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Oil and Chemical Spills

Every year NOAA responds to over 150 oil and chemical spills in U.S. waters. These spills can threaten life, property, and public natural resources as well as substantially disrupt marine transportation with potential widespread economic impacts. The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) is charged with responding to oil spills, chemical accidents, and other emergencies in coastal areas. Under the National Contingency Plan, NOAA is responsible for providing scientific support to the federal on-scene coordinator for oil and hazardous material spills. 

Addressing the Issue

OR&R's expertise spans oceanography, biology, chemistry, and geology, allowing the response team to estimate oil and chemical trajectories, analyze chemical hazards, and assess risks to coastal animals, habitats, and important areas to humans. This team, led by regional scientific support coordinators, provides scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard for spills in coastal waters. When OR&R scientists respond to a spill, they work to answer specific questions:

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

During an oil spill in coastal waters, OR&R's role is to provide scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard officers in charge of response operations.

Chemicals can be an important part of manufacturing valuable economic goods—but they can also create dangerous situations if accidentally released. OR&R develops several software tools, such as the CAMEO software suite, to help emergency responders and planners assess hazardous material releases and protect public health and safety.

For significant spills, OR&R is responsible for providing scientific support to the federal on-scene coordinator overseeing the response. Under the National Contingency Plan and the National Response Plan, OR&R works with the U.S. Coast Guard, which is the FOSC for marine spills while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assumes this responsibility for inland spills. OR&R has responded to thousands of spills over the years.

In 2010, Congress appropriated $1 million to NOAA to prioritize the potential pollution impacts of individual shipwrecks. Under this project, known as the Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET), NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard set out to identify the most ecologically and economically significant potentially polluting wrecks in U.S. waters.