High-Tech Buoy System Tracks Galveston Bay Oil Spill

The Texas Automated Buoy System gathers data and provides real-time information that helps in oil spill preparedness and response.

by / March 28, 2014

Faced with removing 168,000 gallons of oil in Galveston Bay this week, technology is playing a key role in helping government officials in Texas clean the important waterway while helping protect wildlife and sensitive coastal lands in the region.

On Sunday, a barge containing about 900,000 gallons of oil collided with another ship in the busy Houston shipping channel. In several published reports, the oil was described as “heavy” and “tar-like.”
Key among the technology being used to track and contain the oil is the Texas Automated Buoy System (TABS), a coastal network of buoys designed to gather data and provide real-time information on surface currents and wind. The system is used specifically for oil spill preparedness and response.
“This system gives us enhanced modeling capacity and gives us a good indication of what the current is doing and where the spill is going,” said Steven Buschang, state scientific support coordinator and director of Research and Development with the Texas General Land Office (GLO). 
Maintained for GLO by Texas A&M University, TABS was developed more than a decade ago and is used to create trajectory models that predict the movement of oil spills across the Gulf of Mexico.

Under normal conditions, TABS buoys provide measurements every three hours and hourly during spill events; it is the only system in the United States to collect this information. Over the years, the buoys have helped track more than 50 spills.

Deploying the TABS Responder Buoy

As was reported by StateImpact, an NPR member station, the nine-buoy system isn’t perfect. When a spill occurs, they could be many miles from the incident location. To remedy this, A&M began working on buoys to quickly deploy right at or near a spill site.

 “We have something called a TABS responder buoy which is a quick response buoy which we designed and built just for an emergency such as this,” John Walpert, a senior research associate at Texas A&M’s Geochemical and Environmental Research Group, told StateImpact.
On Monday, March 24, A&M deployed one of the new, quick response buoys for the first time in an actual spill --12 miles off the western edge of Galveston Island, in the oil's direct path. 
“There are areas in a spill region that we want to protect,” said Buschang. “[TABS] allows us develop a response plan and place our booms very quickly where they are needed.”

Booms have long been used to contain the spread of an oil spill and are often used close to marshlands or wildlife habitats to protect these areas. The ability to know which direction oil is moving based on currents in the water allows for a more targeted response with boom placement, decreasing the threat of contamination to sensitive lands.

In addition to providing officials with water current data hourly during an oil spill event, TABS also includes a forecast modeling and analysis component that is updated daily by Texas A&M. This program keeps the Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) in constant operation and is a crucial component when working to contain and oil spill. 

Upgrading TABS

However, keeping TABS operating at a high level is an on-going issue for officials in Texas. A 2011 report written by John N. Walpert, Norman L. Guinasso Jr. and Linwood L. Lee of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University, and Robert Martin of the GLO, noted that keeping up with technological advances for a taxpayer funded program may prove to be a challenge

According to the report, the faced-paced technological world serves to obsolete electronic systems and components faster than in past years. As the fleet of buoys used in TABS ages, the need to update or replace the technology must be considered. One of the goals with TABS going forward will be to implement buoys that are small, versatile, low cost and solar powered.
In addition to using TABS to track where the oil is moving with the current spill in Galveston Bay, Buschang said other tools including the use of flares and infrared systems have been implemented to assist in the search for oil slicks, particularly at night. In the past, observations searching for oil slicks whether by sea or air were done only in daylight hours.
However, since other agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard are using these types of technologies and devices, he was unable to offer specifics. Coast Guard officials were not available for comment by press time. 
In addition, Buschang reported that researchers from the University of Texas are also on scene in the waters off southeastern Texas studying the use of microbes in helping deal with oil spills. 
While few details on the research ongoing with the Galveston Bay oil spill were available, a report in Science Daily said oil-degrading bacteria have been around for millions of years. Now, scientists are looking into ways to use bacteria to help clean oil spills. 
The report said that one focus has been on hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria, also known as marine obligate hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria. These bacteria are “specialists” at degrading hydrocarbons in marine ecosystems and are able to degrade hydrocarbons and use them as a source of energy.
Greg Sleter Contributing Writer

For more than 20 years, Greg Sleter has worked as a professional journalist holding positions in several editorial leadership roles on the print and digital sides of the business. He most recently was a Regional Editor with AOL’s Patch.com. Prior to his time at Patch, he spent a decade with ICD Publications in New York serving in lead editorial roles on HomeWorld Business and Hotel Business Design. Sleter also has expertise in digital journalism, social media, public relations and marketing.