React, respond, communicate: keys to effective oil spill clean-up



Coast Guard Petty Officer Stephen Lehmann, Eighth Coast Guard District, United States Coast Guard, New Orleans, USA


Imagine for a minute that you are a citizen of New Orleans and that one morning you wake up to the pungent stench of fuel permeating throughout your city. Imagine that as you cross the Crescent City Connection Bridge to discover that the Mississippi River is covered, as far as the eye can see, with a thick, black layer of a  substance with a rainbow sheen. Now, imagine the relief as you see a Coast Guard cutter navigating its way through the dark film.

In the early morning of July 23, 2008 a collision involving an American Commercial Lines barge being pushed by a towboat and the motor vessel, Tintomara, a chemical tanker, occurred. The Coast Guard determined that the Mel Oliver, the towboat pushing the barge, failed to make contact with the Tintomara to make passing arrangements and instead turned the tow and barge into the path of the down-river bound vessel.

The much larger tanker struck the towboat’s barge, which was carrying approximately 420,000 gallons of number 6 fuel oil, almost tearing it in half, and spilling 282,000 gallons into the river. Luckily, no one was injured.

The captain of the port, Coast Guard Capt. Lincoln Stroh, promptly closed the river from mile marker 98 to 70, involving a 28 mile stretch of the river. The Gulf Strike Team, one of three of the Coast Guard’s quick response pollution teams deployed with their assets and crews to asses and oversee the cleanup process. The Coast Guard Cutter Razorbill and a 41-foot response boat from Sector New Orleans were also launched to provide the initial safety zone for the incident.

The river closure was eventually extended from mile marker 97 to the very mouth of the Mississippi River, nearly 100 miles of river were closed that included the Port of New Orleans; one of America’s busiest ports.

The number of waiting vessels on either end of the safety zone grew daily. At its peak, the number of deep draft vessels awaiting transit ballooned to more than 100. In excess of 158,000 feet of hard and absorbent boom was deployed to contain and redirect the spread of the oil. More than 2,000 personnel responded from the different agencies to combat the expanse of the spill and to raise the damaged barge.

“This was a very significant spill,” said Captain Lincoln Stroh, Sector commander of Sector New Orleans and incident commander for the oil spill. Comparing this oil spill to past ones, Stroh said, “There were more dynamics involved. There were more vessels to clean. There was dredging at the mouth of the river and the spill,  itself, was ongoing.”

The largest oil spill prior to the July 23rd response, involved the motor vessel Westchester, which ran aground and emptied more than 550,000 gallons of Nigerian crude oil into the river, back in November of 2000.

Thankfully, a strong east wind kept the spill naturally contained on the west bank, which gave responders enough time to place containment boom. The river only closed from mile marker 38 to mile marker 9, less than in third of the closure of this most recent spill.

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