A controlled in-situ burn of surface oil after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (USCG)

Oil and Chemical Spills

Every year NOAA responds to more than a hundred oil and chemical spills in U.S. waters, which threaten life, property, and public natural resources. Spills into our coastal waters, whether accidental or intentional, can harm people and the environment and 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. To support this mandate, OR&R provides 24-hour, seven-day-a-week response to 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. Find news and information for notable incidents in which OR&R has been involved, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Under the National Contingency Plan and the National Response Plan, OR&R works with the U.S.

The NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center (DRC) is the newest addition to the Office of Response and Restoration. It brings together NOAA-wide resources to improve preparedness, planning, and response capacity for natural and manmade disasters along the Gulf Coast. Located in Mobile, Ala., the center is focused on the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil and Chemical Spill Research Publications

Here are citations for a sampling of research publications of the Emergency Response Division staff of NOAA OR&R.

NOAA’s Spill Response Team Nominated for Service to America Honors

NOAA scientist Amy Merten and her team are one of four finalists for the Samuel J. Heyman Partnership for Public Service to America Medal for Homeland Security. They were nominated for their efforts in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to refine and expand the capability of an innovative tool providing responders and decision makers with quick access to spill data in a secure and user-friendly format.