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Making Waves: Episode 57 (August 5, 2010)

If you’ve been following the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill response effort in the Gulf of Mexico, you probably know that NOAA is playing a big supporting role to help contain the spreading oil and in protecting the Gulf’s marine life. 

NOAA’s involvement is pretty expansive – it ranges from providing scientific expertise to the Coast Guard and Unified Command, to identifying short- and long-term impacts on the Gulf’s ecosystems, to keeping seafood safe, to protecting wildlife and habitats.

While we can’t cover all of these activities in this short podcast, we can hone in on the activities of one NOAA office that’s critically important to this effort -- the Ocean Service’s Office of Response and Restoration.

And to help us do that, we’re going to hear from Doug Helton today, a Response and Restoration expert who has been part of the Gulf oil spill response effort from day one. Stay tuned.

It’s Thursday, August 5th, and you’re listening to Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

(Interview with NOS Office of Response & Restoration’s Doug Helton)
We’re joined in this episode by Doug Helton, Response and Restoration’s Incident Operations Coordinator. We reached Doug by telephone last week in Houma, Louisiana, where he’s currently deployed in support of the  Deepwater Horizon oil spill response effort.

What exactly does an incident operations coordinator do?  Doug said that the bulk of his job is spent at office headquarters in Seattle, where he makes sure the NOAA staff working on-scene in the Gulf -- and at other spill sites around the country -- have the resources they need to do their jobs. But he’s also spent a lot of time on-scene in the Gulf over the past few months on the frontline of the oil spill response effort. We started out by asking him what he’s now doing in Louisiana.

“It’s a little bit of a transition. I was doing shoreline assessments. NOAA helps with surveying where the oil is along shorelines and helps to prioritize how to clean up those shorelines. That’s a team effort along with representatives of the state, along with BP and the Federal government. So I was the federal rep one of the survey teams, and then today I’m transitioning to being scientific support within the Houma Louisiana command post.”

Doug said that Response and Restoration has two major roles in this spill. The first is to be a science advisor to the Coast Guard, and the second is to conduct studies and evaluations to determine what’s been harmed and what it’s going to take to restore the resources that have been injured.

For Deepwater Horizon, Response and Restoration experts can also be thought of as the glue tying together all the different parts of NOAA’s involvement. They’re part of what’s called the Unified Command -- a structure set up to link together the many organizations responding to the incident, and a forum for these agencies to reach a consensus. Their job is to represent NOAA and to ensure that the best possible science is used in the decision-making process throughout the spill response. 

“There are a lot of facets to it. The core mission for my office is to do the big picture forecasting of where’s the oil’s going to go, how long it’s going to take to get to the shore, and then what kinds of harm it might cause when it gets to the shore, or while it’s a sea. And that’s used to help guide how best to clean it up and how best to treat those shorelines, so it includes a whole bunch of subsets, including helping to provide the weather support -- we don’t obviously do that ourselves, but we help ensure this service is plugged in and provided to the unified command. We work with National Marine Fisheries Service to make sure that fisheries issues are on the table when decisions are made about how to treat the spill or how to clean up the shorelines. And we work with other parts of the agency to sort of be the conduit of science into the command post.”

Doug said that this work is engaging just about the entire staff of the Office of Response and Restoration – around 110 people nationwide, including support staff. The demand is so great that the office has recalled at least a half a dozen retirees with previous oil spill experience. And the office has brought in NOAA staff from other parts of the agency to help backfill positions because so many people are deployed to the Gulf.

“We have a very small team. You know, the Coast Guard has a very large organization, the Department of the Interior is a much larger organization, and NOAA’s got a small core team with the Office of Response and Restoration, but it’s very much augmented and strengthened by reaching into the rest of NOAA. So we have almost every line office in NOAA involved in supporting -- if not here, then doing so from their home offices. So, critical information coming in from the satellite service, critical support from fisheries, and every day the decisions that are made in the operational response are based on the weather service’s forecasts. The NOAA Corps is doing a great job of providing all the assets like aircraft and ships to help with the survey work, so pretty much every part of the agency is contributing, and it’s a pretty amazing thing to see.”

So what’s the state of the spill now? Well, now that the Deepwater Horizon well has been capped for several weeks, you might think that the response effort might begin to wind down. While Doug said the overall Unified command structure will likely downsize to some extent over the coming months, it’s important to remember that the oil only stopped gushing into the Gulf a couple of weeks ago. For most spills, he said, the job is only beginning at this point.

“In some ways this is when we typically start a spill, you know when a ship runs aground it might puncture a hold and spill oil for a few hours, and then the release period is over, and then the rest of the response is dealing with the oil as spreads, as it hits shorelines. We’re now at that point where the release is secured, but we still have floating oil out there, we still have oil on shorelines.”

But he added that there is some good news -- it appears that a lot of the oil is dispersing and degrading naturally.

“There’s been some reports in the news that the oil is dispersing or degrading more readily than anticipated. We suspected all along that this oil was going to disperse and degrade in various ways. Those would include the oil, when it’s released at the source, starts to dissolve in the water column and disperse naturally; when it reaches the surface, we have a very warm climate -- every day it’s close to 100 degrees -- that, combined with lots of sunlight, helps to degrade the oil; and the oil spreads into very thin layers once it reaches the surface, and those are very vulnerable to evaporation and to photo-oxygenization of the oil. So there are a lot of processes that will help to degrade the oil. Once that source was secured, we could see that the surface expression of the oil is degrading and dispersing very rapidly, but there’s still concern about oil that dissolved in the water column and dispersed in small droplets, so we’re continuing to study that.”

He said that lessons learned from experience with previous spills plays a big role in guiding projections about what we might expect to happen with this spill. And there’s many decades of shared experience among the scientific support staff from Response and Restoration. Doug alone has been responding to major spills for 18 years. He recalled one spill he worked on back in 1990 in Galveston, Texas. It involved a Norwegian tank vessel called the Mega Borg. An explosion in the pump room of this ship led to a spill of about 4.2 million gallons of oil.

“... that was a very light crude, there was a fire involved with that one -- a lot of oil burned off, a lot evaporated, with relatively minor shoreline effects, but it gave us an idea of how a light crude might behave in the summertime in this kind of environment. And that’s one of many spills. My office responds to a couple of hundred of spills a year, so each of those gives you some inference and some expectation about how oil’s going to behave in a different environment and different location.”

Experience with other spills also sheds light on how oil may affect shorelines along the Gulf. Consider the many sandy shores along the Gulf Coast, for instance. How might spilled oil affect these areas, and what should we expect if hurricanes roll through the region?

“We have some expectations from other spills what kinds of impacts might persist, and one of those is we still have a lot of oiled shoreline. Some of the shorelines are sandy, and when you have storm events like the passing of a hurricane or even a smaller tropical storm, you stir up that sand and deposit clean sand on top of the oiled sand.

That, he said, could result in buried oil on some of the sand beaches.  But, of course, not all Gulf coast is sandy shoreline.

“We also know that there’s oil in a lot of the marshes and that can persist for some time as well. So they’ll be continued impacts in those areas, but we’re also seeing, we’re entering into the peak of the hurricane season, and some of those shorelines will be eroded, and that oil will be mixed and degraded by more wave energy as we go through the hurricane season.”

Doug said that a big part of understanding the potential impact of the oil in different coastal areas requires careful study. The key is to  understand the unique physical and biological nature of each shoreline where oil comes ashore.

“So, is it a vegetative shoreline, a sandy shoreline, is it a below-energy shoreline like a protected bay or estuary, or is an open coastal area. Those physical and biological features will help us understand what kind of resources live there and what might be affected by the spill, and what might be affected by the clean-up operation itself.”

While  teams continue to study potential impacts of dissolved oil in the water column and the effects of oil gathered along coastal shorelines, he said that there’s also a lot of work to do in the coming months related to demobilization of equipment as operations start to scale down.

“We also have the issue, because the spill response has been going on almost 100 days now, we have 100 days of equipment that’s been mobilized, and a lot of efforts that will slowly need to be demobilized -- all the areas that were boomed with sorbent booms and hard booms along the shoreline in areas where there isn’t oil, those will now have to be removed and recovered.”

But perhaps one of the biggest challenged faced by Response and Restoration is that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is not their only responsibility -- the office provides scientific support for all major ocean and coastal spills around the nation -- and while the response effort continues in the Gulf, new spills are happening elsewhere around the country.

“Yesterday, we had three other spills that we were activated on, and one here in Louisiana, two in the Great Lakes region, and one in Alaska. So we’re busy with other incidents -- those aren’t stopping because this one’s going on. We typically respond to 180-200 incidents a year. That’s a huge challenge trying to maintain that level of service other parts of the country is a big issue, because almost all of our responders are here in Louisiana or in command posts in Mobile or Florida.”

So that gives you a taste of some of the scientific expertise brought to bear and some of the challenges faced by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. What’s in store for the future? Well, it’s impossible to say for sure at this point, but one thing is certain: Response and Restoration teams -- along with other NOAA offices, other federal agencies, BP, state and local partners -- are going to be involved with clean-up and restoration in the region for a long, long time to come.

“I think that the response workers still have several months of work and the clean up won’t be complete, but we’ll certainly be downsized this winter. There may be a need for spot teams to come back and work through the winter and spring and next summer as more problematic areas like cleaning up the marshes and some of these shorelines proceed. But I think that the command post will downsize quite a lot. On the assessment side, things are still wrapping up, and I would expect the assessment and restoration process will take at least several years and maybe longer.”

As we noted at the beginning of the episode, we’ve only touched on a small part of NOAA’s involvement with this massive spill response effort. If you want to learn more, head to deepwaterhorizon.noaa.gov for the latest NOAA news, information, data, and maps. The official federal portal for the oil spill response and recovery effort is at restorethegulf.gov.

(Closing)
And we’d like to thank Doug Helton, Incident Operations Coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration, for taking the time out of his extremely busy schedule to speak with us.

And that’s all for this week. If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean -- or if you have an ocean fact you’d like answered -- send us a note at  nos.info@noaa.gov. And be sure to visit us online. We’re at oceanservice.noaa.gov

Now let’s listen to the ocean...

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

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