The Long Blue Line: the Coast Guard’s environmental protection mission

By Written by William H. Thiesen Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

The Liberian-flagged tanker Argo Merchant sinks off the coast of Massachusetts in 1976. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
The Liberian-flagged tanker Argo Merchant sinks off the coast of Massachusetts in 1976. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The U.S. Coast Guard has been the steward of the nation’s maritime environment since 1822. That year, Congress tasked the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service with monitoring federal forest preserves that yielded specialized ship timber for building the U.S Navy’s wooden warships.

During the late 1800s, the service’s environmental mission expanded to protect endangered resources, including fish, whales and fur-bearing marine mammals. This became especially important with the acquisition of Alaska in 1867 and Hawaii in 1898 – the resulting expansion of U.S. territorial waters. Many species of fish and marine mammals in these waters faced extinction in the face of intensive fishing, whaling and sealing until the Department of the Treasury tasked the Coast Guard with regulating the catch of U.S. and foreign vessels.

An 1893 photograph of the 2,700-ton tanker Glückauf (meaning “good luck”) on the beach on Fire Island, Long Island, New York. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The 2,700-ton tanker Glückauf (meaning “good luck”) sits aground on Fire Island, Long Island, New York, in 1893. Public domain image.

The service’s mission expanded even further with the shipping of chemical cargoes late in the 19th century. Throughout the 1800s, coal proved the most important fuel cargo carried by merchant ships, but this solid fuel failed to pollute water, as did chemicals. In 1885, construction of the first purpose-built oil tanker Glückauf (German word for “good luck”) changed history by marking the demise of coal-dominated shipping. Ironically, the Glückauf also marked the beginning of U.S. oil spill history in 1893, when it came ashore at Fire Island, off of Long Island, New York. During the 20th century, oil and chemical shipping grew in importance and liquid petroleum products prevailed as ship fuel and cargo.

The Coast Guard’s role in oil and chemical spill response officially began in 1924, when Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act. After World War II, numerous high-profile oil spills occurred; most notable among these were the Torrey Canyon spill in 1967 and the Argo Merchant spill in 1976. With these large environmental disasters came greater regulation of oil tankers and improved technology for responding to chemical spills. At about the same time, Congress tasked the service with monitoring unauthorized substance discharge, enforcing ballast water regulations and ensuring that all commercial vessels met U.S. environmental safety and maintenance standards.

Picture of the tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989 after the vessel ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
The tanker Exxon Valdez sits aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989. The tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Oil spill occurrence seemed to reach its climax in 1989, when the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Price William Sound, Alaska. The resulting spill of 11 million gallons of crude oil was the largest spill in U.S. waters up to that time. The Exxon Valdez disaster led to passage of the Oil Protection Act of 1990 (OPA 90). The OPA 90 regulations included mandatory double-hull designs for new tanker construction and a new rapid response capability for the Coast Guard. Enforcement of OPA 90 regulations became the single largest law enforcement assignment of the Coast Guard since Prohibition and the interdiction of illegal liquor.

Coast Guard Falcon jet monitoring oil rigs set on fire during the Gulf War in 1990. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
A Coast Guard Falcon jet crew monitors oil rigs set on fire in 1990 during the Gulf War. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Even in times of war, the Coast Guard has engaged in protecting the environment. In February 1991, Iraqi forces sabotaged oil rigs in the Persian Gulf area causing fires and massive oil spills. Two Coast Guard HU-25A Falcon jets deployed for Saudi Arabia as part of a U.S. oil-spill assessment team. Two Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft joined them with spare parts and deployment packages. The Falcons mapped over 40,000 square miles locating “every drop of oil on the water” and provided daily-updated analysis of location, condition, and drift projections of the oil.

On April 20, 2010, an explosion rocked the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion resulted in the largest oil spill in U.S. history, releasing approximately 210 million gallons of crude oil. The Deepwater Horizon disaster dwarfed the volume of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez and equaled 90 percent of all the oil spills in U.S. waters recorded in the previous 40 years. As in all spill response efforts, the Coast Guard played a leading role in overseeing the containment and clean up of the  spill.

The service now supports five environmental protection missions. The first is prevention, by stopping pollution before it occurs with training, equipment and procedures. The second is enforcement through civil and criminal penalties for polluting or non-adherence to Coast Guard regulations. The third is surveillance through pollution over flights, vessel boardings, harbor patrols, fluid-transfer monitoring, and facility inspections. The fourth is response through cleanup and impact limitation of an oil or chemical discharge. The fifth is in-house abatement, ensuring that Coast Guard vessels and facilities comply with federal pollution laws and regulations.

An April 2010 photograph of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig after the explosion that set it on fire and caused a massive oil spill. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Vessel crews respond to the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig after an April 2010 explosion set it on fire and caused a massive oil spill. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

In addition to its oil and chemical spill response tasking, the service continues to protect U.S. fisheries through regular law enforcement patrols. The service has even undertaken the monitoring of airborne emissions by large marine vessels operating in U.S. waters. Under a new memorandum of understanding, the Coast Guard has partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency to inspect marine vessels and take appropriate actions in the event of emissions violations.

The Coast Guard has been a steward of the nation’s maritime environment for nearly 200 years. It has expanded and adapted its mission to ever-changing natural and man-made threats to the oceans and inland waterways.

Image Gallery

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CGD 24 Wainwright Unknown port; photo taken from quarterdeck of unnamed USCG cutter. Boston? Photo...
USCG patrol boats during Prohibition
"Coast Guard Destroyer Downes (From a Painting by the Destroyer Force Bugle Staff Artist, Marius...
"Ensign Roland making end run, Coast Guard-Marine game, Washington, D.C., 1929." Scanned from...
"1929 - Coast Guard Football Team - 1929. Back Row: -Lieut. Baker, Coast and Manager; Wineke,...
A photo of Coast Guard Destroyer CONYNGHAM on patrol during Prohibition.
Coast Guard Destroyer's baseball team (no date).
Hand-written caption on reverse of photo reads: "Officers and crew of CGC Beale (Navy destroyer...
Hand-written caption on reverse of photo reads: "R R Waesche Sr., CGC Snohomish, Port Angeles, or...
"BEALE (CG-9) (Of the old U.S. Coast Guard Destroyer Force - 1924-1930) An early 20th century...
"Engineroom Force of the Coast Guard Cutter PONTCHARTRAIN. 3-5-29 (1)." CCG Scrapbook (CG...
Copy photo found in the CG Historian's Office Special Collections Archive in the "Uniforms" folder....

U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office
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