The US Coast Guard is primarily responsible for cleaning up oil spills, while NOAA experts provide scientific support to make smart decisions that protect people and the environment. There are different equipment and tactics that trained experts can use to contain or remove oil from the environment when a spill occurs. Booms are floating physical barriers to oil, which help keep it contained and away from sensitive areas, like beaches, mangroves, and wetlands. Skimmers are used off of boats and can “skim” oil from the sea surface. In situ burning, or setting fire to an oil slick, can burn the oil away at sea, and chemical dispersants can break up oil slicks from the surface.
However, cleanup activities can never remove 100% of the oil spilled, and scientists have to be careful that their actions don’t cause additional harm. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, scientists learned that high-pressure, hot-water hoses used to clean up beaches caused more damage than the oil alone. Sensitive habitats need extra consideration during oil spill cleanup.
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 established (among other things) that those responsible for oil spills can be held responsible to pay for cleanup and restoration. This process of assessing the impacts of a spill and reaching a settlement to fund restoration projects is called Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) . Federal, state, and tribal agencies work together with the party responsible for the oil spill throughout NRDA and select restoration projects with help from the public.
Working with partners from state, tribal, and federal agencies and industry, NOAA helps to recover funds from the parties responsible for the oil spill, usually through legal settlements. Over the last 30 years, NOAA has helped recover over $9 billion from those responsible for the oil spill to restore the ocean and Great Lakes.
After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, oil was mixed throughout the ocean and made its way to coastal and deep-sea sediments. British Petrol announced that they would provide $500 million to fund an independent research program that would study the impacts of the spill on the environment and public health. With this funding, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) was formed as a 10-year independent research program. GoMRI-funded studies have examined where the oil went after the spill and how the oil affected many types of marine life, including deep-sea coral ecosystems, seabirds, and jellyfish, to name just a few.
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