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History of oil spill response at NOAA

April 21, 2020

On December 15, 1976, the tanker Argo Merchant ran aground near Nantucket Shoals in Massachusetts and broke in half several days later. The entire 7.7 million gallons of heavy fuel oil it carried spilled into the Shoals, threatening damage to the famous fishing grounds. Over the days and weeks that followed, NOAA began its first major coordinated oil spill response activity.

On December 15, 1976, the Liberian tanker Argo Merchant ran aground on Nantucket Shoals, off the Massachusetts coast, in high winds and ten foot seas. Its destination was Salem, Mass., where the tanker was scheduled to deliver a winter's supply of fuel to a local power plant.

As a result of the disaster, NOAA put additional resources towards spill response, including creating a hazardous material response division to provide scientific expertise during a spill, placing scientific support coordinators around the country, and developing methods to assess and model oil trajectories.

Today, nearly 50 years later, NOAA’s role in oil spill response has evolved, shaped by several major events in our nation’s history — including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

National Geographic videographer Bob Perrin films an oil slick at the Deepwater Horizon site.
National Geographic videographer Bob Perrin films an oil slick at the Deepwater Horizon site. (NOAA)

Exxon Valdez

On March 24, 1989, one of the most widely publicized oil spills of that time was the Alaska North Slope Exxon Valdez, which released 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound. NOAA's HAZMAT team arrived at the scene of the spill within 24 hours. HAZMAT scientists supported the massive cleanup and damage assessment conducted by the Coast Guard, the State of Alaska, and the responsible parties by providing forecasts, guiding aerial observers, making recommendations on cleanup actions, and monitoring the recovery of oiled shores.

While the Exxon Valdez oil spill was a terrible disaster, the cleanup effort provided emergency responders with a testing ground for both old and new spill response methods. For example, responders learned that pressure-washing graveled beaches increased injury to plants and animals and may have even contributed to lingering oil deposits. But perhaps the greatest lessons came from enhanced information exchange, extensive training, and management that were precipitated by the spill response.

A line of clean-up workers hose off oil from a rocky shore using hot water following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council
A line of clean-up workers hose off oil from a rocky shore using hot water following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

Oil Pollution Act

The Exxon Valdez spill prompted Congress to enact the Oil Pollution Actoffsite link (OPA) of 1990, which gave NOAA and the EPA greater ability to respond to spills and created a trust fund financed by the oil tax to aid in cleanup operations. The OPA also led to improved contingency planning in the event of future oil spills and rapid notification of incipient incidents, which have gone a long way to reduce oil releases and impacts of spills on marine resources.

Deepwater Horizon

And then in April 2010, a new crisis struck in the Gulf of Mexico — the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. An explosion on the Deepwater Horizon Macondo oil well drilling platform tragically killed 11 workers and started the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history, releasing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf.

As the lead science agency for coastal oil spills, NOAA provided mission-critical information to guide the emergency response, the natural resources damage assessment and the restoration plan. NOAA scientists continue their commitment to the Gulf as we report on the short and long-term effects to the fish, wildlife and habitat injured by the spill, as well as the lost recreational use along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Florida.

Aerial view of Barataria Basin marsh in Louisiana, part of the Gulf Spill restoration.
Aerial view of Barataria Basin marsh in Louisiana, part of the Gulf Spill restoration. (NOAA)

Lessons Learned

As we recognize the ten years that have passed since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, these articles highlight ways that the science and technology for how NOAA responds to oil spills has changed over time.