Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Spill Response: Time is of the Essence


September 1, 2018

AN oil spill cleanup demonstration at the Clean Pacific 2015 conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo courtesy of Pacific States/BC Oil Spill Task Force.

When it comes to responding to an oil spill, time is of the essence, and coordinating with local agencies and the private sector on contingency plans is key to mitigating spills.

"It's critical," said US Coast Guard Lt. Commander Bonnie Shaner, chief of the Incident Management Division at Sector San Francisco.

Her experience in oil spill response includes overall mission support and actual oil spill response at Sector New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in some 7.4 million gallons of oil spilled.

"The initial response is the biggest part of the cleanup," she said. "If we get that information as soon as possible that's when you're going to have the most effective response because the oil hasn't spread and impacted more areas. It is easier to get the oil cleaned up and out of the environment as soon as the spill occurs versus days later when it's washing up as a tarball on the beach."

There are contingency plans in the event of an oil spill at the local, regional and national level. There are three Coast Guard sectors in California alone: San Francisco, Los Angeles/Long Beach and San Diego and each have contingency plans tailored specifically for their area.

"The Coast Guard has been pretty-forward leaning with the concept of an incident command system," part of a national contingency plan that came out after 9/11 that establishes a framework for how to run an incident response event, Shaner said.

"We already have outlined qualified commanders for oil spill response, so we set up the organization using the incident command system so we knew which roles to fill ahead of time before an event," she said.

Each Coast Guard area has an area contingency plan that identifies what resources and sensitive sites are available and who the partners are before any event.

"It's so that when the worst case scenario occurs, you already know the people you're going to be working with and what roles and responsibilities and jurisdictions everyone has," Shaner said.

As part of an area contingency plan, there are area committees made up of regulators, Coast Guard, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Office of Spill Prevention and Response, as well as industry and local police and fire who meet quarterly to discuss lessons learned from recent cases and make changes to area contingency plans.

"We know already there are sensitive sites where we would put the boom in the event of a major oil spill and we test those strategies every few years to make sure they still work and we do that with the locals and what we call oil spill response organizations, which includes the cleanup contractors for oil spills," Shaner said. "And we have all those contractors identified all throughout the state. So when an oil spill happens we know who is available and who we can hire."

Once plans are in place, it needs to be practiced on a regular basis.

"We test our strategies - our area contingency plans have booming strategies and preventative strategies in different areas," Shaner said. "There's always lessons learned. There's always new things you learn and no system is perfect, but the idea is if you have a plan and you exercise a plan either through a plan exercise or a real world event. Each time one of those events occurs, the lessons you learn following the event you incorporate back into the plan. So every event, or every exercise, your plan should be getting better. It should be improving. And that's what we do."

The private sector also has contingency plans in place, which are checked by the Coast Guard.

"So if the spill occurs on their vessel or at their facility, it's within their plan already on who their qualified individuals are and who their spill response contractors are going to be," Shaner said. "They can enact that very quickly in the event of a spill."

When an oil spill does occur, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lends its scientific expertise to the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"One of the first questions we get in a spill is, 'Where's the oil going to go?'" said Doug Helton, NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration incident coordinator who manages NOAA scientific support coordination staff for the west coast and Great Lakes region.

"Once you spill oil, it doesn't stay next to a ship or pipeline," said Helton, who is based in Seattle. "It starts to move, and generally that movement will be because of oceanic and weather conditions. We have computer models and we can forecast where that oil is going to be tomorrow or the next week and that helps responders to be ahead of it. You don't want to send your booms and oil skimmers to the wrong place."

NOAA also helps to determine what kind of oil has been spilled and how a certain type of oil will react. For example, an oil might be so heavy that it might sink so having booms or skimmers won't help because the oil isn't sitting on the water's surface.

"There are thousands of different kinds of oils and they all have unique characteristics ranging from gasoline to roofing tar," said Helton, who has been working on oil spill issues for 25 years. "The way they behave in the ocean varies quite a bit. How much can the oil dissolve, evaporate, disperse? Is it amenable to burning? That's going to affect the response."

Meanwhile, agencies and companies are advancing the conversation by using technology to prevent and respond to potential oil spill scenarios.

Last summer, the Coast Guard tested the Aqua-Guard Triton RotoX in the Beaufort Sea to see if it could successfully skim oil from the ice-littered arctic water.

Meanwhile, a new reusable foam, Oleo Sponge, that can soak up not only oil from a water's surface but dispersed oil from the entire water column has been invented by scientists at the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory.

While there is a library of molecules that can pull oil, getting them into a useful structure and binding them there permanently is the issue, according to the laboratory.

"The Oleo Sponge offers a set of possibilities that, as far as we know, are unprecedented," said co-inventor Seth Darling in a 2017 Argonne National Laboratory piece on the invention.

Some companies are exploring the use of drones for conducting aerial overflights to determine areas affected by oil spills.

Andeavor, which operates the largest marine oil terminal at the Port of Long Beach, has embarked on a pilot program to test PROTIDE, technology that predicts the Under Keel Clearance or UKC of ships.

While the Long Beach channel is 76 feet deep, the maximum draft for Very Large Crude Carriers entering the port is 65 feet because swells could affect the movement of VLCC. One degree of pitch could mean 9½ feet of increased draft.

This, paired with Andeavor's insistence in using the device, Octopus, as an additional safeguard to verify the vessel's motion and PROTIDE's accuracy, helps the company and port pilots determine whether VLCCs could safely move through the Long Beach channel with a heavier load and deeper draft.

To date, the program has allowed for 38 Very Large Crude Carriers deeper than 65 feet to come through the Long Beach channel, said Capt. Rob McCaughey, manager of Marine Operations at Andeavor.

"This is ultimately going to reduce the risk of transferring oil on the West Coast," he told the port in 2017, adding that every VLCC that can come in fully loaded means four or five fewer ships in the water not releasing emissions in the air.

Two cleanup crewmembers work to remove oil from the sand along a portion of soiled coastline near Refugio State Beach, on May 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of the US Coast Guard.

The program, which has received support from Scripps, US Coast Guard, the Port of Long Beach, Marine Exchange and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is being closely watched by other agencies.

"There are a lot of organizations now that are looking at this technology," according to McCaughey. "This is the first of its kind in the US. There's a tremendous amount of benefit for this project."

Much has been improved upon since the Exxon Valdez oil spill nearly 30 years ago.

There has been more public awareness and have been major strides in GPS and charting technology to help avoid ship groundings, as well as improvements in ship design, the more careful and streamlined process of fueling ships and transferring oil from vessel to vessel.

"All across the board, things have been improved for safety," Helton said.


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