Oil Spill Response: Knowing Your Enemy

National Response Center LogoStory by Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Eggers and Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Schofield

Make no mistake ladies and gentlemen; an oil spill is a war to save the environment. In this war, the oil is our enemy. And to defeat this enemy, we need to know what it is and what are its tendencies so we can figure out how best to defeat it. We have to know our enemy.

This Patton-esque battle cry is the words of Coast Guard Capt. Roger Laferriere, one of the service’s more-seasoned oil spill fighters and Captain of the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Hueneme.

His more than 20 years of soiled-water fighting experience has lead him this unique perspective on combating spills and the people he’s protecting when doing so.

“It is absolutely an emotional event. You have to put a face on it. You can’t just look at it from a pure aspect of removing oil. It has a face and people’s lives behind it that are impacted. You can never fight it without that consideration,” said Laferriere.

During the first hour after a report of a spill, there is a whirlwind of activity in a Coast Guard Command Center. Watch standers gather as much information as possible and relay it to the National Response Center, a center that serves as the sole national collection point for the reporting of all oil discharges in the U.S.

Watch standers then begin contacting state environmental response agencies and the Coast Guard immediately starts working with the responsible party (spiller) to contract clean up companies. If no party can be quickly identified as the spiller to cover the initial costs of clean up, the Federal On-Scene Coordinator will access funding through the Coast Guard’s National Pollution Fund Center.

During this time, Coast Guard pollution investigators are sent to the scene to determine how much of what type of oil was spilled and also attempt to locate the source, if unidentified.

“The first thing is we try to identify the source. Find what is causing the oil spill and try to secure that source. Shut it off, close it down, block it … whatever it takes. If we can stop the flow of oil from the source, that is the key,” Laferriere said.

In some cases, the seemingly simple task of locating the source can be difficult and complex.

“When the public reports a spill, often times the spill occurs in an area where there are multiple sources, like a marina,” explained Laferriere. “By the time we arrive on scene, the spill may have migrated away from the source. Some real detective work is needed.”

Initiating a quick response is vital to the success of the clean up, an effort assisted by the existence of area maritime contingency plans. These predetermined geographic response plans are created by multiple local agencies covering a range of operations to include maritime security, marine safety, environmental response, and many others.

The environmental response plans are tailored specifically for each beach, shoreline and waterway. This allows responders to know exactly where equipment and sensitive areas are even before a spill happens, to help minimize the impact.

“The oil spill is like an invasive force heading toward your shorelines,” noted Laferriere.

Like those old war movie scenes where a group of generals huddle around a large map moving figurines, seeing the whole battlefield allows you to react now and plan for later.

“To fight an oil spill, you need to get up in the air,” stated Laferriere. “We need to get a good aerial overview of the extent of the oil spill. This will tell us what we need to combat the spill.”

These critical over-flights can been hampered or delayed because of weather conditions like high winds, heavy rains or low clouds that make flying an aircraft dangerous.

Some strategies used by response leaders can cause confusion among the concerned public due to general misconceptions about spills. A few examples of these misconceptions are the perceived failure of a response when a spilled product reaches the shoreline or when a spill is closely monitored with only minimal equipment deployed.

If the oil is too thin to collect and heading toward a sensitive area, like a shellfish bed or marsh area, it can be more effective to deflect the oil toward a beach.

“We try to attack it on the water but inevitably, it will come ashore. You need to have a good offensive posture on the water, and a good defensive posture on the shoreline,” explained Laferriere.

Moving equipment and people onto a sandy beach will rarely cause long term damage the environment whereas directing responders to trounce through a marsh could actually do more damage than the oil itself. A sandy beach is the easiest type of shoreline to clean. When oil mixes with sand, it can turn into large pancake-like patties that can be scooped up. The soiled sand can be recovered for cleaning to extract the oil product and then returned to its original location. When you compare that to rocky coastlines where oil residue can seep under rocks making for long, difficult cleaning operations and to marsh areas rich in sensitive grasses and wildlife with very few cleaning options, the best strategy could indeed be to direct the oil to a sandy beach.

“We had a spill here in Long Beach, maybe 50 gallons,” recalled Laferriere. “With the type of product that was spilled, had it been a sunny day with a light breeze and a little bit of chop on the water … it would have evaporated in a few hours. Of course, we didn’t have good weather that day.”

During that spill, officials noted that ideal weather conditions were only a day away. So the decision was made to keep a close eye on the spill, place a few containment booms in sensitive areas, and then wait for Mother Nature to do her work. Two days later, the spill naturally evaporated. The natural occurrence of oil evaporation is one of the weapons of war used in combating spills, which will be addressed in more detail later.

“The biggest ally we have is Mother Nature,” says Laferriere. “She has the ability to disperse it into the water column, evaporate a good portion of it, and have the currents take it to natural collection points.”

As any seasoned soldier will tell you, the weapons you bring into battle can often times determine who will win the war. Fighting an oil spill is no different. And just like any weapon that fires a bullet, there are some things that oil spill equipment can and can’t do under certain conditions.

The most commonly seen oil spill response equipment is called containment boom. This type of boom is used to stop the spread of oil across the water, like a floating roadblock. The boom forces the smaller patches of oil to combine together to form one large pool, making it easier to collect. While containment boom is the easiest and quickest weapon to deploy in response of a spill, it begins to lose effectiveness further away from shore.

“Despite the best efforts, you’re not going to get very good coverage in the open ocean with boom,” said Laferriere. “The wave action makes it extremely difficult at times. The wave action and currents can cause the oil to wash over the boom or entrain and escape underneath it.”

Weather plays a huge role in how effective containment boom is and even in perfect conditions, it does not block 100 percent of the oil. When the wave height is over six feet or the water is moving more than 1 mph, the oil will go over and under the boom.

Another kind of boom that is used is called absorbent boom. As its name implies, this boom is made up of special absorbent material collected in a mesh that sucks up oil much like a sponge.

Skimming vessels, or simply skimmers, come in all shapes and sizes but the concept remains the same. They are water borne devices that suck up a mixture of oil and water off the surface. Skimmers glide through the water at slow speeds collecting free-floating patches of oil. A containment boom is often deployed with skimmers to help collect and lead the oil toward the skimmer. Once a boom has corralled enough oil, a skimmer can be turned on to suck up the oil. A challenge facing skimming vessels is the thickness of the oil on top water.

“When the oil is very thin, traditional skimmers will end up recovering large amounts of water, sometimes up to 80 or 90 percent,” said Laferriere. “Some special skimmers can collect thinner oil but work very, very slowly.”

Like boom, skimmers are most effective when the winds and sea-state are relatively calm. Skimmers move very slow across the water surface and therefore may not be able to keep up with the spread of a very large oil spill.

In-situ burning is a weapon used that consists of rounding up a large pool of oil and setting it on fire. The burn creates a huge column of black smoke and while it is effective in removing the oil from the water, there are air pollution concerns when using this technique. The burning can only take place a great distance from land when the winds are blowing away from populated areas, as the dense smoke contains particulates that could be hazardous to the public. Burning is also limited to lower sea states of typically less than two feet. Crews conducting the burn must slowly, less than 1 mph, and like skimmers they have difficulty keeping up with the spread of a large oil spill.

Oil dispersants are another weapon that can be used in certain situations. When added to oil, dispersants will work to complete two main objectives. First, it works to break apart the oil particles into smaller droplets. These droplets move into the water column where natural oil-eating bacteria can begin to act. The decision to use dispersants is a trade-off between contaminating the water column and contaminating the shoreline. Dispersants are only used when the oil coming ashore is likely to cause more devastation than the oil being introduced into the water column.

In the U.S., a dispersant may only be used if it is tested, cleared, and added to a list of approved products by the Environmental Protection Agency. This list is called the National Contingency Plan Product Schedule and is maintained by the EPA. But even if a dispersant is approved for use, it doesn’t necessarily mean a spill-fighter like Laferriere will use it.

“These are all different weapons. They all have their trade-offs, advantages and disadvantages. You have to decide what’s in the best interest of the environment and public health,” said Laferriere.

Another weapon that spill fighters can count on is force of Mother Nature. Like most other liquids, oil can evaporate and naturally disperse into the water column from wind and wave action. While roughs seas will impact the use of booms and high temperatures will make working conditions tough for skimmer crews, these two things will speed up the environmental removal of oil. Another naturally occurring event is the presence of oil-eating bacteria in the water that can further break down the oil.

If the spill is coming from a ship or a tank on a shore-side facility, an estimate of the amount spilled can usually be determined fairly quickly.

“From a vessel you can tell by what is called sounding the tank. Basically, take a measurement of the height of oil. Once we know how much is left, it gives us an idea of how much is spilled,” explained Laferriere.

The job of number-crunching the amount of oil spilled from a tank is much easier because that number is finite; the tank can only hold so much oil. The task of tracking down a number from a ruptured pipeline is extremely difficult.

“We don’t know how much oil is in the pipeline to start with,” begins Laferriere. “Oil pipelines are not static, meaning the volumes change constantly over time.”

While finding the number of how much has spilled is important, it’s not the main piece of information someone like Laferriere needs to craft a battle plan.

“The enemy is what I see, it’s not a number,” explains Laferriere. “What are the physical characteristics of the oil? Is it thick, how persistent is it in the environment, what kind of toxic properties does it have? Those are all factors you have to consider.”

One of the Coast Guard’s main battle plans for combating spills occurs even before the spill happens.

“Prevention is the best strategy when it comes to oil spills,” said Laferriere. “The main goal is to keep the oil in the ship or the tank for land factilities.”

To complete this mission, the Coast Guard uses pollution and facility inspectors to ensure the integrity of all ship and shore tanks, hoses, and monitoring systems. Inspectors visually inspect and approve equipment such as pumping and containment systems, warning lights and alarms, and fire prevention systems that help avoid explosions that could lead to the loss of lives and subsequently cause an oil spill. A Captain of the Port such as Laferriere, also has a far reaching authority that allows him to do even more to help prevent spills.

Ships entering U.S. ports must provide a 96-hour notice of arrival document that lists things like the vessel’s previous ports of call, cargo, and personnel onboard. While this notice is viewed by some as having only homeland security relevance, it also can play a large role in oil spill prevention. If intelligence gathered by the Coast Guard leads the Captain of the Port to suspect an incoming vessel may have damaged tanks or faulty systems, he can prevent that vessel from entering until it is inspected and possibly mandate repairs be made at sea.

Through the issuing of a Captain of the Port order, ships can be prevented from departing or entering the port, required to perform specific repairs, or prohibited from transferring oil.

“Transfer operations can be a significant source of spills from tank vessels, but because of our controls we’ve reduced that risk significantly,” noted Laferriere.

Laferriere is a 23-year veteran of the Coast Guard currently assigned as the Commanding Officer of Sector Los Angeles – Long Beach. He has spent nearly his entire career in the Marine Safety field, helping to protect and clean the nation’s oceans and waterways. Laferriere has been assigned as the Operations Officer and Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team, one of three special teams available to all Federal Government agencies for response to major oil, chemical and natural disaster events. He has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science, a master’s of Science in Industrial Hygiene and a master’s of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Marine Corps War College. Laferriere is one of a handful of Coast Guardsman qualified to act as a Type I Incident Commander, meaning he has the official capacity to manage the most serious of disasters.

“I have always wanted to be somebody that protected the environment and that is a dream I have had since I was young,” said Laferriere, “and the Coast Guard has given me an opportunity to do that.”

Among the most notable disasters Laferriere has responded to are the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, the 320,000 gallon Athos I oil spill in the Delaware River, the Senate Hart Building Ricin contamination, and most recently served as an Incident Commander during the Deepwater Horizon spill.

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