NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Intern in Seattle with the Office of Response and Restoration

This is a post by OR&R staff Vicki Loe and Janet Matta.

Where would the world be without interns? (Answer: Still in the Stone Ages.) The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) is no different and has benefited greatly over the years from interns who assist our biologists, chemists, toxicologists, and communications staff. It gives students a great opportunity to learn about what we do on a day-to-day basis and develop proficiency in their field. Interns give us a fresh perspective on our work and enable us to tackle projects that could not be accomplished otherwise.

Mary Swift

Former OR&R communications intern Mary Swift. Credit: Mary Swift.

When Mary Swift started her editing internship with the OR&R communications team, her first large project was to convert more than 300 scientific papers on toxicity from a paper filing system to an electronic database, which the OR&R staff now regularly uses. However, by the time Mary left us almost five years ago, she had gained valuable experience editing many scientific papers and publications, meanwhile raising the quality of our work.

“As a NOAA communications intern during my undergraduate years,” said Swift, “I developed my writing and editing skills, which has helped me in every endeavor since then. The editing skills I developed at NOAA helped me get my next job at a nonprofit and get into law school at the University of Washington. At UW, I am one of the lead editors for the Washington Law Review, which made a big difference in attaining my judicial clerkship after graduation.”

Another OR&R intern, Maxim Levet, a student at University of California Berkeley, worked on legislative and constituent affairs (apply for the 2012 internship in DC, PDF) during the summer of 2011. “I was able to put my skills to good use and I learned something new every day,” he told us. “I would recommend this position to anybody with an interest in science, policy, or both.” Hoping to pursue a career in environmental policy, Maxim’s favorite part of interning was helping draft language for an agreement between NOAA and the oil and gas industry on sharing Arctic science.

Swift also reflected, “Working at NOAA cemented my commitment to public service and convinced me to dedicate my legal career to public interest.”

The role that internships play in connecting students with career possibilities in public service is critical to the continued development of our federal workforce. The Partnership for Public Service [leaves this blog] states that “at a time when our national government needs to fill about 100,000 mission-critical jobs a year, student internships provide the best means of assessing and bringing top young talent into public service.” In OR&R, this includes the importance of introducing students to the ways in which they can develop careers in the sciences, an area with a growing gap in workforce preparation.

Right now there is an opportunity for a college student to intern with OR&R’s spatial data team in Seattle, where they will incorporate Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill response photography into a an online photo management database and mapping application. For details on applying, read the position description [leaves this blog] or email Janet.Matta@noaa.gov.

Janet Matta

Janet Matta.

Janet Matta is the outreach coordinator for OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division’s Spatial Data Team. She works to tell the world about how maps can be used for spill response and restoration efforts.


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A DDT Legacy and the Road to Recovery in California

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr,NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

Effects of DDT on bird eggs.

On display at the National Museum of American History, you can see the effects of DDT on a bird egg (right). Credit: Kari Bluff, Creative Commons.

If you ask the earlier Baby Boomer generation about DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), they might recall images of this chemical being sprayed in their neighborhoods right where they were playing. DDT was first considered a wonder chemical by many for its use against disease-carrying insects and agricultural pests, prompting a Nobel Prize for its discovery. DDT was widely used as a pesticide beginning in the 1940s, until concerned biologists led by Rachel Carson, documented its harmful effects on birds, other wildlife, and possibly human health.  Another trait of DDT is that once released, it stays in the environment for a very long time.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally banned its use in 1972. However, releases of this chemical were widespread by the time it was banned.

The story in southern California, however, is a little different.  A DDT manufacturing company called the Montrose Chemical Corporation, located in Torrance, Calif., had a permit to release their DDT waste through an outfall pipe that led to the ocean nearby. Other factories in the area were manufacturing PCBs, another harmful chemical, and releasing their waste through the same outfall pipe at White Point.

Millions of pounds* later, local and federal governments determined that the release of these chemicals was a violation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation Liability Act (CERCLA), which is also known as Superfund. After 10 years of litigation and data collection, a settlement agreement was reached, and funds were made available to clean up the contamination site at the bottom of the ocean along Palos Verdes Shelf and to restore resources harmed from the pollution within the Southern California Bight.

One year after a settlement was reached, in 2001, the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP) was formed to oversee restoration of resources harmed by DDT and PCBs including Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, seabirds, fishing, and fish habitat. This year marks the 10 year anniversary for the restoration program, and there is plenty to celebrate. At www.montroserestoration.noaa.gov, you can find the program’s restoration accomplishments, photos, wildlife webcams, and the latest updates from the program’s trustee council. Relive some highlights of successful restoration milestones of the program over the last decade, and see what projects MSRP is proposing in the Draft Phase 2 Restoration Plan released for public comment this month.

A larger symbol of the hope for recovery here manifests itself in the film Return Flight: Restoring the Bald Eagle to the Channel Islands, directed by the Filmmakers Collaborative SF. This film captures the spirit of biologists, partners, volunteers, and concerned citizens working to secure a biological legacy for the Bald Eagle in southern California despite the chemical legacy of DDT.

You can watch the short film here:

*Correction: Previously, this incorrectly stated “hundreds of millions of tons,” not pounds, of PCBs and DDT waste.

Above photo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives license.

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr.

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.


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Oil No Longer Mixes With Water for Winners of the Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE

A major push for innovation in cleaning up oil spills has reached its conclusion:  The winners of the 2011 Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE have been announced [leaves this blog].

Office of Response and Restoration Director Dave Westerholm and the rest of the judging panel recently whittled down the pool of competitors for the $1.4 million in prizes in this summer’s contest at OHMSETT, the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey. The teams set out to show that their new inventions and processes were the fastest and most efficient means to recover oil from the surface of seawater.

Contestants had to more than double the industry’s previous best oil recovery rate tested in controlled conditions by exceeding 2,500 gallons per minute (with at least 70% efficiency of oil collected over water). The X PRIZE Foundation and the panel of judges selected the top ten teams, from a pool of 37, to compete during 10 weeks this past summer and fall. The ambitious targets were set to inspire breakthroughs in oil spill clean-up technology.

The $1 million first place winner was Elastec / American Marine, an Illinois-based manufacturer of oil spill and environmental equipment, for achieving 4,670 gallons per minute (at 89.5% efficiency). Team NOFI, from Norway, was awarded the second place prize of $300,000 for reaching 2,712 gallons per minute (at 83% efficiency). For more information, photos, and results of the competition, visit: http://www.iprizecleanoceans.org/ [leaves this blog].

Learn more about the winning technology from Elastec / American Marine in the video below:


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Seeking Oil Aboard Shipwrecks and the Sunken S/S Montebello

Historic photo of Montebello taking off.

The S/S Montebello underway.

Early on the morning of December 23, 1941—barely two weeks after Pearl Harbor—a Japanese submarine sank the S/S Montebello, an American oil tanker, off the central California coast. Seventy years later, the wreck of the Montebello still rests 900 feet beneath the sea just south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary [leaves this blog].

It’s one of the shipwrecks we’ve been investigating to make sure the oil still on the ship hasn’t leaked into the surrounding environment. No significant oil releases have been known to occur since it sank, and investigations in 1945, 1996, 2003, and 2010 have found the hull and cargo tanks to be intact. So the question remains, does the ship still carry the more than 3 million gallons of crude oil it was carrying when it went down?

ROV launch from M/V Nanuq to explore S/S Montebello.

The M/V Nanuq prepares to launch the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to conduct an underwater assessment of the S/S Montebello six miles off the Central California coast Oct. 12, 2011. Credit: California Dept. of Fish and Game.

For two and a half years, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and Office of National Marine Sanctuaries have assisted the U.S. Coast Guard and the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response in evaluating the Montebello’s potential pollution threat. Starting this month (Oct. 2011), NOAA will provide on-scene expertise [leaves this blog] in maritime history, biology, and scientific support to the Coast Guard as they assess the wreck’s condition with a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) [leaves this blog], determine the ship’s corrosion status, the volume of oil still on board, and the oil’s physical and chemical properties. Once the evaluation is complete, the Coast Guard hopes to better understand the pollution threat posed by the Montebello and then determine what, if any, mitigation actions might be necessary.

Staff in the control room monitor ROV activities.

MORRO BAY, Calif. - Global Diving & Salvage remotely operated vehicle technicans navigate the ROV around the sunken World War II tanker S.S. Montebello, Oct. 12, 2011. The ROV completed the initial visual inspection of the Montebello and found no possible hazards that could impede the mission going further. (NOAA - Robert Schwemmer)

Although navigation safety has improved dramatically in recent years, ships still sink, and the past century of commerce and warfare has left a legacy of thousands of sunken vessels along the U.S. coast. Some of these wrecks pose environmental threats because of hazardous cargoes, munitions, or bunker fuel oils left on board.

Unless they posed an immediate pollution threat or impeded navigation, most of these wrecks were left alone and largely forgotten unless they began to leak. Recent incidents, however, have heightened concerns about the potential environmental hazard posed by shipwrecks. In 2002, for example, the decaying wreck of S/S Jacob Luckenbach was identified as the source of mysterious, recurring oil spills that had killed thousands of seabirds and other marine life along California’s coast. My office joined with the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies to remove the approximately 100,000 gallons of oil remaining in the wreck.

I’ve been working to prioritize which shipwrecks in U.S. waters pose the greatest potential threat from oil on board (hopefully, before they leak). Where are these wrecks? What condition are they in? Are they intact? Did all the oil leak out when they first sank, or could they still hold oil like the Luckenbach?

Researching shipwrecks is fascinating. Every ship has a story and that story is partially revealed through the accounts of the survivors, old newspaper stories, insurance investigations, accident records, and cargo reports. Salvage reports and survey records from NOAA charts add to the picture, but these old documents provide incomplete clues. Sometimes these silent wrecks at the bottom of the sea end up keeping some secrets down there with them.


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Salvors: Unsung Environmental Protectors of the Sea

Marine salvors are a rugged and independent lot—more at home refloating ships, pumping oil, putting out fires, and dealing with other maritime emergencies, but this week hundreds of  professional salvors, spill responders, and marine fire fighters came to Washington, D.C., to participate in the National Maritime Salvage Conference and Expo. The annual conference is sponsored by the American Salvage Association, an alliance that focuses on salvage and firefighting response in North America.

Tug Gladiator and Cougar Ace ship on its side in Wide Bay.

In August 2006, the "Cougar Ace", a 654-foot ship transporting over 4,800 automobiles from Japan to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, nearly capsized in the North Pacific Ocean near the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. The ship had over 180,000 gallons of fuel onboard. Salvors managed to tow the vessel to Dutch Harbor and keep it from sinking and spilling its fuel. Credit: J. Brown, Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation.

I presented on NOAA’s work on derelict vessels and historic shipwrecks, and the conference included updates on federal legislation and regulations, case histories of recent salvage projects, and innovations in salvage engineering. But despite the suits and business attire, PowerPoint presentations, and conference venue, it was easy to recognize that this wasn’t a typical D.C. meeting. The presentations brought home the dramatic and often dangerous work that salvage firms conduct on a routine basis.

Historically, the role of the salvor was saving property (i.e., ships and cargo) lost at sea, but in recent years the focus has shifted to include environmental protection. For example, the tanker Exxon Valdez was loaded with over 40 million gallons of crude oil, and the salvage experts kept 30 million gallons on the ship and out of the environment. In many ship accidents, the salvors are the first line of defense against oil pollution—securing the source and keeping a bad situation from getting worse.


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Science at Sea and on Land: My Adventures with NOAA Corps

This is a post by NOAA Corps member ENS Alice Drury.

At a college job fair a few years ago, I initially breezed by an officer standing in uniform next to a NOAA Corps booth. I was close to graduating from the University of Washington, and as I walked around the campus job fair, I was looking for any position in the environmental field. However, I had not considered a uniformed service in any way.

Once I reached the other side of the room, I noticed that the officer in uniform was with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which both surprised me and sparked my interest—I didn’t realize NOAA had a uniformed service. I went back and chatted with the officer, beginning my journey with the NOAA Corps.

ENS Alice Drury.

ENS Alice Drury.

The more I found out about the NOAA Corps, the more excited I became about the organization. The NOAA Corps has an interesting history [leaves this blog]: It starts with Thomas Jefferson, who in 1807 signed a bill for the “Survey of the Coast,” spurring the creation of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.  Civilians, Coast and Geodetic Survey–commissioned officers, and military–commissioned officers worked together surveying and charting the nation’s waterways and shorelines. They also served the United States in several wars, both nationally and internationally, in a variety of positions that put to use their unique surveying skills.

NOAA Corps as it is today was established in 1970, when NOAA was formed. While many NOAA Corps officers serve with what is now the NOAA Office of Coast Survey, officers also operate the agency’s research and survey ships, pilot specialized aircraft, coordinate research projects, carry out diving operations, and serve in a number of other roles within NOAA. Officers start training at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York before being assigned to a NOAA research vessel for two to three years.

These days not all NOAA ships are hydrographic ships; the missions can range from oceanographic and marine mammal to fisheries and work on buoys or remotely operated vehicles (ROV). After an officer completes a sea assignment, officers rotate into land assignments, which are staff positions located within NOAA offices, such as the Office of Response and Restoration. After that, an officer is again assigned to a ship, rotating between sea and land assignments and assuming more responsibility with each assignment.

NOAA Ship McArthur II.

NOAA Ship McArthur II, where ENS Drury spent her first NOAA Corps assignment at sea. Credit: NOAA Marine Operations Center - Pacific.

After months of the NOAA Corps application process, I was thrilled to find out I had been accepted. When I explained why I was going to training, a lot of people I know asked me why I would ever want to go out to sea. Considering my background, that wasn’t such an unexpected question. Prior to the NOAA Corps, I had very little experience in the mariner’s world, but the prospect sounded exciting and rewarding: to drive a research vessel out to sea. What a wonderful combination of science, adventure, and hands-on operations!

I spent two years aboard NOAA Ship McArthur II and sailed to the tip of Baja Mexico, up to the Bering Sea, out to Hawaii, and through the Panama Canal to the Gulf of Mexico. I saw a lot during those two years that many people never get the chance to see, I met amazing people, and, perhaps most importantly, I learned how to operate a scientific ship.

Starting my first land assignment, I am now with the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) under the Emergency Response Division as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators. I sought out this assignment because I like the idea of assisting in emergency spill response and helping to mitigate damage in such situations. The results of decisions made during emergency response have great impact, and making sure the right scientific information gets to the people making these decisions seems like an interesting and important job.

I am still learning exactly what my new job entails and how OR&R is run. I will help the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinators (SSC) provide scientific and technical expertise on scene during spill response while also assisting with other emergency response projects here in Seattle.  I have already had the opportunity to attend a week-long National Preparedness Response Exercise Program in Ventura, Calif., with SSC Jordan Stout. That week helped me understand how everything fits together when dealing with an oil spill and what sort of information really becomes important during spill response. While it’s a big change from my time at sea, I am looking forward to my three years with OR&R and everything I will learn here.

ENS Alice Drury graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 and shortly thereafter joined the NOAA Corps. After Basic Officer Training Class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., ENS Drury was assigned to NOAA Ship McArthur II for two years. ENS Drury is now assigned as the Regional Response Officer in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. In that assignment she acts as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators.

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