The Blog Aquatic » Denny Takahashi Kelso http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Fri, 21 Nov 2014 18:20:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Exxon Valdez Oil Disaster 25 Years Later http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/03/23/exxon-valdez-oil-disaster-25-years-later/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/03/23/exxon-valdez-oil-disaster-25-years-later/#comments Sun, 23 Mar 2014 14:00:16 +0000 Denny Takahashi Kelso http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=7907

Photo: Valdez-Cordova Census Area County, Alaska/Creative Commons

On March 24, 1989, a few hours after the Exxon Valdez spill began, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper and I boarded the tanker. At the time I was serving as Alaska’s commissioner of environmental conservation. We flew on a single-engine floatplane from the town of Valdez to a cove near the tanker, hitched a ride on a Coast Guard boat, climbed a long rope ladder dangling from the deck, and found our way up to the bridge. From there, we could see that there was hardly any response activity underway.

After several hours, we flew back to Valdez, where we went directly into a community meeting—still wearing our oily boots—to report on what we had seen on the water. Already on the stage of the community hall were Exxon officials, who had arrived from Houston. The auditorium crackled with tension; the audience, including many fishermen—who for years had opposed the shipping of oil by tanker and who felt that their livelihoods were at stake—were angry and frightened. It reminded me that a big oil spill is always a human crisis, not just an environmental disaster.

Although much has been written about the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, here are some surprising facts.

Emergency decisions and orders. Prior to the spill, response requirements were weak. The governor had to declare a state of emergency before I could issue an emergency order substantially increasing the spill preparedness requirements for tankers operating from the oil terminal at Valdez—the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Spill experts from Norway arrived unexpectedly, and they worked with the state’s experts to hammer out details. We wrote the orders by hand in a makeshift office using a cardboard box as a table; and despite these primitive beginnings, many of the orders’ terms later were adopted as part of Alaska law.

Oil spill response plan abandoned. Exxon was legally in charge of the spill response, limiting other authorities’ ability to act. But Exxon didn’t carry out its preapproved oil spill response plan because the response barge was “out of service and unavailable for use.” As others have pointed out, even if it had responded, there were not enough skimmers and boom available to do an effective job. Exxon’s failed response made it clear that we needed a backup plan. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 for the first time enabled federal officials to direct the response in a major spill.

Volunteers and state agency staff put together their own cleanup: “The Mosquito Fleet.” Frustrated at the slow response, local residents joined with state agency employees to organize their own response using low-tech equipment, local knowledge and plenty of hard work. They based the operation on a borrowed ferry and secured a vacuum truck—dubbed “Miss Piggy.” Miss Piggy sucked up oil corralled by containment booms deployed from skiffs. The Mosquito Fleet successfully protected Sawmill Bay, 15 miles from the town of Valdez, and it stimulated changes in Exxon’s management of the response.

A small percentage of the oil was actually contained and removed. No more than 14 percent of the spilled oil was actually removed. According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, “[N]early 11 million gallons of oil spread slowly over open water during three days of flat calm seas. Despite the opportunity to skim the oil before it hit the shorelines, almost none was scooped up. … Dispersants were applied, but were determined to be ineffective because of prevailing conditions.”

Even with 22 years of response preparedness improvements, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that only 19 percent of the spilled oil following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was removed or was dispersed by chemicals.

Spilled oil has lingered for decades: According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, “oil persists in the environment and in places, is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill.”

This persistence was unexpected. Only through research conducted on the ground, long after the cleanup had ended, were scientists able to detect tens of thousands of gallons of persistent, toxic oil. “Beaches in the area are unique because of their composition and structure, and the lack of waves and winter storm action. This, along with the colder temperatures, is partly why oil has persisted and remained toxic here.”

Among the lessons is that the potential for long-term damage remains wherever oil persists after an oil spill, whether it is on the ocean bottom or in marshes, mangroves or other habitats that are not dynamic.

Effective restoration requires science-based planning and long-term science. Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez oil disaster, resources and ecosystems continue to recover; and we have a better understanding of spill response needs and challenges. Restoration following the spill demonstrated the importance of three key factors: comprehensive restoration planning, projects based on clear criteria and tested by independent review, and long-term, scientific monitoring to evaluate the effectiveness of restoration. Most of the affected organisms have recovered, some after a long struggle. Today, populations of only two species, pigeon guillemot and Pacific herring, are still listed as “not recovering.” Through scientific monitoring of their status and understanding the factors that may affect their recovery, changes in restoration methods or management tools may be implemented.

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Stop Reckless Drilling: A New Year’s Resolution for Our Ocean http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/01/14/stop-reckless-drilling-a-new-years-resolution-for-our-ocean/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/01/14/stop-reckless-drilling-a-new-years-resolution-for-our-ocean/#comments Mon, 14 Jan 2013 18:28:02 +0000 Denny Takahashi Kelso http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=4210

My latest Huffington Post piece calls for a New Year’s resolution that protects our ocean from reckless oil drilling. We’re two weeks into 2013, and Shell Oil has already made headlines with several missteps, including losing control of one of its Arctic drill rigs in the Gulf of Alaska.

How many strikes will Shell get before the Obama administration agrees to stop Arctic drilling operations at this time?  The latest failure on Shell’s part – violation of EPA air permits – is even more striking considering that Shell had proposed the more lenient permit levels, and even those levels didn’t suffice.  The Interior Department’s review of the 2012 drilling season should be thorough, comprehensive and objective; and until the results are made public, operations should not move forward.

As I highlight on Huffington Post:

The Arctic is an unforgiving environment, and oil companies like Shell are not in control. In light of Shell’s demonstrated inability to carry out safe, responsible Arctic operations, the Interior Department’s forthcoming assessment must be transparent, objective and comprehensive in scope — including a rigorous investigation of Shell’s drilling rig and oil spill response equipment failures.

Shell’s pattern of failures and near-misses demands an honest and thoughtful reconsideration of the company’s plans for the Arctic. We need a time-out on Arctic drilling until we have improved our understanding of the region, protected important ecological and subsistence areas, and developed effective methods to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic water.

Read the full story here.

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Restoring the Gulf of Mexico by Pointing Baby Turtles Back to Sea http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/10/12/restoring-the-gulf-of-mexico-by-pointing-baby-turtles-back-to-sea/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/10/12/restoring-the-gulf-of-mexico-by-pointing-baby-turtles-back-to-sea/#comments Fri, 12 Oct 2012 19:10:39 +0000 Denny Takahashi Kelso http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=3230 Have you heard that Coast Guard officials recently confirmed an oil slick found in the Gulf of Mexico last week matched oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Indeed, while the BP spill may be a distant memory to some, the Gulf still feels the effects today. The Coast Guard has said the oil slick “does not post a threat to the shoreline,” but it will certainly affect the Gulf’s offshore waters, which are just as vital to the region’s overall health.

In my latest Huffington Post piece, I weigh in on the threats this oil continues to pose in the Gulf and discuss the ways Ocean Conservancy continues to work toward marine restoration in this important area. One project helps point baby turtles back to sea:

Sea turtles are at sea for most of their life cycle, but they return to beaches in Texas, Alabama and Florida to lay their eggs. Although the Deepwater Horizon oil spill harmed turtles, we can help them recover by taking steps on the shore to protect their nesting habitats.

Bright lighting from beachfront residences, parks and piers may mislead hatchlings who may follow the bright lights and travel in the wrong direction, away from the water — with deadly results.

By retrofitting existing lights near beaches with lights that are dimmer or have filters or shields that help keep the beach dark, we can help more baby sea turtles reach their ocean habitat and have the chance of surviving to adulthood.

Efforts to protect sea turtle nesting habitats provide multiple benefits, including helping local economies that depend upon tourism. Read the whole piece on Huffington Post for more information.

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Building a Mosaic of Restoration Projects for the Gulf http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/07/19/building-a-mosaic-of-restoration-projects-for-the-gulf/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/07/19/building-a-mosaic-of-restoration-projects-for-the-gulf/#comments Thu, 19 Jul 2012 14:38:52 +0000 Denny Takahashi Kelso http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=1807 sea turtle mosaic

Credit: luxomedia flickr stream

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster harmed communities from Texas to Florida and damaged the Gulf ecosystem from the ocean floor to the surface across a vast swath of waters and shoreline. Restoring these damaged resources will require a comprehensive, Gulf-wide restoration plan that covers coastal environments, blue-water resources and Gulf communities.

Because wildlife like birds, fish and marine mammals move throughout the ecosystem making use of coastal, nearshore and offshore environments, effective restoration requires a holistic approach. For example, restoration efforts for oyster reefs or barrier islands in Texas should complement the work done in Alabama or in Florida so that the full suite of species and habitats can recover.

The state and federal officials responsible for creating such a plan, the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) Trustees, are making decisions about how to spend the balance of the $1 billion committed by BP for early restoration. The decisions they make about early restoration and about the longer-term restoration program to follow have the potential to pay enormous dividends to the Gulf for generations.

To help the Trustees build an effective plan, a coalition of nonprofit groups, including Ocean Conservancy, has created a portfolio of 39 projects that reflect an integrated and Gulf-wide approach to restoration.

No doubt, other projects could have been included, but the point is to start a conversation about how we collectively fulfill our vision of a healthy and prosperous Gulf. This portfolio is more than a mosaic of projects; it also initiates an ongoing dialogue about how to most effectively restore the damage to the Gulf from the BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

Here are a few examples from the portfolio:

  • Sea Turtle Nesting Beach Conservation: The five species of sea turtles found in the Gulf are all either endangered or threatened. This project would protect their nesting habitat and nearby waters as well as provide for rehabilitation and care of injured sea turtles.
  • Large-scale Seagrass Restoration and Protection: Seagrass beds are essential components of healthy, productive and biodiverse aquatic ecosystems. This project aims to restore those areas damaged by vessel traffic, boom placement and other response and recovery efforts in ecologically sensitive areas.
  • Monitoring Marine Mammals, Sea Turtles and Bluefin Tuna: Additional observation and biological sampling in the Gulf will help scientists understand any lingering oil-exposure effects on these species.
  • Oyster Reef Restoration: Rebuilding reefs for juvenile oysters to colonize also provides nursery habitat for fish and nesting area for birds while protecting shorelines from erosion.
  • Threatened Coral Recovery: Restoration of shallow-water corals will provide critical habitat for fishes and other reef inhabitants, improving the health and resilience of this unique reef community.
  • Rebuilding Marsh and Barrier Islands: Marsh areas provide nursery habitat and help prevent dead zones by absorbing excess nutrients; barrier islands provide critical habitat for nesting birds. By restoring these ecosystems, a wide range of Gulf species benefit.
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Define “Adequate” … Two Years After Deepwater Horizon http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/04/20/define-adequate/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/04/20/define-adequate/#comments Fri, 20 Apr 2012 19:00:58 +0000 Denny Takahashi Kelso http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=159 Boom and skimmers line the coast at Grand Isle, La., where workers clean up BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Credit: Cheryl Gerber

To mark the two-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, I wrote a piece for Huffington Post about the regulatory changes that still need to be made if we hope to avoid future tragedies like this one. I think one of the major problems with these regulations is an issue of semantics. In short, the oil industry, the Department of the Interior and the American people all have different definitions of the word “adequate.” Here’s an excerpt:

There is a fundamental disconnect here, and it suggests that we will repeat — rather than learn from — crucial mistakes that led up to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. When the oil industry and the Interior Department talk about “adequate spill response capacity,” they really mean the ability to mobilize oil containment and removal equipment and to make a substantial effort to get oil out of the water or off the shoreline.

But when a major oil spill occurs, the people who are in the path of the spill, as well as most of the rest of us, expect that “adequate spill response capacity” means the ability to contain and remove a large percentage of the spill — not just a good faith effort that cleans up a relatively small portion of the discharged oil.


Case in point: After both the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters, only about 8 percent of the spilled oil was recovered or burned at the surface. Even if we include the massive on-shore effort after the Exxon Valdez disaster, that number only increases to 14 percent. Fourteen percent! That’s hardly “adequate” in my opinion.

Clearly, our expectations do not align, which makes it all the more important that we have effective, redundant prevention measures in place. As I wrote in Huffington Post, “we’ve seen the movie more than once, and it’s time to write a different ending.”

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