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Making Waves: Episode 73 (April 21, 2011)

You're listening to Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm your host, Troy Kitch.

Last year, on April 20, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon MC252 drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico killed eleven people and caused the rig to sink. Then, as you surely know, oil began leaking into the Gulf. Before the wellhead was finally capped in mid-July, almost 5 million barrels of oil were released.

Today, we're going to look back at NOAA's role in the Deepwater Horizon spill response -- the months when oil was spilling into the Gulf -- through the eyes of one of the first NOAA responders to the spill.

We're joined by Debbie Payton, chief of the Office of Response and Restoration's Emergency Response Division. The Emergency Response Division is a group of scientists located around the country with a Headquarters office in Seattle who provide science support to the U.S. Coast Guard or the Unified Command when there's a spill of oil or chemicals anywhere in the country. We'll talk more about what 'science support' entails in a minute.

I began by asking Debbie about her role during the Deepwater Horizon spill response.

[Debbie Payton] "I was not the chief of the Division at that time. I have worked for over 30 years on spill response, so I did a fair amount of overflights, trajectory information; I was in charge of the group that was putting together the trajectory forecasting to try to determine where the oil would go so the cleanup crews could get there ahead of it, and I worked with the submerged oil crew trying to look for where there could be submerged oil."

Debbie said that forecasting the trajectory of oil, along with looking for oil on the surface, shores, and underwater, is only one small portion of the total package of scientific support that NOAA provides for spills. Scientific support also encompasses understanding the chemistry of the spilled oil or chemicals as well as the biological threats the pollutants may cause ... think seafood safety, public health, and the welfare of marine mammals. And NOAA delivers weather forecasts, satellite imagery, and nautical chart updates.

[Debbie Payton]  "Those are all pieces of what NOAA does. The science support is gathering all that information, all the information coming from not only federal scientists, but other scientists as well, and trying to put that into a cohesive information that the Coast Guard, who's helping to direct the response, can use to answer specific questions: where is the oil going, what's it going to look like when it gets there, what's the threat to birds or turtles, or other resources, and how can we best clean it up."

For Deepwater Horizon -- the largest spill in U.S. history -- the level of scientific support required was unprecedented. More than 2,000 NOAA people responded. Eight NOAA ships and seven NOAA aircraft joined more 5,640 unified response vessels and 116 aircraft to look for subsurface oil, deploy equipment, survey marine life, and collect samples for seafood safety.

But science support is routinely requested for smaller spills. Debbie said that a spill is defined as anything that creates a sheen on the water, and:  

[Debbie Payton]  "There are thousands and thousands of those every year. At a certain level, it bumps up to where the Coast Guard is concerned enough that they call in scientific support. Scientific Support Coordinators from NOAA get called in to 150 to 200 spills each year just in U.S. waters. About 65 percent of that is oil. The rest of it is mostly chemical."

So on any given week, NOAA is called to support a couple of spills. To handle these requests, there are nine of the Scientific Support Coordinators that Debbie just mentioned stationed around the country, working in Coast Guard offices. She said these people are the pointy end of the spear -- the first to be tapped when the Coast Guard needs NOAA science support. Day to day, these experts work closely with the local communities where they live ... and with other scientists at the state and local level ... along with those from other federal agencies. And when they're called upon, they reach back to the Emergency Response Division to get the NOAA support they need in areas like chemistry, biology, toxicology, modeling, or oceanography.

That's a broad snapshot of how the process works. But, of course, what made Deepwater Horizon different was the size of the spill and the huge response that was necessary. Debbie said that Deepwater Horizon was the first-ever spill in the nation designated a Spill or National Significance. This special designation came from the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was created in response to another major incident -- the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

[Debbie Payton]  "So this was very enlightening on just how the organizational structure works, how all the parties play together. I think there was a lot to be learned just as far as organizationally how you respond to something of this magnitude. The Coast Guard did a fabulous job of putting together an enormous -- we're talking tens of thousands of people -- that have to pull together to try and solve a common problem. That's something that the military does, typically. Environmental groups, you don't do that so often. I just think that the whole scale and scope of responding to a spill like this is interesting, and I expect over the next couple of years that we're still going to be taking some of the things that we've learned from Deepwater Horizon and trying to figure out how to apply those to your more normal-type spill."


So where are we now, one year later? Debbie said, for her, it's still too early to draw a conclusion.

[Debbie Payton]  "I think very early in the spill, there was this dichotomy of people that thought the Gulf of Mexico was dead, it was over. And people on the other hand were saying 'Everything's going to be OK. It's gonna be fine." And I think the real answer was definitely more in the middle. Certainly the Gulf of Mexico, it's a thriving ecosystem. Ecosystems tend to be very resilient, and we've seen that, spill after spill. It certainly doesn't mean everything's OK. When an incident happens that's so massive, it's really good to kind of step back and not put too much credibility in either side that's way one way or way the other. Don't draw judgments too quickly. And I think actually for me, it's still too early to draw judgments. There's more work to be done.

That was Debbie Payton, chief of the Office of Response and Restoration's Emergency Response Division.

Today, NOAA and many partners are involved in a long-term process called Natural Resource Damage Assessment -- a complex job of figuring out just what was damaged by the oil spill, how to best repair that damage, and then ... restoring damaged areas.

As of the beginning of this month, over 4,250 miles of shoreline have been surveyed to collect data on the degree and extent of damage to habitats caused by the spilled oil. Nearly 30,000 samples have been collected along the Gulf Coast to help figure out the extent of the damage ... these range from samples of animal and fish tissue to sediment to tar balls to soil. And more than half of those samples have been analyzed in the lab. And there's a restoration project now underway to restore sea grass along shorelines in the region. There's more activities going on in the Gulf now than I can capture here, so I hope you'll head to to see what's being done right now.

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

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