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USCG: Stewards of the Sea



The U.S. Coast Guard’s responsibility to protect the nation’s national resources dates to the 1820s, and its statutory mission requirements – initially focused on resources of economic importance – have since expanded in recognition of Americans’ evolving sense of the value of their marine environment. Today, the Coast Guard is charged with protecting not just the most valuable marine species, but also the most vulnerable. The service is responsible for protecting the nation’s offshore energy and mineral resources, and for safeguarding waters from the discharge of pollutants. Coast Guard personnel are stewards of the sea itself.

The Coast Guard’s Marine Environmental Protection program develops and enforces regulations to protect U.S. waters from the discharge of oil, hazardous substances, and non-indigenous invasive species.

It’s a lot of ocean to cover: The 4.5-million-square-mile U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ, extending 200 miles outward from 95,000 miles of U.S. shoreline) is the largest in the world. The mission to protect it is multi-pronged, with Coast Guard activities including rule-making, educational outreach, surveillance, law enforcement, emergency response and containment, and disaster recovery. The service also provides critical command and control support to people responding to environmental disasters in the maritime domain.


Marine Environmental Protection

The Coast Guard’s Marine Environmental Protection program develops and enforces regulations to protect U.S. waters from the discharge of oil, hazardous substances, and non-indigenous invasive species.

The service’s role in preventing and responding to oil and chemical spills began in 1924, with passage of the first Oil Pollution Act, a law that was overhauled in 1990 after the supertanker Exxon Valdez grounded in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil – by far the largest spill in U.S. waters up to that time. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) assigned the Coast Guard law enforcement authority and – while placing the burden of planning and paying for spill response squarely on operators – gave the service a new rapid response capability.

Today much of the Coast Guard’s response expertise resides in the National Strike Force (NSF), headquartered at Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The NSF provides highly trained personnel and specialized equipment to the Coast Guard and other federal agencies to help them prepare for and respond to pollution incidents. More than 200 people work for the various components of the NSF: The National Strike Force Coordination Center and the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific Strike Teams.

The 21st century energy renaissance in North America, in which new technologies have allowed developers to access previously unreachable oil and gas deposits, has transformed the United States into the world’s largest producer of natural gas and crude oil. In the past four years, oil and natural gas transits on the Mississippi River have increased tenfold.

national marine sanctuary

The Obama administration has announced plans to designate as a national marine sanctuary an 875-square-mile area of Lake Michigan extending from Port Washington, Wisconsin, to Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The area contains an extraordinary collection of 39 known shipwrecks, including the schooner Home, which is one of the oldest shipwrecks discovered in the state. Photo by Tamara Thomsen, Wisconsin Historical Society

These transits often differ in the types and properties of hydrocarbons being shipped. The crude oil extracted from Canada’s Alberta tar sands is a semisolid bitumen that has to be diluted before it can be shipped; in a spill, it has to be recovered before it separates from its diluent, or it will sink like a rock. The shale oils of North Dakota’s Bakken and Texas’ Eagle Ford formations – lighter, lower-viscosity crude oils – behave more like gasoline, with high volatility and flammability.

In the past two years, the Gulf Strike Team has responded to several incidents – mostly involving trains, as the amount of oil being transported is beyond the capacity of the U.S. Marine Transportation System – that have produced valuable lessons learned for the Coast Guard and the response community. The first known spill of Bakken crude on the Mississippi River occurred in February 2014, when a tugboat/barge collision spilled more than 31,000 gallons 47 miles west of New Orleans. For more than 12 hours after the incident, the volatile organic compounds in the air around the spill exceeded the occupational exposure limit for responders.

According to Cmdr. Kevin Lynn, commanding officer of the Gulf Strike Team, the issue with such spills isn’t that responders lack experience: “We’ve dealt with highly volatile products in the past,” he said. “For example, gasoline is shipped all over the place by various modes of conveyance, and gasoline has high flammability and toxicity associated with it. But everybody knows gasoline is dangerous.” It’s important for responders to be prepared for crude oils that don’t behave in the same way as the more conventional oils that have been traditionally shipped throughout the U.S. Marine Transportation System.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...