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Collisions, Hurricanes Mark Busy Spill Response Season

Oil along the banks of the Mississippi River

An aerial view of the banks of the Mississippi River following the release of thousands of gallons of fuel oil from a damaged barge in July.

Two destructive hurricanes and two major ship accidents marked the busiest season ever for the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) over the past fiscal year. In total, the NOS office responded to 179 incidents, three-quarters of which were oil spills.

OR&R deploys team members to provide scientific expertise to federal and state partners when spills happen, which range from small chemical leaks to massive oil discharges.  Following an initial emergency response, the office lends support to evaluate damages to natural resources and to ensure damaged resources are restored.

The busy season began last November when the container ship M/V Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, Calif. The resulting 100-foot gash in the vessel’s hull led to a 58,000-gallon leak of fuel oil. NOAA responders joined 19 federal, state, and local agencies in mounting the cleanup efforts to this accident.

Then, in July, NOAA teams joined over 2,000 responders in a massive effort to clean up after a collision between a barge and a chemical tank dumped over 378,000 gallons of oil into the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Over 200,000 gallons of mixed fuel and water were removed over the course of the response.

Then there were the hurricanes.

Barge approaching Galveston railroad bridge and Causeway

This short animation shows the trajectory of spilled oil following the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska. The Office of Response and Restoration often calculates detailed trajectory models to help response efforts to contain oil spills.

When hurricanes strike land, spills of hazardous materials are inevitable. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike were no exception to this rule, causing particularly acute damage this year.

The timing of Gustav provided an extra challenge since it coincided with clean up efforts along the Mississippi from the earlier barge collision. While there were not many reported spills resulting from Gustav, preparation and follow-up efforts consumed weeks of support and attention from OR&R staff.

Then, shortly after Gustav, Hurricane Ike delivered the next challenge of the season.

NOAA’s main role in response to this natural disaster was to assist the U.S. Coast Guard by providing scientific support, information management, and overflight assessments of affected areas. OR&R personnel served in a vital role to help get waterways and facilities reopened to resume normal vessel traffic and commercial activities following the storm. 

Thousands of incidents occur each year in which oil or chemicals are released into the environment as a result of accidents or natural disasters. Under the U.S. National Contingency Plan and National Response framework, NOAA is responsible for providing scientific support to the Federal On-Scene Coordinator for oil and hazardous material spills.

In support of this mandate, OR&R emergency response teams continue to stand by 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to spills around the nation.