Scientists Coordinate Research with Responders in Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Crews clean-up the oil using boom operations off the coast of Goleta, Calif., May 21, 2015. The clean-up operation for the spill began the evening of Tuesday May 19, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrea Anderson)

One of the most significant outcomes of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) has been the fostering of a multi-disciplinary collaborative academic community ready to put science into practice.

Members of the GoMRI community have been cultivating relationships with emergency responders so that science gets to the right people at the right time.

These efforts have helped scientists provide support to responders by tracking contaminants, conducting chemical analysis, and monitoring affected environments. Since the 2010 Gulf oil spill, scientists affiliated with GoMRI have provided research support for several hydrocarbon-related incidents, including the 2012 oil sheen near the Deepwater Horizon site, the 2013 Hercules gas blowout, the 2014 Galveston Bay oil spill, and now the Santa Barbara county oil spill.

The Incident

The spilled crude oil flowed through an open drainage pipe, tunneling under Highway 101 onto the beach. (Photo by Anna James, University of California Santa Barbara)

On May 19, a 24-inch wide oil pipeline belonging to the Plains All American Pipeline ruptured and was leaking crude oil along the shore side of Highway 101 at Refugio Beach, Santa Barbara County, California. The Refugio Incident Report stated that an estimated 500 barrels (21,000 gallons) of crude oil was released that then flowed into the Pacific Ocean. The oil was traveling from an above-ground storage tank facility in Las Flores to refineries throughout southern California via the pipeline. The Coast Guard established a unified command for response with local, state, and federal agencies, clean-up contractors, and industry personnel. See a map of the impacted area here and an updated status from the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration here.

Coordinating Science

Coordination with NOAA and the Coast Guard is essential for interactions between scientists and emergency responders. Within hours of the incident, engagement began between the academic and response communities – some through volunteering and other by invitation. The NOAA Emergency Response Division Scientific Support Coordinator worked with the Coast Guard’s liaison officer to help provide scientists access to the incident site, with the understanding that there was no funding or endorsement for research activity.

Another view of crude oil flowing through an open drainage pipe and making its way to the beach. (Photo by Anna James, University of California Santa Barbara)

When emergencies strike, expertise from many areas are needed for response. Gathering data as soon as possible and continuing to do so throughout an incident can help inform ongoing response and assessing impacts. Oceanographer Uta Passow at the University of California Santa Barbara Marine Science Center commented on how her colleagues established communications to coordinate multi-disciplinary efforts so that their expertise could be efficiently and effectively used:

“All types of oceanographers and ecologists responded quickly and in a coordinated manner. Some tracked the oil using models, radar, drifters, and other in situ approaches. Others investigated oil weathering, microbial response and carbon processing, and effects on the kelp forest and beach communities. Researchers from various institutions sent sampling gear to those in the field and helped with preparations. Scientists on site collected samples for their teams and for researchers affiliated with other institutions.”

Specific Activities

CARTHE director Tamay Ozgokmen at the University of Miami said that they are helping to determine the speed and location of oil spreading, not a trivial task as very small scale processes near the beach influence this transport. He noted unique aspects of this incident:

“This incident occurred on the beach, usually the final destination of oil from a spill. In some ways, the problem is the reverse of many ocean spills. Oil is moving along the beach, with some coming on shore and some advancing off shore.”

Crude oil from a ruptured pipeline on the shore side of Highway 101 in Santa Barbara County travels to the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Anna James, University of California Santa Barbara)

Ozgokmen’s colleague James McWilliams at the University of California Los Angeles is using the Regional Ocean Modeling System to provide information about oil transport in this situation. He described the applicability of this technology:

“This system was already configured for the affected area and a simulation model was available with very high spatial resolution. We have been using this model to study dispersal of river inflows along the north coast of the Channel, but now it can be applied to this particular event. We are providing data about currents and dispersal rates to our contacts at the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration in Seattle.”

ECOGIG director Samantha Joye at the University of Georgia and her team are using radiotracers to directly measure hydrocarbon oxidation rates in waters and later in beach sands impacted by the spill. Joye explains why this research is important:

“Such measurements were not made during the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the lack of those measurements led to a large data gap in calculating the oil budget.”

Joye’s team will conduct a series of lab experiments using samples collected from impacted and nearby unaffected waters to evaluate how microbial and phytoplankton populations are altered by oil exposure. Her colleague Passow will also conduct comparison experiments to quantify rates of marine hydrocarbon-enriched snow formation and discover more about the drivers that produce sinking particles. Passow noted that every oil spill is different – water temperature, oil chemical properties, and remediation methods can trigger different behaviors. Joye described how their experiments will help scientists and responders have a better understanding of ecosystem responses to oil, especially in the absence of dispersants:

“Dispersants were not used in this oil spill and, thus, this event provides an opportunity to monitor microbial response to an influx of only crude oil. We will compare this data with ongoing research of the Gulf oil spill where dispersants were used to mitigate impacts.”

Science Readiness

Despite heightened awareness of oil spills and industry efforts to improve safety measures, accidents still happen and can have significant environmental and socio-economic impacts. As unfortunate as these incidents are, they do offer the possibility for advancing knowledge, science, and technology and informing response. Joye explains how she and her team were prepared for quick action to this oil spill:

“We have an “emergency spill response kit” ready with written instructions. Even though just about every pipette we have was being loaded onto the EV Endeavor for our ECOGIG research cruise, we held enough materials back just in case something happened. So we were able to conduct critical analyses of hydrocarbon oxidation rates in seawater and beach sands impacted by this pipeline breach.”

There is an established west coast scientific community with oil spill research expertise. The GoMRI program includes scientists from this region who have studied oil spills throughout their careers. Being a member of the GoMRI science community has played a role in science readiness and to be involved quickly, as Passow explained:

“GoMRI has made a large amount of research on the effects of oil on different aquatic habitats possible and has promoted the development of a science community who know and trust each other and their respective expertise. This is the most important pre-requisite for any rapid, coordinated effort. Scientists have gained significant knowledge and advanced technology as a result of research on the 2010 Gulf spill. Now the expertise and instruments exist in the community of oil researchers to address the most pressing issues after a spill.”

GoMRI has facilitated efforts to engage the science community with the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research (ICCOPR) and with NOAA. Starting with the first Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference, response agency representatives and senior scientists have come together to improve the integration of science expertise into local, regional, and national decision-making and response. As a result, they have formed the Science Action Network – Enabling Scientific Collaboration for Disaster Planning and Response. These efforts have produced robust and positive relationships that will extend beyond the life of GoMRI.