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Oil Spill Response Planning, Drones, and Spill Surveillance

Posted on Thu, Sep 04, 2014

Oil spill response planning and preparedness are necessary to satisfy applicable regulatory requirements, protect the environment, and ensure safety for responders and employees. Yet, all plans related to oil spills have one common thread: minimize the impacts!

Effective oil spill response plans can minimize the impacts associated with an oil spill. The objectives of these plans, regardless of type of facility, are to:

  • Allow response personnel to prepare for and safely respond to spills
  • Ensure an effective and efficient response that takes geographical challenges into account
  • Outline spill response procedures and techniques at specific locations
  • Improve regulatory compliance efforts
  • Identify potential equipment, manpower, and other resources necessary to implement a spill response

History has proven that a single oil spill can have significant impacts to the environment and the responsible party. Off-site spill responses and containment efforts present unique challenges compared with spills occurring within the confines of the facility or secondary containment. These migrating spills require a higher level of coordination, communication, and surveillance in an effort to minimize downstream impacts.

It is critical to identify and provide detailed information regarding area socio-economic and natural resources and vulnerabilities that may be damaged if a spill were to occur. This information should guide response personnel to make reasonable, well-informed response actions to protect public health and the environment. Detailed information of downstream vulnerabilities and applicable response procedures should be included in an oil spill or tactical response plan.

Spill surveillance should begin as soon as possible following the discovery of a release to determine the appropriate response tactics. One future option for surveillance is the use of commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or more commonly known as drones. The push for commercial use of drones is gaining momentum as affordable devices are increasing in popularity.  Currently, commercial use of drones are limited by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization and require the operator to have certified aircraft and pilots, as well as FAA operating approval.

The FAA is responsible for establishing a plan for “safe integration” of UAS by September 30, 2015. However, some reports have indicated that the integration plan deadline will be delayed due to privacy debates and various industry specific regulations. “The FAA is still developing regulations, policies, and standards that will cover a wide variety of UAS users, and expects to publish a proposed rule for small UAS (under 55 pounds) later this year.”

A few companies have been granted the FAA’s Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for UAS allowing for the limited use of commercial drones. In July 2014, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) joined the likes of ConocoPhillips and BP with limited permission to use drones.

Until regulations, best practice protocols, and authorizations are established for the commercial use of drones, standardize surveillance guidelines and best practices can continue to enable response personnel to assess spill size, movement, and potential impact locations.  These guidelines should be outlined in an oil spill response plan.

Below are guidelines that are routinely included in spill surveillance procedures:

  • Dispatch observers to crossings downstream or down gradient to determine the spill’s maximum reach potential.
  • During surveillance, travel beyond known impacted areas to check for additional oil spill sites.
  • Clearly describe the locations where oil is observed and the areas where no oil has been seen.
  • Educate personnel that clouds, shadows, sediment, floating organic matter, submerged sandbanks, or wind-induced patterns on the water may resemble an oil slick if viewed from a distance.
  • Use surface vessels to confirm the presence of any suspected oil slicks (if safe to do so); consider directing the vessels and photographing the vessels from the air, the latter to show their position and size relative to the slick. It may be difficult to adequately observe oil on the water surface from a boat, dock, or shoreline.
  • Spill surveillance is best accomplished through the use of helicopters or small planes; helicopters are preferred due to their superior visibility and maneuverability.
  • If fixed-wing planes are to be used, high-wing types provide better visibility than low-wing types.
  • All observations should be documented in writing and with photographs and/or videotapes; include the name and phone number of the person making the observations.
  • Describe the approximate dimensions of the oil slick based on available reference points (i.e. vessel, shoreline features, facilities); use the aircraft or vessel to traverse the length and width of the slick while timing each pass; calculate the approximate size and area of the slick by multiplying speed and time.
  • Record aerial observations on detailed maps, such as topographic maps.
  • In the event of reduced visibility, such as dense fog or cloud cover, boats may have to be used to patrol the area and document the location and movements of the spill; however, this method may not be safe if the spill involves a highly flammable product.
  • Surveillance is also required during spill response operations to gauge the effectiveness of response operations; to assist in locating skimmers; and assess the spill's size, movement, and impact.
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Tags: Tactical Response Planning, Crisis Mapping, Emergency Management, Crisis Management, Oil Spill