In the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1996, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) was directed to assess the risk of spills for oils that may sink or be negatively buoyant, to examine and evaluate existing cleanup technologies, and to identify and appraise technological and financial barriers that could impede a prompt response to such spills. The USCG requested that the National Research Council (NRC) perform these tasks. In response to this request, the NRC established the Committee on the Marine Transportation of Heavy Oils.
Early in the committee's deliberations, it became clear that the statutory definition of Group V oils (oils with a specific gravity greater than 1.0) did not include all of the oils of concern. The first problem with using this definition is that specific gravity is defined as the ratio of the density of oil to the density of freshwater at a fixed temperature. The density of seawater, however, is slightly higher than that of freshwater and increases as salt content increases. Therefore, Group V oils could have lower densities than those of the receiving seawater and float. The second problem is that an oil with a specific gravity of slightly less than 1.0 (e.g., a Group IV oil) might mix into the water column and sink to the seabed after weathering and interaction with sediments. The committee, therefore, decided to use the term "nonfloating oils" to include all of the oils of concern based on their behavior. Nonfloating oils move below the sea surface either because of their initial densities or because of changes in their densities as a result of weathering or interaction with sediments. These oils may be just below the water surface, suspended in the water column, or deposited on the seabed.
In order to carry out the assessment, the committee gathered the available data on the transportation and spills of Group V oils, as well as data on other oils
that are known to sink or become suspended in the water column when weathered or mixed with sediment. The data were available for asphalt, coal tar, carbon black, bunker C, and No. 5 and No. 6 fuel oils, (i.e., so-called "heavy oils"). The committee used the USCG's (USCG) database on oil spills, refined with collaborative data from the Minerals Management Service (MMS), to develop estimates of the probability and mean size of oil spills. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) database on waterborne transportation of petroleum products and other cargoes over U.S. waters was used to assess the volumes of oil transported. The committee combined the spill statistics with the data on cargo tonnage to estimate historical rates on a barrel-per-ton-mile basis.
Historical spill rates must be modified for predictions of future spill rates because future rates will be influenced by fluctuations in traffic and trading patterns, as well as by changes in the ways vessels are designed and operated. The committee used the best available data, combined with its own collective judgment, to estimate the effects of these changes on the number and size of spills of nonfloating oils in the future.
Since 1991, the volume of oil spilled from vessels in U.S. waters has been reduced dramatically. Losses from tankers since 1990 have been less than one-tenth of the pre-1990 volume, and losses from barges have been less than one-third of the pre-1990 volume. From 1973 to 1990, there were 18 incidents involving spills of more than 25,000 barrels. Since 1991, there has not been a single spill of this magnitude for any category of oil. Nevertheless, very large spills will almost certainly occur some time in the future, although they are likely to be spills of crude oil rather than heavy oils, which tend to be transported in smaller volumes on barges and smaller tankers.
The USCG database includes descriptions of the substance spilled in each event. To estimate the frequency of spills of products with the potential to sink or become suspended in the water column after weathering or mixing with sediment, the committee summarized data for spills of more than 20 barrels for asphalt, coal tar, carbon black, bunker C, and No. 5 and No. 6 fuel oils. From 1991 to 1996, there was an average of 16 spills of these heavy oils per year, with an average volume of 785 barrels per spill. Tank barges were responsible for 28 percent of incidents and 80 percent of the volume of these spills of heavy oils. Most heavy-oil spills between 1991 and 1996 involved oils that were less dense than seawater, which only sink under unfavorable environmental conditions. The committee reviewed these heavy-oil spills with spill responders, who estimated that about 20 percent of these spills exhibited nonfloating behavior.
Most of the larger oil spills from land-based facilities were generally spills of crude oil or gasoline. The largest reported spill of heavy oil from a land-based facility between 1991 and 1996 was a spill of 929 barrels of No. 6 fuel oil into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. By contrast, there were six tank-barge spills of more than 4,000 barrels involving heavy oil (either No. 6 fuel oil or slurry oil). The average volume of spills of heavy oil from barges was 2,254 barrels, and the largest was
about 18,000 barrels. These spills were widely distributed geographically, with the highest frequency in the Gulf of Mexico.
Behavioral models have been developed for spills of nonfloating oils based on their physical and chemical properties. These descriptive, qualitative models predict how oils with densities near or above the density of the receiving water might behave. The models are based primarily on observations of oil spills. The committee described and assessed these models in terms of their effectiveness in predicting the behavior of nonfloating oils.
The environmental concerns associated with responses to spills of nonfloating oils are primarily related to water column and benthic (seabed) habitats. In most spills in open water, oil in the water column is unrecoverable, and response operations are limited to locating and monitoring its movement. However, if the suspended oil approaches shoreline habitats or nearshore benthic habitats in areas where current flow is minimal, the oil will sink and pool on the seabed. In these cases, an effective, but limited, response can be mounted, whereby a significant amount of oil can be removed from the seafloor. An effective response also includes removing oil from the shoreline, if and when it becomes stranded, to prevent its being eroded and sinking in nearshore tidal areas.
The behavior patterns of nonfloating oils can be complex, depending on the density of the oil, the density of the receiving water, and the physical characteristics of the spill site. Current technologies and techniques for locating, tracking, containing, and recovering spills of submerged oils include spill modeling and information systems, tracking and mapping techniques, and oil containment and recovery techniques. Chapter 3 focuses on the current state of practice and identifies systems that have been used or proposed for use in response to spills of nonfloating oils.
The containment and recovery of oil dispersed in the water column or deposited on the seabed is constrained by many factors, beginning with the difficulty of locating the oil and determining its condition. The success of current methods varies greatly but is usually limited because of the wide distribution of the oil and the fact that it is mixed with sediments and water. In general, available methods are most successful when the current speeds and wave conditions at the spill site are low (currents less than 10 cm/sec, wave heights less than 0.25 m), the oil is pumpable, the water is relatively shallow (water depths less than 10 m), and the sunken oil is concentrated in natural collection areas. The selection of methods for containment or recovery depends on the location and environmental conditions at the spill site, the characteristics of the oil and its state of weathering and interaction with sediments, and the equipment and logistical support available for the cleanup operation.
The committee identified a variety of barriers to responses to spills of nonfloating oils, including inadequate planning and training drills; lack of experience; lack of knowledge about transport, fate, and impact on the environment; the difficulty of locating and tracking oil suspended in the water column or
deposited on the seabed; the limited technology options available for containment and recovery; and insufficient investment in research, development, testing, and evaluation of tracking, containment, and recovery systems.
Finding 1. From 1991 to 1996, approximately 17 percent of the petroleum products transported over U.S. waters were heavy oils and heavy-oil products, such as residual fuel oils, coke, and asphalt. Approximately 44 percent was moved by barge and 56 percent by tanker.
Finding 2. From 1991 to 1996, approximately 23 percent of the petroleum products spilled in U.S. waters were heavy oils. In only 20 percent of these spills did a significant portion of the spilled products sink or become suspended in the water column. Most of the time, spills of heavy oil remained on the surface. The average number of spills of more than 20 barrels of heavy oil and asphalt was 16 per year, with an average volume of 785 barrels per spill. The committee projects that a 30 percent reduction in the number and volume of heavy-oil spills would have been realized if tankers and barges had all been double-hulled vessels.
Finding 3. In recent years, barges have had significantly higher spill rates than tankers. From 1991 to 1996, barges accounted for approximately 80 percent of the volume of heavy-oil spills, and the spill rate, expressed in terms of barrels-spilled-per-ton-mile, was more than 10 times higher for barges than for tankers. Although the reduction in spill volume from tank barges since 1990 has been significant (about one-third of pre-1990 volume), the reduction for tankers has been even more dramatic (about one-tenth of pre-1990 volume).
Finding 4. Specific gravity, as used in the regulatory definition of Group V oils, does not adequately characterize all oil types and weathering conditions that produce nonfloating oils. The committee was asked to address the issue of responses to Group V oil spills, defined by current regulations as oils with a specific gravity of greater than 1.0. However, the committee determined that the issue of concern is planning for and responding to oil spills in which most, or a significant quantity, of the spilled oil does not float. The committee, therefore, decided to use the term "nonfloating oils" to describe the oils of concern.
Finding 5. Nonfloating oils behave differently and have different environmental fates and effects than floating oils. The resources at greatest risk from spills of floating oils are those that use the water surface and the shoreline. Floating-oil spills seldom have significant impacts on water-column and benthic resources. In contrast, nonfloating-oil spills pose a substantial threat to water-column and benthic resources, particularly where significant amounts of oil have
accumulated on the seafloor. Nonfloating oils tend to weather slowly and thus can affect resources for long periods of time and at great distances from the release site. However, the effects and behavior of nonfloating oil are poorly understood.
Finding 6. Although spill modeling and supporting information systems are well developed, they are not commonly used in response to nonfloating-oil spills because of limited environmental data and observations of oil suspended in the water or deposited on the seabed. Oil-spill models and supporting information systems are routinely used in contingency planning and spill responses. Sophisticated, user-friendly interfaces have been developed to take advantage of the latest advances in computer hardware and software. The current generation of models can rapidly incorporate environmental data from a variety of sources and include integrated geographic information systems. The models can also assimilate data on the most recently observed location of spilled oil and have improved forecasts of oil movements. They are not routinely used, however, in response to nonfloating-oil spills because of the lack of supporting data on the three-dimensional currents and concentrations of suspended sediments. Field data, such as oil concentrations in the water column and on the seabed, are also not generally available to validate or update models.
Finding 7. A substantial number of techniques and tools for tracking subsurface oil have been developed. Most of them, however, have not been used in response to actual oil spills. Many techniques are available for determining the location of oil both in the water column and on the seabed. These include visual observations, geophysical and acoustic methods, remote sensing, water-column and seabed sampling, in situ detectors, and nets and trawl sampling. The most direct and simplest methods, such as diver observations and direct sampling, are widely used, but they are labor intensive and slow. More sophisticated approaches, such as remote sensing, are limited to zones very near the sea surface because of technical constraints. Other advanced technologies, such as acoustic techniques, cannot differentiate between oil and water or between oiled sediments and underlying sediments. Many of the more sophisticated systems are prone to misuse and produce ambiguous data that are subject to misinterpretation. The performance of all but the simplest methods is undocumented either by field experiments or by use in spill responses.
Finding 8. Although many technologies are available for containing and recovering subsurface oil, few are effective, and most work only in very limited environmental conditions. Containment of oil suspended in the water column using silt curtains, pneumatic barriers, and nets and trawls is only effective in areas with very low currents and minimal wave activity. These conditions rarely exist at spill sites, particularly at sites in estuarine or coastal waters. The recovery of oil
in the water column by trawls and nets is limited by the viscosity of the oil and net tow speeds.
The containment of oil on the seabed is typically ineffective, except at natural collection points (e.g., depressions and areas of convergence). The collection of oil on the seabed by manual methods, in natural collection areas and along the shoreline after beaching, is effective but labor intensive and slow. Manual methods are also limited by the depths at which diver-based operations can be carried out safely. Dredging techniques have rarely been used because of limited recovery rates, the large volumes of water and sediment generated, and the problems of storing, treating, and discharging co-produced materials.
Finding 9. The lack of knowledge and lack of experience, especially at the local level, in responding to spills of nonfloating oils is a significant barrier to effective response. The knowledge base and response capabilities for tracking, containing, and recovering nonfloating oils have not been adequately developed. Even at the national level, no system has been developed for sharing experiences or documenting the effectiveness and limitations of various options. With limited experience and a lack of proven, specialized systems, responders have found it difficult to adapt available equipment for responses to spills of nonfloating oils.
Finding 10. Planning for spills of nonfloating oils is inadequate at the local level. Existing area contingency plans do not include comprehensive sections on the risk of spills of nonfloating oils or how to respond to them. To date, planning has focused primarily on spills of floating oils. Inventories of equipment, lists of specialized services, assessments of the resources at risk, and protection priorities have not been developed by area committees for nonfloating oils. Nor have they identified the risks (e.g., transportation patterns, volumes, oil types), developed appropriate scenarios and response plans, or reviewed acceptable cleanup methods and end points. Existing plans have not been tested during drills or exercises to address deficiencies.
Finding 11. Funding levels for research, development, testing, and evaluation of spills of nonfloating oils are very low. The only active research programs currently under way either by government or industry groups are focused on emulsified fuel oils. Because the risk of spills of nonfloating oils is perceived as low relative to spills of floating oils, few research and development funds have been committed.
Conclusion 1. The tracking, containment, and recovery of spills of nonfloating oils pose challenging problems, principally because nonfloating oils suspended in the water column become mixed with large volumes of seawater and may
interact with sediments in the water column or on the seabed. The ability to track, contain, and recover nonfloating oils is critically dependent on the physical and chemical properties of the oils and the water or the oils and the other materials dispersed in the water column or on the seabed. The differences in these characteristics are often quite small, and little technology is available for determining them.
Conclusion 2. Although many methods are available for tracking nonfloating oils, the simplest and most reliable are labor intensive and cover only limited areas. More sophisticated methods have severe technical limitations, require specialized equipment and highly skilled operators, or cannot distinguish oil from water or other materials dispersed in the water column. Engineered systems for containing oil in the water column or on the seabed are few and only work in environments with low currents and minimal waves. Natural containment in seabed depressions or in the lee of topographical or man-made structures on the seabed is effective for containing oils, but these are not always available in the vicinity of the spill.
Conclusion 3. The recovery of oil from the water column is very difficult because of the low concentration of dispersed oil; hence, recovery is rarely attempted. If oil collects on the seabed in natural containment areas, many options for effective recovery are available, although most of them are labor intensive and access to response equipment is a problem.
Conclusion 4. The volume and frequency of spills of nonfloating oils is significant (although smaller than for floating oils) and, therefore, should be an integral part of planning for spill responses, particularly in areas where nonfloating oils are regularly transported. Transport by tank barges raises particular concerns, given the relatively high spill rates from these vessels. The risks of potential harm to water-column and benthic resources from nonfloating oils have not been adequately addressed in the contingency plans for individual facilities or geographic areas.
Conclusion 5. Inland barges are subject to greater risks of spills than tankers and coastal barges; consequently, spill rates for barges are likely to be higher than for tankers. However, the large difference between the overall spill rates, as well as the decreasing number of spills from tankers in recent years (post-OPA 90), raises concerns regarding the performance of barges.
The recommendations below are intended to improve the capability of the spill response community to respond to spills of nonfloating oils.
Recommendation 1. The U.S. Coast Guard should direct area planning committees to assess the risk of spills of nonfloating oils (i.e., oils that may be dispersed in the water column or ultimately sink to the seabed) to determine the resources at risk. In areas with significant environmental resources risk, area planning committees should develop response plans that include consultation and coordination protocols and should obtain pre-approvals and authorizations to facilitate responses to spills. Stakeholder groups should be educated about the impact and methods available for tracking, containing, and recovering oil suspended in the water column or on the seabed. Area committees in locations where there is a high risk of spills of nonfloating oils should include at least one scenario for responding to a nonfloating-oil spill in their training or drill programs.
Recommendation 2. The U.S. Coast Guard should improve its knowledge base, education, and training for responding to spills of nonfloating oils by including a scenario involving a spill of nonfloating oils in oil-spill response drills, by establishing a knowledge base and scientific support teams to respond to these types of spills, and by disseminating this knowledge to the federal spill-response coordinators and area planning committees as part of ongoing training programs. The information would help area planners assess the requirements for responding to nonfloating-oil spills.
Recommendation 3. The U.S. Coast Guard should support the development and implementation of an evaluation program for tracking oil in the water column and on the seabed, as well as containment and recovery techniques for use on the seabed. The findings of these evaluations should be documented and distributed to the environmental response community to improve response plans for spills of nonfloating oils.
Recommendation 4. Tests of area contingency plans and industry response plans for responses to spills of nonfloating oils should be required parts of training and drill programs.
Recommendation 5. The U.S. Coast Guard should monitor spill rates from tank barges to ascertain whether current regulatory requirements and voluntary programs will reduce the frequency and volume of spill incidents. If not, the Coast Guard should consider initiating regulatory changes.