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Diving Deeper Shorts: Oil Spill Response

Episode 26 (August 15, 2013)

HOST: Get a glimpse into how NOAA responds to oil spills and why spills happen in today's Diving Deeper Shorts. We will revisit our interview with Amy Merten from NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration.

Let's listen in.

HOST: Amy, before we get into how we actually respond to oil spills, it would be great to talk about why oil spills happen in the first place.

AMY MERTEN: Well, they happen mainly because we are so dependent on oil in the U.S. We use about 700 million gallons of oil every single day. And how do we use oil? We're heating our homes, we're fueling our cars, we use oil to make plastics for you name it - toys, radios, computers, and even medicines. Oil's a fundamental part of our economy and our way of life.

If we continue to need oil, we're going to continue to have spill risks. We have oil moving around the country in high volumes - in ships and barges and pipelines and trucks - so that oil is getting to us minute by minute. So the ships have the potential to cause these larger spills that we think about and we see on TV, but really the biggest source of oil to our waterways is from nonpoint source, kind of the small spills in parking lots from you and me and everyone else is actually contributing to more oil pollution in the water than a big ship would.

HOST: How do we clean up after oil spills occur?

AMY MERTEN: Well we have a couple of tools that we can use to start cleaning up a spill after they occur. It really depends on what type of oil gets spilled; all oil's different and it's made up of lots of different other chemicals so it behaves differently sometimes than what you might expect. The weather really impacts what we can do, so if it's a stormy day, there's not a lot we can do. It depends on how far away the spill is from bird and animal resources, how far away it is from people, on what we can actually do.

So we tend to use a few key tools that we've been using for a long time. So kind of our first approach is trying to use things in a mechanical capacity, so we use booms, which are floating barriers that keep the oil contained. So you can put a boom around a vessel or you can put a boom to block an inlet or a wetland area so the oil doesn't go into that area, making it harder to clean up. And we also have these specialized boats that skim the oil off of the surface, so taking advantage of oil floating on water. Skim it into a container and then take it back and offload it and recycle it and reuse it.

So that's kind of what we like to do if we can, but we have some other things we can do. We can burn oil in place, so right there on the water, if we can get it thick enough, we can actually burn it there. We can burn it in a marsh. We can also use things called dispersants and what dispersants are they're chemicals that actually break the slick up into smaller droplets. It doesn't remove the oil from the environment, it just makes it smaller, gets it off the surface. So you might use that if you're trying to protect birds so if you have a lot of birds in the area and you're going to trade off that resource and put the oil into the water column. So, we don't use those very much, but we do have them available.

HOST: Amy, what's the role of the National Ocean Service in responding to oil spills?

AMY MERTEN: Well, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency are actually the first federal responders for a spill. So, the Office of Response and Restoration, which sits in the National Ocean Service, along with staff from other offices in NOAA work to support the federal on-scene coordinators - the Coast Guard and EPA. So what we do, in the Office of Response and Restoration for a spill, is we first provide trajectory models, so forecasts of where the oil is going to go.

We actually get on-scene and conduct overflights to assess the extent of the spill and ground truth our models, so we have a lot of experience doing that. We spend a lot of time coordinating shoreline assessment surveys and spending a lot of time walking shorelines and calculating how much oil is there. And then we work with the Coast Guard and the responsible party to evaluate what the cleanup options are available and again we try to do this in the most practical and environmentally sound way, so we jointly develop a plan on how to actually do the cleanup.

HOST: That's all for today's Diving Deeper Shorts. Want to learn more? See our show notes for a link to the full episode. Diving Deeper is back in two weeks - see you soon!