[SouthWings] Best Practices in Aerial Observation of Oil Spills in Open Water

 

In the five years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in April of 2010 — killing 11 people and leading to an uncontrolled 87-day oil gusher that covered vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico in oil — SouthWings and our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium have learned much about effective citizen reporting of pollution, especially related to oil spills in water. Thanks to the work of SkyTruth, we have also learned that there are oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico on an almost daily basis. While it certainly takes some practice to train your eyes to spot oil on water at a distance while flying, here are a few tips and some resources to get you started:

LMRK JeffreyDubinsky sheen 091012

The basics:

  • When to fly: fly during a time of low-angle light (early morning works well) for the best visibility of oil sheen on water. Pick a clear day with low wind and seas (waves break up spills and make them harder to spot).
  • Tips: we find that polarized sunglasses can make oil sheen harder to spot. Some people also recommend wearing non-reflective colors (black), especially if you’ll need to take photographs through plexiglass.
  • Photos: be sure to note altitude and direction photos are taken. If possible, include oil platforms, boats, etc. in photos for scale. Note color of oil sheen, as well as approximate dimensions and direction it seems to be moving. Noting coordinates of each spill is critical. Some cameras automatically GPS tag photos, but, if yours does not, a lower-tech option is to snap a photo of the coordinates on an external GPS unit; there are many higher-tech options that will geotag your photos with a bit of post-flight processing (details on a free option here). Document anything you see about a potential source of the problem and any information about a suspected responsible party.
  • Reporting spills: call the National Response Center (NRC), operated by the US Coast Guard, at 1-800-424-8802. It’s important to file NRC reports for spills of oil or potentially hazardous materials you notice (whether you find them on flights or otherwise), as this is the only way to ensure that the spill is included in the public, official government record.

Details and additional resources:

  • Training manual: before you fly, be sure to download and read Open Water Oil Identification Job Aid for Aerial Observation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It has great examples of what to look for and will help you avoid common false positives, such as seaweed clumps and cloud shadows.
  • Checklist: printable oil observation checklist from NOAA here.
  • Estimating spill volume: the color of the oil sheen varies with thickness of the oil spill. Gray sheen is the thinnest, followed by rainbow sheen and then metallic sheen. A thicker oil spill will have a darker color closer to “true” oil color. There are a variety of standards for making oil spill volume estimates based on visual assessments, so always state which standard you’re using if you make a volume estimate. The Bonn Agreement Oil Appearance Code is a scientifically rigorous and straightforward option.

GRN Jonathan Henderson2March2013

Here are a few great examples of Gulf Monitoring Consortium collaboration on aerial monitoring from Gulf Restoration Network, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, and Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

If you’re a pilot and would be interested in volunteering to fly with Gulf Monitoring Consortium members, please contact David Moore at SouthWings: david@southwings.org.

Photos: Jeffrey Dubinsky for Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper (top of page); Jonathan Henderson for Gulf Restoration Network (bottom of page). Flights provided by SouthWings.

House Democrats Find Little Change in Drilling Incidents/Violations: Offshore Safety Lapses Continue Three Years After BP Spill

A report issued by the Democrats of the House Committee on Natural Resources concluded that offshore drilling safety lapses continue even three years after the BP Spill in 2010. In a press release, Representative Ed Markey (D-5th District, MA), ranking member on the House Committee on Natural Resources said, “Oil and gas companies with the worst safety records in the Gulf before the BP disaster continue to spill oil, lose control of their wells and rack up safety violations today.” The report was prepared by Markey’s Natural Resources committee staff based on data from the Technical Information Management System (TIMS) database maintained by the Department of the Interior (DOI).

4543311558_30eb68a7df_b

April 22, 2010 – Deepwater Horizon rig fire,
Photo: U.S. Coast Guard.

The report found, “companies with the most serious environmental or safety violations before the BP spill are still racking up the most violations today. BP, which is among the top violators since 2000, actually has been cited for more major offshore violations in the last two years than before the spill.” The British petroleum giant has been subject to increased scrutiny after their damaged well suffered a blow-out and spewed 4.9 million barrels of oil into Gulf in the largest non-wartime oil spill in human history. However, other top polluters such as Shell continue to rack up violations and loss-of-control incidents, and were no more likely to be inspected post-BP than they were before the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

The report found a few positive notes, however, such as 50% fewer injuries from off-shore drilling incidents and fewer loss-of-control incidents since the DOI adopted stronger regulations in 2010. Gulf Monitoring Consortium members keep a watchful eye on the chronically polluting fossil fuel industry from space, the sky, and the surface – read more about us at:      http://www.gulfmonitor.org/about/current-members/

Read the full post-BP offshore safety and environmental protection report here:

Dangerous Drillers: Offshore Safety Lapses Continue Three Years after BP Spill