[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.

Aerial Photos Document Wetland Damage from Oil and Gas Activity

Source: https://healthygulf.org/201404072243/blog/storm-protection-/-coastal-issues/birds-eye-view-damning-photos-revealedTaken on a SouthWings flight over the Mississippi River Delta with Gulf Restoration Network, these photos by Jonathan Henderson link visible wetlands damage to specific permits that oil and gas companies obtained for drilling at these sites in coastal Louisiana.

Annotated aerial photo set available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/healthygulf/sets/72157643594038754/

The straight lines in this photo (right) are examples of the canals that oil and gas companies dredge through wetlands to access well sites. These artificial canals disrupt wetland hydrology and exacerbate or cause wetlands loss. A study conducted by the US Geological Survey found that oil and gas activities caused 36% of the coastal land loss that occurred in Louisiana from 1932 to 1990.

Read more about this from Jonathan Henderson here.

Bird’s Eye View: Nasty New Leaks , GRN Joins Forces

904blog   GRN has been engaged in systematic monitoring and reporting of oil pollution in the Gulf of  Mexico since April of 2010, with hundreds of field monitoring trips by air, sea and land. As such, GRN was invited to become a member of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) which we formally joined in January, 2013. The GMC is a rapid response alliance that collects, analyzes and publishes images and other information from space, sea and sky, to investigate and expose oil pollution incidents that occur in the Gulf of Mexico. Members of the GMC use satellite images and mapping, aerial reconnaissance and photography, on-the-water observation and sampling, and years of experience to identify, locate and track new and ongoing oil spills. Below you will find two sets of photos from recent monitoring trips.
The long-term goal of the GMC is to ensure that industry and government pollution reports are accurate, credible and understandable, so that the true state of oil pollution related to energy development is widely acknowledged and incorporated into public policy and decision-making. You can learn more about the GMC by visiting here.
The goal of the GMC comports well with GRN’s overall mission, to unite and empower people to protect and restore the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico. GRN’s vision is that the Gulf of Mexico will continue to be a natural, economic, and recreational resource that is central to the culture and heritage of five states and several nations.  The people of the region will be stewards of this vital but imperiled treasure, and assume the responsibility of returning the Gulf to its previous splendor. Yet, many challenges lie ahead.
The BP drilling disaster highlighted the dysfunctional process by which pollutant discharges are reported and cleaned up, and through which responsible parties are held accountable.  It revealed how the official channels of reporting and cleaning up pollution rely on the polluters themselves in an absurd sort of “honor system”. GRN alone has filed at least 50 reports of leaks and spills with the National Response Center since 2010, including at least a dozen in the last month alone.  Yet, there is very little transparency for the public to be made aware of responsive actions taken by the state and federal agencies charged with responding to these reports– another reason the Gulf is in desperate need of a Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

On our most recent flyover on March 6th, GRN and GMC partner, Southwings, observed several leaks of some sort. Our flight, piloted by Dick McGlaughlin, took us from Lakefront Airport in New Orleans to several locations both inshore and off. GRN filed 7 NRC reports*** from this flight alone, including several from the Breton Sound Area. You can see a slideshow of the photos below. After having filed the reports, I had an extensive back and forth with the United States Coast Guard and provided them with pertinent information including time, date, and GPS tagged photos. Sometime late that Saturday night, I received another call from the USCG thanking me and informing that they would be launching a helicopter the next morning at 7am to go and check on the leaks that I reported. Although wanting to personally get on that copter with the Coast Guard so I could personally show them what I had documented, I did feel somewhat good and reassured that something would be done to find and stop the leaks and ensure that the parties responsible would be held accountable.    Gmmmm

However, to my surprise, the following Monday I was informed that the USCG crew that went up was unable to find any of the leaks that I reported. This is frustrating if not infuriating because it was reported today that the apparent gas pipeline leak (pictured in the first slideshow) was spotted, documented and reported to the NRC a couple of days ago by On Wings of Care (OWOC). OWOC read the NRC reports I had filed previously and seen the pictures and took the opportunity to do a quick check on their way back inland after a separate flyover. So, if GRN and Southwings, and OWOC can find the same bubbling up leak one week apart, how did the Coast Guard miss it? The weather conditions on the morning of March 7th were perfect for aerial surveillance. This is precisely why the Gulf and the people of the Gulf need an independent, funded Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.








SLIDESHOW #1: Photos of leaks discovered on the March 2nd, 2013 GMC flyover.

GRN will keep you updated when we learn more from the Coast Guard, especially regarding the apparent ruptured gas pipeline. We are also following up with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources as they contacted me after having receiving the same NRC reports. It is somewhat refreshing to have been contacted by three different agencies regarding the reports, but the action they take against the responsible parties is what we will be looking for.

Finally, GRN has also been keenly interested in the ongoing impacts from the BP drilling disaster. Below are some photos from recent monitoring trips to Elmer’s Island  and Grand Isle. NRC reports*** were filed for these trips as well since thousands of tar balls were found littering those shorelines.

SLIDESHOW #2: Photos of recent (January 27th, February 5th, and February 27th, 2013) oil impacts on Elmer’s Island and Grand Isle, Louisiana.

***NRC Report #’s from the March 2nd flyover are as follows:

#1039891, #1039892, #1039893, #1038986, #1039897, #1039898, #1039900

***NRC Report #’s from Elmer’s Island and Grand Isle are as follows:

#1039632, #1039633, #1037731, #1036581, #1036586

Jonathan Henderson is the Coastal Resiliency Organizer for GRN.