bottom. It didn’t have far to go; thanks to an extremely low tide pulling the river out to sea, the Athos was passing a mere 18 inches above the bottom of the river when it sprung a leak.

Now mixed with sediment, some of the spilled oil became as dense as or denser than water. Instead of rising to the river surface, it sank to the bottom or drifted in the water column. Even some of the oil that floated became mixed with sediment along the shoreline, later sinking below the surface. For the oil suspended in the water, the turbulence of the Delaware River kept it moving with the currents increasingly toward the Salem nuclear plant, perched on the river’s edge.

NOAA’s oil spill trajectory model GNOME forecasts the spread of oil by assuming the oil is floating on the water’s surface. Normally, our oceanographers can verify how well the forecasts are doing by calibrating the model against twice-a-day aerial surveys of the oil’s movement. The trouble with oil that does not float is that it is harder to see, especially in the murky waters of the Delaware River.

Responders were forced to improvise. To track oil underwater, they created new sampling methods, one of which involved dropping weighted ropes into the water column at various points along the river. The ropes were lined with what looked like cheerleader pom-poms made of oil-attracting plastic strips that would pick up oil as it passed by.

Nuclear Ambitions

Nuclear plants like the Salem facility rely on a steady flow of freshwater to cool their reactors. A thin layer of floating oil was nearing the plant by December 1, 2004, with predictions that the heavier, submerged oil would not be far behind. By December 3, small, sticky bits of oil began showing up in the screens on the plant’s cooling water intakes. To keep them from becoming clogged, the plant decided to shut down its two nuclear reactors the next day. That was when NOAA’s Ed Levine was tasked with figuring out when the significant threats due to the oil had passed.

Eleven days later, the Salem nuclear plant operators, the State of New Jersey, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed the plant to restart. A combination of our modeling and new sampling methods for detecting underwater oil had shown a clear and significant drop in the amount of oil around the plant. Closing this major electric generating facility cost $33.1 million out of more than $162 million in claims paid to parties affected by the Athos spill. But through our innovative modeling and sampling, we were able to reduce the time the plant was offline, minimizing the disruption to the power grid and reducing the economic loss.

Levine recalled this as an “eye-opening” experience, one yielding a number of lessons for working with nuclear power plants should an oil spill threaten one in the future. To learn more about the Athos oil spill, from response to restoration, visit response.restoration.noaa.gov/athos.

A special thanks to NOAA’s Ed Levine and Chris Barker, former U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jonathan Sarubbi, and Henry Font, Donna Hellberg, and Thomas Morrison of the Coast Guard National Pollution Funds Center for sharing information and data which contributed to this post.

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