In the midst of

increasing oil tanker

traffic along U.S.

coasts, Texas is

using new technology

to protect beaches,

wildlife and marine

resources against

oil spills.

On March 18, a barge carrying 17,000 barrels of oil buckled in heavy weather off the coast of Texas, spilling an estimated 5,000 barrels of fuel oil into Galveston Bay. To prevent the barge from breaking up further, the tow captain grounded it on nearby Bolivar Peninsula until the remaining cargo could be safely transferred to another vessel. The slick from the ruptured barge separated into two sections. North winds pushed the larger one out into the Gulf. The other came ashore at a nature preserve.

In Galveston, the Oil-Spill Response Division of the Texas General Land Office (TGLO) immediately mobilized a joint effort with the United States Coast Guard, the city of Galveston and Buffalo Marine Services Inc. (the responsible party) to begin cleanup operations. Within an hour of the spill, crews and equipment were removing oil-soaked sand from the beaches and setting thousands of feet of protective booms to minimize further impact on environmentally sensitive areas, marinas and yacht basins.

At the same time, computers at Texas A&M University's Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG) began querying the new Texas Automated Buoy System (TABS) via cellular phone for surface-current data in the general area of the slick. The data was processed into ASCII and PostScript files and sent to the

TABS home page on the Web , a site that also receives wind and weather data every two hours from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In Austin, TGLO computers downloaded the data from GERG and NOAA into a workstation running a continuous oil-spill modeling program. Within two hours of the spill, response planners had an accurate simulated trajectory of the offshore slick and a picture of the path it would take over the next 12 hours. After confirming the trajectory with Coast Guard overflights, TGLO directed skimming vessels and other resources directly to the slick. In less than a week, round-the-clock cleanup operations had reduced it to scattered tar balls, later collected by smaller inshore skimmers.

RESPONDING TO THE THREAT

As U.S. oil imports continue to rise, tanker traffic on the Gulf is increasing, and with it the potential for oil spills. According to GERG Research Scientist Frank Kelly, most of the oil coming into the United States now crosses the Gulf of Mexico. "The volume is huge. In 1995, 275 million barrels of oil -- equivalent to several hundred Exxon Valdez loads -- passed west of the Mississippi Delta. This year, it is expected to be 300 million."

With 370 miles of coastline -- much of it pristine beaches and nature preserves -- the state puts a high priority on spill-response capability. TGLO Scientific Support Coordinator Dr. Robert "Buzz" Martin explained how that priority is funded. "The Texas Legislature created the Coastal Protection Fund, which is supported by a two-cent-per-barrel fee on all crude-oil products moving through Texas ports. The fund is used to ensure that a cleanup operation will proceed in the event the spiller is unable to cover the cost, or the responsible party cannot be located. The fund is capped at $25 million, which means the per-barrel fee is suspended once the $25 million limit is achieved. If the fund falls below $14 million, the per-barrel fee is reinstated."

TABS

From the Coastal Protection Fund, the Legislature earmarks $1.25 million annually for TGLO oil-spill R&D. One of the most recent developments of the program is TABS. Designed and managed for TGLO by GERG, TABS is a network of six oceanographic monitoring buoys, positioned along shipping lanes and near oil platform clusters, 10 to 25 miles offshore. The buoys are designed to monitor and store data