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Office of Response and Restoration

2010 Spill of National Significance

Environmental Response Management Application

Oil Spills (Diving Deeper podcast, 4.7.10)

Spill of National Significance – Preparing for Oil Spill Disasters

Staff at SONS 2010 drill


NOAA scientists and partners provide critical data and information to respond to oil spill disasters in U.S. coastal waters. The United States uses about 700 million gallons of oil every day. We use oil to fuel our cars, heat our homes, make medicines, and produce plastics for toys and radios.

Oil spills are caused by accidents involving tankers, barges, pipelines, refineries, and storage facilities. As a result of these accidents, oil can spill into rivers, bays, and the ocean. This usually happens when the oil is being transported.

In the U.S., depending on where the spill occurs, either the U.S. Coast Guard or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is the lead federal agency to respond. NOAA provides direct scientific support to these agencies during response efforts. Many other federal, state, and local agencies also support response efforts during a spill of national significance.

Spill of National Significance

oil spill

Oil spills can be very harmful to marine birds and mammals, and also can harm fish and shellfish. Oil destroys the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals, such as sea otters, and the water-repelling abilities of a bird's feathers, thus exposing these creatures to the harsh elements. Many birds and animals also ingest oil when they try to clean themselves, which can poison them.

A spill of national significance (SONS) is defined as "a spill that, due to its severity, size, location, actual or potential impact on the public health and welfare or the environment, or the necessary response effort, is so complex that it requires extraordinary coordination of federal, state, local, and responsible party resources to contain and clean up the discharge." 

The U.S. Coast Guard develops "practice" SONS exercises to sharpen the nation’s ability to respond to major oil spill events. Each SONS exercise is set up exactly the way response efforts would be coordinated for an actual spill. The "responsible party" is present along with the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA, state agencies, and the local community. The drills – held every three years – test the nation’s response system capability at all levels, from the local port to national senior officials.

SONS 2010

staff at SONS 2010

In March 2010, a two-day SONS exercise was held that featured a hypothetical collision between two vessels (a car carrier and an oil tanker) approximately 16 miles off the coast in the Gulf of Maine. The collision occurred during a particularly strong winter storm with sub-freezing temperatures and restricted visibility. It resulted in a major coastal oil spill that exercised numerous other economic, environmental and political challenges designed to stress all levels of the response organizations. The oil spill exercise affected several states in the New England area, including Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

SONS 2010 was a multi-agency effort led by the U.S. Coast Guard in collaboration with Shell Oil Products, the 16 agencies of the National Response Team, and the states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Because of the far-reaching effects and complexity of this scenario, two Incident Command Posts were staffed in Portland, ME, and Boston, MA; an Area-level Command was established in Maynard, MA; and a National-level Command was established in Portsmouth, VA, to manage all issues from on-water operations to national policy concerns.

NOAA's Role

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) supported the U.S. Coast Guard and other response agencies with scientific coordination during this exercise, similar to their actual role in a real oil spill event. NOAA had more than 30 staff, on scene and remote, supporting SONS 2010.

This support included expertise in:

  • exercise planning
  • direct support to the Federal On-Scene Commander
  • predicting the fate and behavior of spilled pollutants
  • identifying resources at risk
  • conducting environmental chemistry
  • assessing chemical hazards
  • recommending cleanup strategies and resource protection priorities
  • assessing oiled shorelines
  • managing response information
  • developing and implementing sampling and monitoring plans
  • coordinating with other federal, state, and local agencies, as well as industry, on science-related issues
  • coordinating Natural Resource Trustee issues

In addition to their technical expertise, OR&R scientists also coordinated with other federal trustees to assess environmental and economic impacts, collect damages, and plan for and implement restoration. In preparation for SONS 2010, OR&R scientists coordinated data, products, and participation from other NOAA offices.


oil spill

Tools and Technologies

As part of the SONS 2010 exercise, OR&R field-tested a newly developed tool called the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA). ERMA® is a Web-based mapping tool designed to capture and share geographic information used for science decision making, both on-scene and remotely. ERMA provides a real-time operational picture for responders and managers. The tool can incorporate data from online sources with data generated during an actual event to provide answers in a graphical format.


The SONS 2010 exercise was successful on many fronts. The national response system was tested at all levels with complex issues solved. In addition, new tools were used for information and data sharing at command posts, on-water equipment was deployed, and protection strategies as well as local and regional contingency plans were all well tested. One significant milestone included the full involvement of a natural resource damage assessment in a SONS exercise.

Future SONS drills will continue to sharpen the nation’s ability to respond quickly to an environmental disaster by testing key response capabilities and plans.