Spill Response: Using the Best Available Technology
September 1, 2019
In 2018, 26 oil spills of 2,200 gallons or more occurred in the United States, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Each year, regional Coast Guard units also track hundreds of spills, many of them much smaller.
Sector San Francisco, for example, tracked 394 oil spills in northern California last year, with an average spill volume of just over a gallon.
Although most spills are small, marine operators that carry oil have a legal obligation to contract with an oil spill response organization (OSRO) equipped to handle spills of various sizes.
Responding to a spill requires the right technology for tracking and recovering oil, as even a small spill could affect marine habitats and human health. Federal and state regulators bear responsibility for vetting the capabilities of OSROs and are constantly taking initiatives, along with private industry, to ensure OSROs incorporate the best available technology.
Equipment Updates and Demonstrations
According to Joe Bowles, Pacific regional vice president for Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC), one of the largest OSROs on the west coast, the most important component in a response is a trained workforce.
In addition to its own staff of more than 400 dedicated personnel, MSRC works with several organizations that provide supplemental personnel or equipment in the event of a response. Southern California Ship Services and Patriot Environmental provide these services in California. In the Pacific Northwest, MSRC works with Global Diving and Salvage and Clean Harbors, Inc.
Beyond workforce considerations, Bowles also said, "source control becomes a critical component and that usually ends up being one of the highest priorities right after safety."
To locate the source of a spill, OSROs often use remote monitoring. According to Ceren Karaer, business development manager at MSRC, remote monitoring typically involves the use of thermal, infrared technologies that can help locate the slickest part of a spill.
"Oil on water will spread and become thinner and thinner, and of course then it's harder to skim it because you have to cover a greater surface area," Karaer said.
The Aerostat balloon and the Tactical Response Airborne Classification System (TRACS) are the newest technologies MSRC has incorporated into its arsenal of spill response equipment.
A tethered balloon that uses high-definition thermal infrared (TIR) cameras, Aerostat can be deployed from a vessel of opportunity or shoreside. It floats about 500 feet in the air, capturing imagery over a wide surface area, according to a capability overview MSRC provided.
TRACS, a portable ocean-imaging kit consisting of digital and infrared cameras and a GPS measurement unit, can capture a square mile or more of data on a spill. Flown via aircraft, TRACS uses multispectral technology to identify recoverable oil and track the spill's movement over time. MSRC has been using Aerostat and TRACS for the past three years, Karaer said.
Containment and recovery efforts begin once the slick oil is identified. Most offshore recovery efforts utilize oil skimmers and booms for source control, Bowles said. Skimmers are mechanical devices used to remove oil from a floating surface, while booms contain the oil by way of a floating barrier.
MSRC updated its recovery capabilities five years after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Since then, the organization has used booms equipped with Current Buster technology. Each 210-foot oil-spill response vessel (OSRV) in MSRC's fleet now has a Current Buster boom. The patented technology, Bowles said, allows a vessel to tow a boom at speeds of 3 to 4 knots. It also separates contained oil from water, allowing for more efficient storage of recovered oil.
The Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), which leads spill response efforts on behalf of the state of California, has recently completed demonstration of another containment boom product, which OSROs could incorporate in the future. The demonstration corresponds with the department's ongoing initiatives to ensure OSROs use the best available technology.
In October 2018, the Israel-based company Harbo Technologies demonstrated a lightweight containment boom made of easily deployable cartridges, called T-Fence. The demonstration took place in Santa Barbara, California, said Annie Nelson, who serves as best available technology coordinator for OSPR.
T-Fence includes 82 feet of boom, all stored in a compact, 50-pound cartridge.
"You can load up a small boat with hundreds of feet of boom and pop the cartridge open and deploy that boom very quickly," Nelson said about the product's performance.
OSPR also oversaw demonstration of mechanical dispersant equipment in Santa Barbara this past October. Norwegian company BlueImpact demonstrated the Vorax, a remote-controlled vehicle that operates on the surface of water.
The technology disperses spills with water jets and offers a chemical-free dispersant solution.
"It has high-pressure nozzles that shoot water down to the surface ... and force the oil particles down and break them up into dispersible-sized molecules like a chemical would," Nelson said.
Nelson added that OSPR plans to hold similar demonstration events on a regular basis, ideally every other year.
Regulatory and Environmental Considerations
Technologies like Vorax have clear environmental benefits that could reduce the use of chemical dispersants, a spill response tool used to break down oil molecules in the water. Due to their environmental consequences, authorities have placed limits on dispersants.
The Coast Guard will not authorize their use within three nautical miles of the coast or in water depths of less than 60 feet, according to Shannon McGregor, chief warrant officer at Coast Guard Sector Columbia River.
Earlier this year, the Regional Response Team (RRT), a multi-agency group that helps regulate oil spill preparedness on behalf of the federal government, approved a dispersant use plan for California. It was expected to go live on the OSPR website in August.
The plan includes modifications to dispersant pre-authorization areas, located in federal waters outside of National Marine Sanctuaries and more than three miles from the US-Mexico border.
"The revised plan includes a modified pre-authorization area for use of dispersants in federal waters addressing seasonal breeding grounds off of Northern California and the expansion of National Marine Sanctuaries since the prior version," said OSPR spokeswoman Mary Fricke.
Modifications involve a March 24-Sept. 15 seasonal exclusion from the pre-authorization zone of a linear band of water located 3-5 nautical miles off the coast of Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino counties. The waters comprise a breeding habitat for the endangered marbled murrelet, Fricke added in an email.
Even small spills that occur closer to shore require responders to make environmental considerations. In protected coastal areas, OSROs use disposable absorbent pads, or mats, to remove oil from the surface of water.
"The problem we're trying to solve is absorbent pads create a lot of waste," said Karaer. "So you end up using a dumpster full of absorbent pads just to clean up the sheen, and the overall impact to the environment is probably worse."
MSRC has corresponded with organizations involved in researching and developing new absorbent technologies. One of these technologies – the Oleo Sponge, developed by the Argonne National Laboratory – underwent successful testing off the California coast last year.
After cleaning up oil from the surface, the sponge can be wrung out and used again, according to media reports on the test, which occurred in April 2018.
"The promise of technology like Oleo is that if that same pad can absorb more oil per pad and if it can be coupled with methodologies that allow it to be reused many times by wringing it out in an efficient manner you can reduce the overall environmental impact," MSRC CEO Carmine Dulisse said in an email Karaer shared.
When OSROs begin using technologies like Oleo, Vorax and T-Fence, the Coast Guard will factor them into its evaluations of an OSRO's ability to recover oil.
Through its Response Resource Inventory (RRI), the Coast Guard maintains a comprehensive list of spill removal equipment owned by OSROs. The RRI applies to all classified OSROs, although OSROs do not have a legal obligation to obtain classification.
Becoming recognized by the Coast Guard, however, typically serves as a positive signal to operators that are required to contract with a capable OSRO.
"Basically what it tells industry is that the Coast Guard has actually inspected and vetted those response resources," said McGregor.
In addition to the RRI, the Coast Guard and other regulators use various calculations to evaluate the recovery capacity of classified OSROs. These tools have changed in response to major oil spills, and regulators have recently considered making further updates.
The Coast Guard and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which regulates the offshore oil and gas industry, use a calculation called effective daily recovery capacity (EDRC) to evaluate the capacity of oil recovery devices.
EDRC evaluates the volume of oil a skimmer can pick up, the pumping system and the storage capacity of OSROs, Karaer said.
According to BSEE, EDRC was the first effort to quantify recovery equipment following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. However, the Deepwater Horizon spill highlighted the shortcomings of using EDRC as a predictor of recovery capacity.
In August 2016, BSEE announced the release of a calculator called the effective recovery system potential (ERSP). This calculator addresses the entire response system's ability to encounter collect, contain, remove, store and off-load recovered oil and water.
The Coast Guard is currently in the middle of a multi-year project, begun in October 2016, to assess the use of ERSP and determine if it rectifies challenges experienced during Deepwater Horizon. According to its Acquisition Directorate for fiscal year 2019, the Coast Guard will conduct research to see if ERSP can be expanded to include the entire near-shore and inland operating environment. The evaluation project is scheduled to end in August 2021.
"The ERSP is supposed to factor in the whole system, so do you not only have a skimmer but do you have a crane or some kind of deployment mechanism to get (the skimmer) off the side of your vessel to pick up oil, and then do you actually have a pump to pump it off?" Karaer said of the criteria involved.
Changing with the Fossil Fuel Industry
The resources and equipment needed in a spill response can vary based on the type of oil spilled. On the west coast in particular, the amount of heavy oil transported by sea (as well as by rail and other methods) will only increase in the coming years.
The Trans Mountain expansion pipeline, which received a construction certificate from Canadian authorities in June, could lead to an influx of heavy, non-floating oils sent to California refineries.
According to articles published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in June, the California Assembly passed Assembly Bill 936, to address the influx of heavy oils. As of August, the legislation was still pending in the California Senate.
The bill adds a definition for non-floating oils to state law and also creates a non-floating oil certification for OSROs. This would require operators of tankers to contract with these certified OSROs for spill response services.
The Coast Guard has had a non-floating oil classification for OSROs since 2016. Companies carrying non-floating materials like diluted bitumen and fossil fuel from the Alberta tar sands must have the ability to detect these products in the water, according to McGregor.
Responding to a spill of heavy oil can involve technologies like multibeam sonar, echo-sounding underwater cameras and dredging equipment, he also said. Several contractors that operate in Coast Guard District 13, which covers the Pacific Northwest, have a non-floating oil classification.
These include Global Diving and Salvage, T & T Marine Salvage, Marine Pollution Control Corp., Clean Harbors Environmental Services, National Response Corporation and MSRC, according to McGregor.
This past March, Global Diving and Salvage became a wholly owned subsidiary of Moran Environmental Recovery (MER). According to MER President and CEO Brian House, responding to a non-floating oil spill requires a combination of proven experience and a broad breadth of detection capabilities.
When coupled with Global's capabilities, MER now has a robust inventory of side-scan sonar and remotely operated underwater vehicles, known as ROVs. The company also supplements these detection technologies with "an abundant supply of trained and qualified divers, whom are both trained and experienced in working in hazardous environments," House said.
MER operates throughout the United States, but along the west coast there is a heavy emphasis on its non-floating oil capabilities. The combination of MER's legacy with Global Diving and Salvage's sterling reputation as a marine casualty and response company offers a winning combination.
"When you put those two together, we believe that we have proven capabilities that are unparalleled in the industry," House added.
In western Canada, authorities are also planning for more heavy oils, once the Trans Mountain expansion becomes operational. British Columbia-based Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) is anticipating a sharp rise in tanker traffic in the straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca.
Michael Lowry, communications manager at WCMRC, said he anticipates tanker traffic for Trans Mountain to increase seven-fold, from five to 34 per month, after the expansion becomes operational in 2022. The pipeline will transport oil from Alberta to the west coast, for export.
Lowry shared background material on the spill response enhancements that will result from the Trans Mountain expansion. Before the expansion is complete, WCMRC plans to add six response bases, approximately 43 vessels and 120 employees. Trans Mountain will fund these additions, which cost about $150 million, over the course of 20 years.
The vessels will utilize modern equipment and design technology. Included in the upgrades are skimming vessels equipped with infrared cameras designed to detect oil at nighttime, Lowry said.
Additions also include two mini barges that can each hold 4,000 tons of oil, landing craft capable of taking equipment to remote spill sights and three new coastal response vessels that can stay out at sea for extended periods. The coastal response vessels have crew quarters and can serve as a platform for smaller boats. They also have internal storage capacity and can deploy containment technologies.
These ships, purpose-built for WCMRC and designed by naval architecture firm Robert Allan, Ltd., are "the first of their kind in the world," Lowry said.
Rozema Boat Works designed the skimming vessels and is building them in Washington state. Munson Boats, another Washington-based company, will build the landing craft. Lowry said the fleet will also include several 26-foot work boats, built in British Columbia. According to background material from WCMRC, the organization plans to add 10 new work boats to the fleet.
Overall, spill response times in key areas of Vancouver Harbor will decrease from six to two hours, and WCMRC will have the capacity to recover at least 20,000 tons of oil in 10 days, up from 10,000 tons.
Lowry also put the spill response buildup into context, saying it is more than likely the largest expansion his country has ever seen.
"There are spill response organizations on the East Coast similar to how we're structured, but I'm certainly not aware of them ever going through an expansion this big. So I think it's safe to say it's the biggest spill response expansion in Canadian history," he said.