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Mixing high tech into oil spill cleanup efforts

While oil spills happen regularly around the globe, cleanup efforts are still largely the province of industrial equipment and methods. Photos: What it takes to clean up an oil spill

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and you've been counting on high technology as the best hope for cleanup and recovery from the recent oil spill there, don't get your hopes up.

While major oil spills happen frequently all over the world, high tech really hasn't made much of an impact on the arduous task of cleaning up thousands or millions of gallons of toxic muck from oceans, bays, rivers, and other waterways. Or, for that matter, on the task of rescuing and rehabilitating the wildlife affected by these man-made disasters.

For the most part, spill response is still the province of industrial equipment and methods like skimmers, booms, absorbent materials, and even simply burning off excess oil.

Still, according to some experts, modern technology--including software, GPS devices, and other innovations--are increasingly being deployed as a way to identify where spilled oil has settled or to predict where it might go.

"Technology is being used more and more in the availability of real-time information about ," said Charlie Henry, the scientific support coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Gulf of Mexico region. "That definitely enhances our ability to forecast where the oil is going to go, and how we're going to do cleanup."

For example, Henry explained that in the aftermath of the November 7 Cosco Busan spill--in which 58,000 gallons of bunker oil leaked into the San Francisco Bay after a container ship rammed into the Bay Bridge--crews have been using combinations of GPS, digital photography, and handheld PDAs to document field information they've been gathering on oil accumulation.

And while the hard work of actually getting the oil off beaches and coastal rock formations is being done by heavy machinery and dedicated crews in protective clothing, Henry said the technology being employed helps the agencies involved in cleanup set priorities and work faster.

However, according one expert in the field, the implementation of new technologies when spills occur around the world may well be hampered by an institutional resistance to innovation.

"There's an old guard that (is) running the show," said Gerald Graham, president of World Ocean Consulting, a Victoria, B.C. firm developing spill scenario-planning software. "Some of them don't believe in the value of computer technology (or) information technology. They think it gets in the way."

To be sure, Graham--who frequently consults on spill cleanup operations--said software is often used for what is known as "trajectory analysis," or the prediction of where oil will go after a spill.

NOAA's Henry explained that cleanup agencies often use software called TAP (Trajectory Analysis Planner), which is used to help answer questions about spills based on known information about local conditions.

According to NOAA, TAP provides information about how a spill is likely to affect local shorelines; about how quickly a response must be launched to avoid massive local contamination; about where spills are likely to happen; and about how much response is necessary to deal with a spill when it does happen.

Of course, many of the features of software like TAP are useful only before a spill happens. And in the case of the recent Bay Area spill--which has killed hundreds of shorebirds and affected many other marine animals--the software didn't help prevent the spread of the oil to more than two dozen beaches.

In fact, according to Carlos Fonseca, an oil spill prevention specialist at the California Department of Fish and Game's spill prevention and response unit, while trajectory analysis software was used to gauge tide conditions after the Cosco Busan disaster, the bulk of the work has been very low-tech: helicopter and airplane flyovers looking for oil slicks.

The problem with that, said Graham, is that bunker oil quickly sinks below the surface of the water and can't be seen from the air.

And that may account for the thousands of gallons of oil in and around the San Francisco Bay region that are as yet unrecovered.

Particularly galling about the response to the Cosco Busan accident is that in August 2006, several agencies, including NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard, ran a response drill outside the Golden Gate. Yet when the ship hit the Bay Bridge, the Coast Guard bungled the response, delaying hours in informing local officials about the extent of the spill and potentially exacerbating the damage.

For his part, Graham said his company is developing scenario-planning software called Oscar (on-scene coordinator's adviser for responding to oil spills) that could help local agencies better prepare the type of necessary response when an accident does occur.

But the software has yet to hit the market.

For now, then, agencies tasked with dealing with oil spills are still turning largely to legacy equipment and a small selection of software tools to aid with cleanup.

To Graham, such a reliance on older tools means that the best chances for a quick and effective cleanup may be missed.

"If a spill happens somewhere, chances are a similar spill has already happened somewhere else," he said. "So why not take advantage of lessons already learned?"

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of World Ocean Consulting. It's located in Victoria, B.C.