OR&R's Emergency Response Division (ERD) supports emergency response activities for oil and hazardous chemical spills in coastal waters. Each year, these scientists and support staff offer their technical expertise in response to 150-200 incidents, the majority of which are oil spills. Some of these originate from leaking oil pipelines or vessel collisions, while others can result from hurricanes or drilling well blowouts, as in the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Get a feel for OR&R's work in this sampling of recent spill responses that ERD has supported:
Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy: In late October, 2012, Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy's extreme weather conditions spread oil, hazardous materials, and debris across waterways and industrial port areas along the Mid Atlantic. As water levels receded, the U.S. Coast Guard began receiving reports of pollution incidents in the areas of coastal New Jersey and New York. There, ERD Scientific Support Coordinators (SSCs) worked with the Coast Guard to assess and reduce the impacts of hazardous material pollution, particularly in the area of Arthur Kill, a waterway that borders New York and New Jersey. The SSCs served as aerial observers on Coast Guard helicopters to survey oil on the water surface, and visited hurricane-affected sites and facilities to determine the extent of oiling and to offer scientific counsel on spill containment and cleanup. To assist the on-scene response, ERD modelers forecasted the movement and behavior of spilled oil in the Arthur Kill area, providing to the Unified Command scientific guidance about the most sensitive habitats and organisms in the area, considerations for reducing environmental impacts during cleanup and response operations, and information on the types of oils released and their possible impacts on natural resources.
Hurricane Isaac: After Hurricane Isaac's initial landfall the week of August 28, 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard received reports of 158 oil spills and 171 objects possibly containing hazardous materials in the affected areas of Louisiana. The objects included propane tanks and drums with unknown contents, ranging in size from several gallons to 60,000 gallons. ERD assessed the shorelines possibly affected by these spills, conducted aerial surveys of coastal waters, made cleanup recommendations, and performed final assessments of oiled areas that had been cleaned. Additionally, ERD collaborated with federal and state agencies to address impacts to natural resources and to determine when cleanup operations were complete.
M/V Jireh: On June 21, 2012, the 202-foot M/V Jireh ran aground on Mona Island, a small, uninhabited island 41 miles west of Puerto Rico. NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and U.S. Coast Guard focused on recovering the approximately 2,000 gallons of fuel oil on board the freighter to minimize the environmental impact, particularly to corals. Because the ship crushed and toppled corals as it plowed into the reef, NOAA divers conducted an assessment survey of the grounding area and continued to work with local environmental agencies as the effort transitioned from response to recovery. As a precautionary measure, NOAA divers transplanted more than 1,000 corals during the salvage operations.
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: On April 20, 2010, the Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit Deepwater Horizon caught fire and later sank in the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 50 miles offshore of Louisiana. Spill control systems, including the blow-out preventer, failed and resulted in an 89-day release of crude oil, ultimately becoming the largest oil spill in U.S. waters.
In the years after the well blowout, ERD has continued to support the spill cleanup and restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. Staff and contractors remain on scene in Louisiana, supporting the U.S. Coast Guard response and addressing scientific issues as they arise. Cleanup of oiled shorelines continues in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. At least a dozen ERD staff and contractors continue to participate on Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT) teams, with additional roles serving as SCAT coordinator, managing data for operations in Louisiana, and ensuring previously oiled shorelines are clean enough for restoration projects to begin. However, complicating factors requiring locally customized solutions persist and are related to submerged oil mats, hurricanes, shoreline erosion, and endangered species.
Adak Petroleum Tank Release: On January 11, 2010, up to 142,000 gallons of #2 diesel fuel was released from a 4.8 million gallon underground tank at the Adak Petroleum Bulk Fuel facility on Adak Island in the central Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Fuel was being transferred from a tanker at the adjacent loading dock, when the tank was overfilled. The containment sump unit was overwhelmed and the fuel entered Helmet Creek, a salmon creek which flows into the small boat harbor in the Port of Adak. Most of the diesel was confined to the creek, but more than a thousand gallons may have flowed out to Sweeper Cove.
Eugene Island Pipeline Spill: On July 26, 2009, oil was observed approximately 33 miles offshore and 60 miles southwest of Houma, La. The oil was subsequently identified as coming from a leak from the Eugene Island Pipeline System. An estimated 63,000 gallons of oil was released. Pre-approved dispersant was applied to the heaviest concentrations of the spill and a significant amount of skimming was done. In addition to identifying resources at risk, ERD provided trajectories and coordinated monitoring to ensure the applied dispersant was working effectively.
Hurricanes Gustav and Ike: On September 1, 2008, Hurricane Gustav made landfall on the Louisiana coast, reaching into Florida with destructive rain bands and tornadoes. Only two weeks later, on September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall during the early morning hours in the Galveston/Houston area of Texas. ERD provided scientific support to the USCG, EPA and FEMA in responding to the numerous incidents generated as a result of the storms.
Barge DM932: On July 23, 2008, the T/V Tintomara collided with the tug/barge (M/V Mel Oliver and DM932 near downtown New Orleans, La. The barge was ripped in half and spilled 283,000 gallons of fuel, closing the Mississippi River to shipping for six days. Over the next several months, ERD supported the incident operations, providing science coordination, trajectory forecasts, and shoreline and cleanup assessments. Operations were temporarily halted during the passage on September 1, 2008 of Hurricane Gustav and, subsequently, Hurricane Ike. (You can watch a short video about NOAA OR&R's response to this spill.)
M/V Cosco Busan: The container ship M/V Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge in San Francisco Bay, Calif., on November 7, 2007. An approximate 100-foot gash in the hull of the vessel resulted, and 58,000 gallons of fuel oil (IFO 380) were released into the water, which had toxic effects on spawning herring in the bay. NOAA's ERD staff responded, providing trajectory forecasts of oil movement, consultation on cleanup techniques, shoreline assessments, and coordination of weather forecasts and other science activities.
R/R Cougar Ace: On July 23, 2006, the Cougar Ace, a 654-foot container ship transporting over 4,800 automobiles from Japan to Vancouver, Canada, began to take on water for an unknown reason about 245 nautical miles southwest of Atka, Alaska, and started to list to its port side. A sheen was reported about two miles in length, emanating from the vessel. The crew of 23 was rescued by U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard helicopters. After floating around in the North Pacific Ocean for over a week, a tug from Seattle finally arrived and towed the vessel to Unalaska Harbor, Alaska, where the vessel was re-ballasted to a normal upright position. No additional pollution occurred.
More Information about Significant Responses
Oil Types: Learn about the many different kinds of oil, which differ in how they affect the environment, if spilled, and in how hard they are to clean up.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Learn about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Includes links to many related resources, including photo galleries.
Oil and Hazardous Materials Response Reports: Browse reports on oil and chemical spill responses that NOAA OR&R supported from October 1992 through September 1999.