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Making Waves: Episode 20 (March 13, 2009)


Twenty years ago this month, nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Alaska's Prince William Sound after the oil tanker Exxon Valdez grounded on a reef. It was and still is the single largest spill to ever occur along the coastal U.S.

We're going to dedicate today’s show to the Exxon Valdez spill: what we learned from it, and how spill response has changed in the last two decades.

It's Friday, March 13th, and this is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service

Today, we're talking to Dr. Alan Mearns, a senior staff scientist from NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration. Mearns was involved in the initial spill response for the Exxon Valdez accident, and he spent years leading a project that continues to monitor the long-term impact of the huge oil spill.
Dr. Mearns career in spill response began in the summer of 1989 when was invited to join a survey to the spill site aboard a NOAA ship. 

DR. MEARNS: "My job there was to collect and process samples of marine life and sediments on shorelines and also below the tide line in deeper water. There are lots of marine animals - invertebrates, worms clams, shrimps, all kind of things -- and my job was, that summer, was to collect and process those samples and get them back to NOAA."
This mission was one small part of a massive effort. There were hundreds of people involved in the clean up, including groups from the Coast Guard, NOAA's Response and Restoration, NOAA's Fisheries, the Environmental Protection Agency, Exxon, and the state of Alaska.

Much of NOAA's role in this spill, and in all spills, is to assist the Coast Guard, the lead responder for spills in U.S. territorial waters. Mearns said that one of the biggest challenges the responders faced at the time was simple communication. This was long before the Internet and cell phones.

DR. MEARNS: "There were so many people involved, that I don't think we were prepared at all for the mass of information management that was necessary. But with our contractors and our staff, we got there eventually, helping the Coast Guard managing their information. A spill is much quieter today than it used to be, because 20 years ago everybody had a walkie-talkie, and if you on the beach with dozens of people or somewhere, all you'd hear were these voices shouting back and forth."

There may not be as much shouting these days, but NOAA's role in a spill remains much the same: NOAA teams predict the trajectory of the spill, provide weather forecasts, seek out the most oil-sensitive animal and plant populations that need protection, and develop response strategies to tackle spills.

We'll talk more about what is different today in a few minutes, but first let's get back to the Exxon Valdez. So you may be wondering why Mearns was collecting samples of marine life during the oil spill and what he went on to do next.

DR. MEARNS: "The primary thing I was involved in, was trying to get responders, the state, EPA, the spiller and other agencies to understand that aggressive clean up may not be the best thing. So the project I was on was designed to take a look at high pressure hot water washing which definitely removed oil, but it also removed a lot of marine life that had survived the oil spill."

This was the preface to a larger monitoring study that began in 1990. NOAA's HAZMAT division, the predecessor of today’s Emergency Response Division, initiated a long-term effort to monitor the intertidal shoreline areas affected by the oil spill. The science team also set out to test the effects of using high-pressure hot water to clean oil off of beaches and shorelines. Dr. Mearns led this effort during its first six years.

The monitoring study was carefully planned. While most of the oiled shorelines in the Sound were cleaned up -- many with high-pressure hot water -- a few small patches were purposefully not cleaned at all.  Another half a dozen or so sites that had been unaffected by the oil spill were also marked off. This allowed the NOAA scientists to track how well the area was recovering by comparing the three different treatments. What they learned was surprising.

DR. MEARNS:  "I think a lot of us have it fixed in our minds that things are supposed to return to the way they were and take years to do it, and then stay that way once they have returned. And our intertidal systems, at least in the North Pacific, don't do that. 
Had there not been an oil spill in Prince William Sound and had we done 20 years of long-term monitoring, we would have seen change. And at the end of 20 years, we would not see the diversity and abundance of marine life exactly the way it was in year one."

In other words, while the oil spill certainly had a profound effect on Prince William Sound – for example, Mearns said that oil still lingers under the gravel at some beaches – the study found that shoreline marine life in the area went through a natural ebb and flow over a cycle of four to seven years.

So did the area recover? Again, Dr. Mearns:

DR. MEARNS:  "Everything depends on how you define recovery. We were looking at the biology, the marine life, its abundance, its variety, its diversity, and that has definitely recovered. In fact, after many years we looked back through the data and findings with statistics and so on, that it had recovered within three to four years -- the conspicuous marine life in the intertidal zone. Clams and softer beach areas took a lot longer to recover: more like 10 to 12 years, and we think a lot of those were blown out by the [high] pressure washing."

Beyond what this long-term study revealed, the Exxon Valdez spill also led to sweeping institutional changes.

First, it resulted in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This Act improved the nation's ability to prevent and respond to spills and provided much needed money and resources. The Act also created the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is now available to provide up to one billion dollars per spill incident. And the Act set in place new planning requirements for industry, and for local, state, and federal governments.

The Exxon Valdez spill also led to the creation of NOAA's Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program, known as DAARP for short. This program is made up of scientists, economists, and attorneys who work together with many partners around the nation to help restore natural resources damaged by the release of oil and other hazardous materials.
In addition to these organizational changes, Mearns noted that one very important thing has also changed since the spill...people now work together much more closely.

DR. MEARNS: "I think that one thing that's changed is that people know each other better, and that's in large part as a result of continuing training activities. We just don't sit in the office and write up manuals and send them out, we take them out to the field.  We bring in the Coast Guard, various states, we go to them and we do training on the current science of spills. Everything from computer modeling to management systems to the effects of oil on marine life... As a result, we get to know our colleagues around the country quite well."

And speaking of the current science of spills, there have been many major advances in computer-assisted tools over the past 20 years. One example is a software suite called CAMEO, developed by NOAA and the Environmental Protection Agency. CAMEO stands for 'Computer Aided Management for Emergency Operations.' Mearns said that a big use for CAMEO is to help the Coast Guard and other first responders prepare for and respond to spills, especially chemical incidents.

DR. MEARNS: "We can model the fate of oil and chemical releases and display the results on various kinds of maps, and manage planning data. In each district around the country, local government authorities are able to use this tool to inventory where their chemical inventories are, shipping routes, just use it to put all kinds of information together that's in one place that they can look up."
In addition to new computer-aided tools, the Emergency Response Division has also been investigating other oil clean-up technologies. Over the past decade, Mearns said his office has been closely studying the effects and usefulness of oil dispersants -- chemicals  sprayed on oil while it's at sea to disperse it in the water column so it doesn't come ashore. While this method of oil clean up is effective in many situations, there's been a reluctance to adopt its use in the U.S.

DR. MEARNS:  "We haven't had much experience with them in the U.S. We have elsewhere in the world, particularly in Norway and England, where we see that they can in fact prevent a lot of injury to birds and shorelines. So it's an ongoing, evolving process to bring to the fore a tool that's been around for a long time, but we've had a great reluctance to use it."

Mearns said that NOAA's study found that modern dispersant chemicals are less harmful and less toxic than spilled oil. Now, the Coast Guard is commissioning response agencies around the country to stockpile these chemicals. The lesson, he said, is that every available method to clean up spills must be carefully and scientifically evaluated because we need to have as many tools at our disposal as possible.

DR. MEARNS: "Yes, we've been responding to spills all of these years since the Exxon Valdez, but in between we've been culturing and trying to improve the information on some of the response methods. What our message is: don't exclude anything, keep all the tools in the tool box, and don't just ban them outright to begin with."

Despite advances in technology, better cooperation and planning, and new laws and procedures, Mearns stressed that each oil spill is unique.

DR. MEARNS: "Well, I like to quote one of our prime contractors, a very important person in this business, Dr. Jacqui Michel with the Research Planning Institute, and she says 'I've never been to the same spill twice.’ It's a process of constantly adapting. We get an announcement of a spill, we're called into action, and we start off thinking, 'Oh, this is like that other spill we had ten years ago.’ Then you get there and nope, it isn't. Things have changed. The weather's different, the oil type is different, and the response community is a different group of people. I think our mission is to try and, not so much to clean up all the oil that's spilled, but to make sure that the least amount of injury is done, so the restoration people have less to do."

Special thanks to Dr. Alan Mearns from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division for taking the time to speak with us.

Surf over to our Web site for links to the offices and organizations we talked about today. We also have about 50 or so NOAA photos from the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill for you, as well as links to learn more about the spill and its legacy. We’re at

That’s all for this episode. If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at

Let’s bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. See you next week.