Speeding Oil Spill Response

In October 1994, floodwaters ripped oil pipelines loose, spreading flaming oil down the San Jacinto river.

by / November 30, 1995
Spreading oil on troubled waters only compounds the environmental dangers.


PROBLEM/SITUATION: Rapid deployment and decision making is needed when responding to oil spills.
SOLUTION: GIS analysis.
JURISDICTION: Texas General Land Office, Oil Spill Prevention and Response Division.
CONTACT: Oil Spill Prevention and Response Division 512/475-1575.


By Brian Miller
Features Editor

In October 1994, the rain-swollen San Jacinto river near Houston ripped pipelines from its banks. Oil poured into the raging 12-knot current and ignited. Floating debris caught fire, so that boats trying to contain the spill could not get into position.

"There was flooding and burning, and all hell broke loose," said Dr. Robert Martin, a scientific coordinator with the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Division, part of the Texas General Land Office (GLO). "In the beginning, there was nothing we could do" except help flood victims evacuate from their homes. "We had to wait until things settled down."

After the storm, the river subsided, and GIS-generated maps were then
used to decide how to allocate people and equipment. "We used [the maps]
to plan the next day's activity," Martin said. "With the maps, we could see sensitive [wildlife] areas. It provides information we would not have otherwise."

The oil spill GIS is a GLO system with some 90 layers of data -- from Transportation Department road maps to Parks and Wildlife habitat data. The GIS began after oil spill prevention and response legislation was passed four years ago mandating an infrastructure to protect the Gulf Coast.

Accident response is the responsibility of the private sector. Oil companies operating in the Gulf have formed consortia and contracted with emergency service companies for booms, skimmers and other response equipment. Companies operating in the gulf file contingency plans with the state, and frequent drills are conducted to test effectiveness.

When mishaps occur, both emergency crews and government authorities are alerted. The contracted response teams usually arrive on the scene first because they are often located near transfer facilities.

State and federal authorities respond to spills as an equal partner with the responsible party under the unified command system using hard-copy maps generated by the GIS. Map features include location of the contractors, pipelines, types of shoreline and their ratings, and shipping channels. The maps -- usually 1:24,000 scale -- are used in the initial stage as a uniform planning tool for all decision makers. According to Martin, "The maps capture 80 percent of what we need to know on environmentally sensitive areas." Local biologists provide specific wildlife data -- such as if it is nesting season in the area.

Plants that intake water for cooling purposes are marked on the maps. Oily water often causes serious damage to cooling equipment, so when a spill occurs, such plants are alerted to close their gates.

"We need a first cut on what to protect first, and [a hard-copy map] helps us," Martin said. "Within a few minutes these maps help us to know what we need to protect." Once this is known, booms and skimmers are deployed to keep the oil away from priority areas.

Within a couple of days after the mishap, customized maps are generated. At that point, more detailed information and selected data can be combined to create maps for crews to use. While the initial hard-copy maps will indicate the environmental priority of coastline, the cleanup stage requires information on what type of shoreline is affected. This is because different techniques are needed for sandy or rocky coastlines.

The system, in use for over a year, has been continuously improved and updated. The state recently finished a $3.5 million project to inventory biological and other natural features of the coastal area to create baselines for identifying at-risk areas and quantifying damage in future spills. The inventory was done by several natural resources agencies, and data is stored by the GLO on the GIS. "It's important to contingency planning to do an inventory," Martin said.

The GLO has spent the last few years building the database for the GIS, which runs on workstations. Now, the office is turning its attention toward a PC system. The GIS was originally developed on ArcInfo from ESRI, and the office is now working with ArcView on PCs. Currently, maps are created in Austin during emergencies and flown to the coast.

But by moving the system to PCs, information can be stored and analyzed in Austin, then sent via T1 line to the coast, where users with PCs or printers could capture the maps as they are made. "We want to make the data more mobile," Martin said.