NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


A Train Derails in Paulsboro, N.J., Releasing 23,000 Gallons of Toxic Vinyl Chloride Gas

Seven train cars derailed when the bridge over the Mantua Creek collapsed Friday morning. Four tank cars containing vinyl chloride were dumped into the creek. Nearby residents were evacuated and schools were locked down. Nearly 20 people complained of respiratory distress from the vinyl chloride vapor that leaked from the tank cars. (Photo: Rae Lynn Stevenson/South Jersey Times. All rights reserved.)

Seven train cars derailed when the bridge over the Mantua Creek collapsed Friday morning. Four tank cars containing vinyl chloride were dumped into the creek. Nearby residents were evacuated and schools were locked down. Nearly 20 people complained of respiratory distress from the vinyl chloride vapor that leaked from the tank cars. (Photo: Rae Lynn Stevenson/South Jersey Times. All rights reserved.)

UPDATED DECEMBER 7, 2012 — On November 30, 2012, a train transporting the chemical vinyl chloride derailed while crossing a bridge that collapsed over Mantua Creek, in Paulsboro, N.J., near Philadelphia. Four rail cars fell into the creek, breaching one tank and releasing approximately 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride.

Local, state, and federal emergency personnel responded on scene. A voluntary evacuation zone was established for the area, and nearby schools were ordered to immediately take shelter and seal off their buildings.

Overview of the overturned train cars carrying vinyl chloride

A detailed overview of the overturned train cars carrying vinyl chloride in New Jersey’s Mantua Creek. The rail car in the foreground is being used as an anchor to stabilize the derailed cars. (Conrail Derailment Incident Command)

Vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastics, adhesives, and other chemicals, is a toxic gas. During this accident, most of the chemical was released directly to the air, and response teams are still determining how much might have dissolved in the creek’s waters, which feed into the Delaware River.

U.S. Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay contacted NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) and requested scientific support for this environmental and public health threat.

The OR&R scientific support team worked to address early concerns about the air hazard, centering around possible health effects, evacuation decisions, proper protective equipment for responders, impacts to the Philadelphia airport two miles away, and reactivity between vinyl chloride and another rail car containing ethyl alcohol.

OR&R develops software products responders use to address these issues: ALOHA, an air dispersion model, and CAMEO Chemicals, a hazardous material database.

OR&R had a Scientific Support Coordinator (SSC) at the scene of the spill to work with the Coast Guard as they attempted to salvage the derailed cars from the creek and collapsed bridge. While the SSC departed on Dec. 6, a NOAA incident meteorologist remains at the incident command post to provide custom weather forecasts for the affected area, for air monitoring and to identify safe operating conditions for the crane work and other salvage operations.

OR&R’s Emergency Response Division remains involved from NOAA’s Seattle offices, where they are investigating potential problems which might occur if vinyl chloride accidentally is discharged into the water as salvage operations continue.

In addition, two scientists from NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) have been dispatched to Paulsboro to deploy a current meter and forecast the tides specifically for Mantua Creek (which is driven by tidal flows) to schedule safe crane and dive operations. To help the National Transport Safety Board’s investigation into this incident, CO-OPs scientists also will recreate the tidal cycle conditions during the time of the incident.

Removing the derailed train cars is a logistically complicated process. The Coast Guard coordinated the removal of the last 600 gallons of vinyl chloride from the breached tank by using acetone and suctioning out the vapors before attempting to move the tank. Next, the response team is bringing in cranes and barges to remove the rail cars and bridge debris from Mantua Creek.

The evacuations have ended and families slowly are returning to their homes near the creek. The process has been slow because each family is accompanied by a police officer and an air monitor, who goes into the home first to check for the presence of vinyl chloride before allowing families inside.

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The Western Flyer: A Sunken Piece of Literary History Is Raised from the Depths

By Office of Response and Restoration Scientific Support Coordinator LTJG Alice Drury and National Marine Fisheries Service Senior Scientist Kevin Bailey

Alice Drury: It was lunchtime on September 24, 2012, when I got the call from the U.S. Coast Guard. It involved a sinking boat, some spilled oil, and author John Steinbeck. But I wouldn’t discover this last bit until later.

The F/V Gemini, which turned out to be the F/V Western Flyer, after it was raised from the Swinomish Channel in Washington.

The F/V Gemini, which turned out to be the F/V Western Flyer chartered by John Steinbeck, after it was raised from the Swinomish Channel in Washington in October 2012. Photo used with permission from Capt. Richard Rodriguez, Rights Reserved.

First, I learned that the F/V Gemini, an old fishing boat moored in Washington’s Puget Sound, had sunk directly underneath the Twin Bridges in Swinomish Channel. On its way down, the vessel was slowly leaking diesel. The leak was slow enough and the oily sheen on the surface of the water was so light that the spilled oil was unrecoverable.

Because the water isn’t very deep in that area, the upper portions of the sunken boat were visible above the water. Responders very quickly surrounded the boat with protective boom to contain the leak.

I worked with the oceanographers and biologists in my office to provide scientific support not only for this situation but also the worst-case, “what-if” scenario—in case something goes wrong and all of the Gemini’s fuel spilled into the surrounding waters.

Fortunately later that afternoon, divers succeeded in pumping the remaining fuel off the Gemini, and the response team was coordinating with the owner to raise the vessel from the channel’s bottom.

But it wasn’t until that evening that I noticed in a report the boat was actually named the F/V Western Flyer, not the F/V Gemini, which was only a modern nickname. This led to very interesting—and unexpected—lesson on the history and literature of this creaky wooden boat sunk in the Swinomish Channel.

That’s when NOAA fisheries scientist and budding ship biographer Kevin Bailey—and John Steinbeck—entered the picture.

Kevin Bailey: The day the Western Flyer sank, I was visiting the Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, Calif., the boat’s old home in another life. I was there to research a book I am writing about the Flyer and was talking with Tim Thomas, the Sardine Guy, who gives walking tours of the harbor and Cannery Row. I learned about the sinking a few days later when a friend forwarded me a notice linked to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration IncidentNews website.

The Western Flyer is a porthole to the marine environmental history of the northeast Pacific Ocean. Constructed in Tacoma, Wash., in 1937, this wooden-hulled purse seiner lived several lives—surveying in Alaska, fishing for tuna off La Paz, Mexico, seining for sardines near Monterey, Calif.—before it entered literary history as well.

Travels with Steinbeck

Map of the route around the Gulf of California which John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts took aboard the F/V Western Flyer.

The route around the Gulf of California which John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts took aboard the F/V Western Flyer in 1940. Credit: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

In 1940, only a few years after publishing Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, writer John Steinbeck, along with his good friend marine biologist Ed Ricketts, chartered the Western Flyer out of Monterey for $2,500. They were preparing for a six week research cruise to the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California.

While the Monterey newspaper characterized the group as “perhaps the strangest crew ever assigned aboard a local work boat,” Steinbeck and company managed to sample the marine life while carousing their way down the coast of Baja California into the Gulf of California and back again.

This voyage was made famous in Steinbeck and Ricketts’ book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, the republished narrative of a less successful earlier account and which serves as both a travel log of the trip and a look into Ricketts’ influence on Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s experience on the Western Flyer led him to create elements of his later works, including Cannery Row and The Pearl.

Life after the Sea of Cortez

After Steinbeck and Ricketts’ voyage, the Western Flyer would make its way back to the Pacific Northwest, changing hands several times and taking new shape as a fishing trawler. It would haul tens of thousands of pounds of Pacific Ocean perch, a fish known to live up to a hundred years. It would spend the early 1960s surveying more than 20,000 square miles along British Columbia and Alaska in the most extensive fishery survey of that coast up to that time. It would head to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where it would seek out red king crab, with a cook on board who would later turn out to be the father of a character on Deadliest Catch, a TV series about Alaska king crab fishing.

In 1970, the boat’s owner at the time had a penchant for the NASA space missions, renaming the vessel the Gemini. After changing ownership several times again between 1971 and 2010, the Gemini finally ended up in Washington’s Swinomish Slough under the Twin Bridges on State Route 20, where it’s been sitting since 1997, next to the Swinomish Casino and Lodge.

The cover of John Steinbeck's "The Log of the Sea of Cortez," the book written about Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts' expedition on the F/V Western Flyer in 1940.

The cover of John Steinbeck’s “The Log of the Sea of Cortez,” the book written about Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts’ expedition on the F/V Western Flyer in 1940.

The Gemini/Western Flyer’s most recent owner is an Irish immigrant, a real estate developer living in Key West, Fla. He owns several downtown buildings in John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, Calif. When he bought the boat in 2010, he had a plan to restore the Western Flyer, somehow get the boat down to Salinas, and park it inside one of the buildings as part of the decor of a restaurant and boutique hotel.

A Not-so-final Resting Place

Meanwhile, the boat sat idle for nearly two years—until it sank this past September. The owner told me the boat sank quickly to the bottom because a couple of planks had given way.

I watched a crew refloat the boat at the beginning of October. It seemed hesitant to rise off the bottom where it had rested in the soft mud of the Swinomish Channel for two weeks. But finally the workers succeeded in lifting the vessel, pumping the water out, and putting a temporary patch over the hole.

The owner is sincere about his plan to restore the boat in some fashion, but because of the damage from neglect and sinking, it is going to be an expensive venture, maybe exceeding $600,000.  There’s a nonprofit group called the Western Flyer Project that wants to bring the ship back to Monterey for restoration, but they don’t have the resources to do it right now. We’ll have to wait and see what happens to this historic cultural icon, as it continues its rise from the depths.

Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury.

LTJG 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., LTJG Drury was assigned to NOAA Ship McArthur II for two years. LTJG 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.

Kevin Bailey

Kevin Bailey

Kevin McLean Bailey grew up in the hometown of John Steinbeck, Salinas, Calif. He started his career as a marine fisheries biologist and ecologist in 1974 after graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He later obtained his PhD from the University of Washington. He is a Senior Scientist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. His book on the Alaska pollock fishery, Billion Dollar Fish, is to be published in April 2013 by University of Chicago Press. He is currently writing a book on the Western Flyer and the environmental history of the west coast.

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Submit Your Comments: Projects to Improve Bird and Sea Turtle Nesting Habitats Injured in Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill

A hatchling loggerhead sea turtle takes to the beach.

A hatchling loggerhead sea turtle takes to the beach on Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. One proposed project focuses on reducing artificial lighting impacts on nesting habitat for these sea turtles. (Paul Tritak/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The public has until December 10, 2012, to submit comments on $9 million in early restoration projects [PDF] related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

This draft early restoration plan includes two projects aimed at restoring injuries to bird and sea turtle nesting habitats around the Gulf of Mexico. In the wake of the 2010 well blowout, the pollution response operations disturbed these sensitive habitats.

The natural resource trustees, including NOAA, hope to have the habitat improvements in place for the spring 2013 nesting season.

Part of BP’s $1 billion funding for early restoration in the Gulf, this second round of projects includes the following proposals:

  • A comprehensive program for enhanced management of avian (bird) breeding habitat injuries by response in the Florida panhandle, Alabama and Mississippi. This project proposes to protect nesting habitat for beach-nesting birds from disturbance in order to restore habitat impaired by disturbance from oil spill response activities. It is to be conducted on sandy beaches in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, and Franklin counties, Florida; Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Baldwin and Mobile counties, Alabama, and the Gulf Islands National Seashore (GUIS) – Mississippi District.
  • Improving habitat injured by spill response: Restoring the night sky. This project proposes to reduce artificial lighting impacts on nesting habitat for sea turtles, specifically loggerhead turtles, to restore habitat impaired by disturbance from oil spill response activities. It is to be conducted on sandy beach public properties in Baldwin County, Alabama; and Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, and Franklin counties, Florida.

You can submit your comments on these projects in the following ways:

The trustees considered projects based on criteria laid out in federal and state regulations and in the agreement with BP. This is the second in a series of draft early restoration plans developed outlining projects agreed to by the trustees and BP and presented for public input. These draft plans will be finalized to ultimately form a Final Early Restoration Plan.

To access both Phase I and II  Draft Early Restoration Plans and Environmental Reviews, as well as additional details on the proposed projects, please visit NOAA’s Gulf Spill Restoration website.

The long-term damage assessment will continue while early restoration planning is under way. BP and the other responsible parties ultimately will be obligated to compensate the public for the entire injury and all costs of the natural resource damage assessment.

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Study Reveals D.C. Community near Anacostia River Are Eating and Sharing Contaminated Fish

A family fishes on the Anacostia River near Washington, D.C.

A family fishes on Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River. According to a 2012 report, 74 percent of those fishing this river are eating or sharing fish possibly contaminated by cancer-causing chemical pollutants. Credit: Rebecca Harlan/All rights reserved.

An extensive study partly funded by NOAA has found that nearly half of the people living near Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River are unaware of the dangers of eating its fish. The results are prompting a reexamination of how to communicate these important public health risks to a diverse, multilingual, and urban community.

The report uncovered further evidence that many local fishermen—who were disproportionately African American, Latino, or Asian—are catching, eating, and sharing potentially contaminated fish with family, friends, and others, greatly expanding the possible long-term health risks to the public. The study estimated some 17,000 people living near the Anacostia could be eating these polluted fish.

“Our research confirmed that contaminated fish are, indeed, being shared in the community,” said Steve Raabe of OpinionWorks, the company that did the survey. “What we could not have known, prior to embarking upon this effort, is the extent to which this sharing happens and the complex set of factors that drive it.”

Sign with a clean fish warning about possible pollutants inside.

When shown this ad during interviews with Anacostia River fishermen, one respondent answered, “This (ad) makes you just want to grill it!” This demonstrated “how difficult it is to break through to this audience with a message about unseen contaminants,” such as PCBs. (Addressing the Risk 2012 report)

A Dirty History

The Anacostia River, which runs through Maryland and the District of Columbia, has suffered from decades of pollution, mainly from runoff and hazardous waste sites. NOAA has been partnering to evaluate, clean up, and restore the Anacostia watershed since the late 1990s.

One of the most notable chemical pollutants in the river is polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have immune, reproductive, endocrine, and neurological effects, and may cause cancer and affect children’s cognitive development. This and other chemicals build up in the river bottom, where they make their way up the food chain and become stored in the tissues of fish, posing a health threat if people consume them.

Even though the District of Columbia and Maryland have been issuing warnings about eating Anacostia River fish for more than twenty years, the majority of fishermen and community members surveyed were not aware of these advisories. While both governments tell the public not to eat any channel catfish or carp, this report exposed that these are some of the most commonly caught fish in the river.

Furthermore, over half the fishermen reported that “knowing about such a health advisory” would not change whether or how they ate their catch. Researchers found at least two misunderstandings playing into this. One was the fishermen’s mistaken belief that they would be able to see contamination on the outside of the fish. Another was their assumption that getting “sick” from the fish would be immediate, in the form of food poisoning, instead of a future risk of cancer.

Hungry Now or Sick Later?

A particularly surprising result from the study was that fishermen along the Anacostia River often are approached by people who ask them to share fish because they do not have enough food.

Warning sign reading: Danger: Eating fish from this river may cause cancer.

Researchers found that this kind of direct messaging got the attention of those fishing on the Anacostia River. But simply improving warning signs may not be enough to address the root of the problem. (Addressing the Risk 2012 report)

“They will ride around in their cars and look to see if we’re catching fish and ride up and ask, ‘Have you caught anything today? Are you going to keep them?'” said one Anacostia fisherman interviewed during the study about sharing his catch with those lacking food.

The community’s apparent lack of access to enough affordable food complicates the task of merely delivering a better message about health risks.

“The answer to this problem will be far more complex than simply telling anglers not to share their catch,” said Raabe. “How can you tell someone who is hungry today not to eat fish that may pose future health risks?”

With almost three-quarters of fishermen eating or sharing the fish they catch, those involved in the study are looking at a broad range of possible fixes to this complex problem:

  • Improving health-risk messages to those most affected.
  • Creating more and better opportunities for education, such as fishing tournaments.
  • Introducing healthier alternative protein options to the community, through aquaponics (“a farming technique that grows plants and fish in a recirculating environment”) and local fish subscription services (akin to community supported agriculture programs).
  • Increasing the amount of city food gardens and farmers markets in the area.

Along with NOAA, the following organizations were involved in this study: Anacostia Watershed Society, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Anacostia Riverkeeper, District Government, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

You can download the complete report at, read about ways to reduce exposure to chemical contaminants when eating fish, and learn about efforts to cleanup and restore the Anacostia.

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NOAA Prepared to Deal with Longer-Term Pollution Impacts after Hurricane Sandy

A response team oversees the removal of a sunken boat that was discharging oil.

On November 15, 2012, a Hurricane Sandy response team oversees the removal of a sunken boat that was discharging oil off of Staten Island, N.Y. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Weeks after Hurricane Sandy roared across the East Coast, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration still has several personnel on scene at the pollution response command post on Staten Island, N.Y. We are working to assess and reduce the remaining environmental impacts from the oil spills, debris, and subsequent cleanup in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

At this point, our Scientific Support Coordinators are still participating in aerial surveys of the areas affected by oil spills and debris scattered throughout the waters in and around New Jersey and New York. They have been providing guidance on reducing environmental impacts to sensitive habitats during the recovery of freight containers which may contain hazardous materials, large fuel tanks, and large debris, such as a large pleasure craft grounded in coastal wetlands. In addition, they continue to coordinate with the Coast Guard and state environmental officials to establish when it is appropriate to transition from active oil recovery operations, which might involve cleanup workers pumping oil out of the water, to passive cleanup (using absorbent materials) with monitoring.

Our GIS specialists also remain at the command post, managing response data in the web-based data mapping tool, ERMA®. This team has been working with other NOAA offices to display in ERMA post-storm data such as the National Geodetic Survey aerial imagery and Office of the Coast Survey side scan sonar results. Throughout the pollution response, they have been training responders in the command post to use ERMA and providing technical support, for example, improving the organization and flow of data into the application. They also have been working with other government agencies, including EPA, FEMA, and the states of New York and New Jersey, to obtain and share data for the response.

Containment boom surrounds the oil and debris released from tanks at the Phillips 66 Refinery.

Containment boom surrounds the oil and debris released from tanks at the Phillips 66 Refinery in Linden, N.J., on November 12, 2012. (NOAA)

In the week after the storm, NOAA’s damage assessment staff began collecting data on impacts to natural resources, especially affected coastal habitats, and coordinating with state and federal co-trustees to determine whether to pursue a natural resource damage assessment and implement environmental restoration. They, along with representatives from New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Motiva, performed land and boat surveys of affected sites, including several creeks in New Jersey and New York possibly oiled by the Motiva Refinery spill in Sewaren, N.J.

Currently, this team of federal and state trustees is investigating reports of oiled wildlife and habitats in the area of the oil spilled at the Phillips 66 Refinery in Linden, N.J. Our NOAA damage assessment experts use reports from our responders’ aerial surveys to target which creeks and wetland areas to survey for injuries.

Recovery after hurricanes such as Sandy can take a very long time, and our office likely will be active in the efforts to promote environmental recovery in the months to come.

Stay tuned for more photos, maps, and updates on the pollution-related response efforts at IncidentNews.

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NOAA Awards $500,000 to Research Projects Exploring Impacts of Chemical Dispersants on Marine Habitats

Female blue crab on a beach.

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Baltimore, Md., has been awarded $150,000 to study the effects of dispersants and dispersed oil on the commercially important blue crab, a keystone species of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coast, and its larvae. A female blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) is pictured here on a beach on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. (NOAA)

Earlier this year I wrote about NOAA making funding available to study the effects of chemical dispersants on the marine environment.  NOAA partnered with the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire to make a formal call for research project proposals.

We received 36 proposals from researchers and universities across the U.S. and Canada and even a few from scientists in Europe. Those proposals were peer-reviewed this past summer and early fall, and while there were lots of great proposals, only three research projects could be selected for funding.

We’re pleased to announce that NOAA will provide grants, totaling $500,000, to the following studies [PDF], which will focus on:

  • Developing a worldwide quantitative database of the toxicological effects of dispersants and chemically dispersed oil.
  • Conducting research to improve understanding of chronic impacts of chemical dispersant and chemically dispersed oil on blue crabs, a commercially important species of marine life.
  • Researching public concerns and improving risk communication tools for oil spills and dispersants.

Over the next year we’ll get progress reports from the researchers, and all of the materials will be available online at the University of New Hampshire’s website.

Congress provided money for these grants out of supplemental research funding following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

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Latest Winter Storm Slows But Does Not Worsen Post-Hurricane Sandy Cleanup

Map view of potential storm surge from nor'easter over Hurricane Sandy's actual.

Protective boom is placed to prevent floating oil from further reaching a cemetery near the Phillips 66 Refinery in Linden, New Jersey. (NOAA)

In anticipation of the winter storm which came on the heels of Hurricane Sandy, spill response teams based on New York’s Staten Island temporarily closed down operations November 7. The following day, they resumed hazardous spill response activities with little fallout from the storm’s strong winds and heavy snows.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is continuing aerial surveys of Arthur Kill, the waterway spanning New Jersey and New York which experienced several hazardous spills in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. These surveys serve as reconnaissance for responders managing the oil spill cleanup.

Major response operations for the diesel spilled at the Motiva Refinery in Sewarren, N.J., are beginning to wind down, while cleanup of the biodiesel spilled at the Kinder Morgan terminal in Carteret, N.J., is nearly complete. At the site of a spill at the Phillips 66 Refinery in Linden, N.J., plenty of heavy waste oil remains to be cleaned up. Despite initial concerns, this week’s nor’easter storm did not wash any of the oil trapped on shore at the Phillips 66 Refinery into the Arthur Kill waterway.

In order to prevent further pollution from the many damaged or displaced vehicles, vessels, and tanks in the area, Coast Guard responders are starting to post pollution notices on those items which could contain oil or hazardous materials.

“Because these damaged tanks and vessels threaten both the marine environment and public health, we want to work quickly to identify the owners and reduce negative impact,” Coast Guard Cmdr. Eric Doucette, Federal On Scene Coordinator for the pollution response said in a press release November 9.

Map view of potential storm surge from nor'easter over Hurricane Sandy's actual.

A view of Atlantic ERMA showing potential storm surge from the nor’easter (teal) layered over the actual boundaries of Hurricane Sandy storm surge (blue) in Arthur Kill, New Jersey/New York. (NOAA)

To help manage the slew of environmental and response information for the Hurricane Sandy response, both NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard are using ERMA® (Environmental Response Management Application), a web-based GIS tool. NOAA staff at the Staten Island, N.Y., command post are loading response data such as post-hurricane satellite imagery, storm surge coverage, field team aerial survey photos, and pollution locations.

They are also working with other agencies, including EPA, FEMA, and the states of New York and New Jersey, to obtain and share data. Having this information in ERMA helps responders in the command post, as well as those not present on scene, to visualize the response operations and aids in making decisions about the response.

Stay tuned for more photos, maps, and updates on the pollution-related response efforts at IncidentNews.

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Eyes in the Sky to Boots on the Ground: Three Powerful Tools for Restoring the Gulf of Mexico

Volunteers. The Internet. Remote sensing. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been using all three to deal with the environmental aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At Restore America’s Estuaries’ recent conference on coastal restoration [PDF], three of my colleagues showed how each of these elements has become a tool to boost restoration efforts in the Gulf.

Managing Data

OR&R scientist George Graettinger explained how responders can use remote sensing technology to assess damage after a major polluting event, such as the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill. He has helped develop tools that allow both Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists and responders to visualize and manage the onslaught of data flooding in during an environmental disaster and turn that into useful information for restoration.

Here, the ERMA Gulf Response application displays information gathered by SAR remote sensing technology to locate oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident.

Here, the ERMA Gulf Response application displays information gathered by SAR remote sensing technology to locate oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

The principle tool for this work is OR&R’s ERMA, an online mapping platform for gathering and displaying environmental and response data. During the Deepwater Horizon response, ERMA pulled in remote sensing data from several sources, each with its own advantages and disadvantages:

  • MODIS and MERIS, NASA satellite instruments which each day captured Gulf-wide oceanic and atmospheric data and photos during the Deepwater Horizon response. While very effective in the open ocean, these sensors do not perform well in coastal waters [PDF].
  • AVIRIS, another NASA sensor which took high-resolution infrared imagery from a plane to estimate the amount of oil on the water surface. Its disadvantages included being able to cover only a small area and being limited by weather conditions.
  • SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar), a satellite radar technology with super-fine spatial resolution. This technology actually transitioned from experimental to operational during the 2010 oil spill response in the Gulf of Mexico. While very effective at “seeing” through cloud cover to detect ocean features, SAR does not allow easy differentiation between thinner and thicker layers of oil on the water surface.

Managing People

Volunteers plant vegatation to restore a section of Commencement Bay, WA which was injured by hazardous releases from industrial activities.

Volunteers plant vegatation to restore a section of Commencement Bay, WA which was injured by hazardous releases from industrial activities. (NOAA)

“If you spill it, they will come,” declared Tom Brosnan, scientist and communications manager for our Assessment and Restoration Division, at his presentation. “They” were the hordes of volunteers offering their eager help after the 2010 well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico caused the largest oil spill in U.S. waters.

Brosnan outlined some of the many challenges of using volunteers productively during an oil spill: legal liability, safety, technical training, logistics, reliability. The National Response Team, a federal interagency group coordinating emergency spill response, has taken a strategic approach to these challenges by creating guidelines for incorporating volunteers into response activities [PDF].

Brosnan also pointed out other great opportunities for harnessing the energy of concerned citizens for environmental restoration. One example was partnering with Citizens for a Healthy Bay in Tacoma, Wash. This is a community group soliciting and overseeing volunteer efforts to maintain already completed restoration projects making up for the decades of industrial pollution around Tacoma’s Commencement Bay.

Managing Communications

And no less important, explained NOAA communications specialist Tim Zink, is keeping people engaged after an oil spill is out of the public eye. For the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, this has been a challenge particularly during the environmental damage assessment process. Zink described the difficulties of continuing to communicate effectively after initial interest from the media has diminished, of many different government trustee organizations trying to speak with one unified voice, and of the need for communication with the public to be framed carefully within the legal and cooperative aspects of the case.

He cited something as simple as a well-run online presence: the Gulf Spill Restoration website. This is a joint effort representing no fewer than three federal government departments (Commerce, State, and Interior) and five state governments. Well-organized and user-friendly, this website serves as a one-stop source of information about the ongoing effort to evaluate and restore environmental injuries in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill.

Among the closing speakers at the conference, Dr. Dawn Wright, chief scientist at GIS software company Esri, reinforced the importance of communicating “inspired science” to policymakers, communities, and other stakeholders throughout the restoration process. As a GIS specialist, she spoke to the many types of sophisticated spatial analysis that are available to anyone with a smartphone. The average person now has unprecedented access to geographic data on earthquakes, flu epidemics, and sea level changes. However, it is up to us to decide how we use these data-rich maps—and other tools—to understand and tell the story of environmental restoration.

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Post Hurricane Sandy, NOAA Aids Hazardous Spill Cleanup in New Jersey and New York

Oil sheen is visible on the waters of Arthur Kill on the border of New Jersey and New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Oil sheen is visible on the waters of Arthur Kill on the border of New Jersey and New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

[UPDATED NOVEMBER 6, 2012] Hurricane Sandy’s extreme weather conditions—80 to 90 mph winds and sea levels more than 14 feet above normal—spread oil, hazardous materials, and debris across waterways and industrial port areas along the Mid Atlantic. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is working with the U.S. Coast Guard and affected facilities to reduce the impacts of this pollution in coastal New York and New Jersey.

We have several Scientific Support Coordinators and information management specialists on scene at the incident command post on Staten Island, N.Y.

Since the pollution response began, we have been dispatching observers in helicopters with the Coast Guard to survey the resulting oil sheens on the water surface in Arthur Kill, N.J./N.Y. This is in support of the response to a significant spill at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, N.J., as well as for the cleanup and assessment of several small spills of diesel fuel, biodiesel, and various other petroleum products scattered throughout northern New Jersey’s refinery areas.

One of the challenges facing communities after a devastating weather event is information management. One tool we have developed for this purpose is ERMA, an online mapping tool which integrates and synthesizes various types of environmental, geographic, and operational data. This provides a central information hub for all individuals involved in an incident, improves communication and coordination among responders, and supplies resource managers with the information necessary to make faster and better informed decisions.

ERMA has now been adopted as the official common operational platform for the Hurricane Sandy pollution response, and we have sent additional GIS specialists to the command post.

Species and Habitats at Risk

The most sensitive habitats in the area are salt marshes, which are often highly productive and are important wildlife habitat and nursery areas for fish and shellfish. Though thin sheens contain little oil, wind and high water levels after the storm could push the diesel deep into the marsh, where it could persist and contaminate sediments. Because marshes are damaged easily during cleanup operations, spill response actions will have to take into account all of these considerations.

In addition, diesel spills can kill the many small invertebrates at the base of the food chain which live in tidal flats and salt marshes if they are exposed to a high enough concentration. Resident marsh fishes, which include bay anchovy, killifish, and silversides, are the fish most at risk because they are the least mobile and occupy shallow habitats. Many species of heron nest in the nearby inland marshes, some of the last remaining marshlands in Staten Island. Swimming and diving birds, such as Canada geese and cormorants, are also vulnerable to having their feathers coated by the floating oil, and all waterfowl have the potential to consume oil while feeding.

Based on the risks to species and habitats from both oil and cleanup, we weigh the science carefully before making spill response recommendations to the Coast Guard.

Tracking the Spilled Oil

Responders face an oily debris field in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy. Nov. 2, 2012.

Responders face an oily debris field in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy. Nov. 2, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Because no two oils are alike, we train aerial observers to evaluate the character and extent of oil spilled on the water. NOAA performs these aerial surveys, or overflights, of spilled oil like in Arthur Kill to determine the status of the oil’s source and to track where wind and waves are moving spilled oil while also weathering it. The movement of wind and waves, along with sunlight, works to break down oil into its chemical components. This changes the appearance, size, and location of oil, and in return, can change how animals and plants interact with the oil.

When spilled on water, diesel oil spreads very quickly to a thin film. However, diesel has high levels of toxic components which dissolve fairly readily into the water column, posing threats to the organisms living there. Biodiesel can coat animals that come into contact with it, but it breaks down up to four times more quickly than conventional diesel. At the same time, this biodegradation could cause potential fish kills by using up large amounts of oxygen in the water, especially in shallow areas.

Look for photos, maps, and updates on pollution-related response efforts at IncidentNews.

Check the Superstorm Sandy CrisisMap for aggregated information from NOAA, FEMA, and other sources on weather alerts and observations; storm surge and flood water data; aerial damage assessment imagery; and the locations of power outages, food and gas in New Jersey, and emergency shelters.

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Photos and Reactions from a NOAA Responder Living through Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy caused flooding in the streets of this neighborhood along coastal New Jersey.

Hurricane Sandy caused flooding in the streets of this neighborhood along coastal New Jersey. (Frank Csulak)

Here in Seattle, like people all over the country, I was concerned to hear about Hurricane Sandy heading straight towards the East Coast, especially the New Jersey shore where I have enjoyed going to the beach for my entire life. My thoughts were with all the people I know in the area, including my colleague, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator (SSC) Frank Csulak. He has worked for the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration in New Jersey for much of his career.

Raised on the New Jersey shore, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the area. Scientific Support Coordinators are technical advisers to the U.S. Coast Guard and Federal On-Scene Coordinators. He and fellow SSC Ed Levine work in U.S. Coast Guard District 5, which includes New Jersey and New York’s Atlantic coast. While Frank’s office is in Highlands, N.J., he has a house at the shore in Beach Haven, on Long Beach Island, the second barrier island to the north of Atlantic City. Before and after Hurricane Sandy hit, Csulak and Levine were hard at work, but we received the following message from Frank the morning after the storm passed over New Jersey, on Tuesday October 30. It captures the sense of emergency and the extraordinary nature of this particular storm.

October 30, 2012

“Well, made it through the storm, power went out around 6:00 p.m. last night, remains out. The winds had to be in the 80-90 mph range. Trees down all over.  Power outages all over.  Large tree fell on neighbor’s house going right through roof, injuring owner who was then hospitalized due to possible heart attack. At the height of the storm there was an unbelievable thunder and lightning storm like I had never experienced before, something out of a sci-fi movie.

Just starting to get light out, so will go survey my property. Plan to head back to beach house as soon as evacuations lifted. That ride should be interesting. Reports were that there were several areas where ocean and bay were connected and southern portion of island, Holgate, washed away, which is mostly U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge area.

My bikes, cars, and trucks are all okay. Max, my dog is okay. Daughter and parents okay.  So, all is good. Now I just need a hot cup of coffee. Want to thank everyone for their thoughts and well wishes throughout this ordeal. Will let you know how the beach house made out probably tomorrow.”

Later, Frank made it down to Beach Haven and sent us these photos of the storm’s aftermath in the area surrounding his house.

Today, on November 1, he took time out again to bring us the following update.

November 1, 2012

“All the neighbors where my parents live are all helping each other out with removing trees and debris from yards, pumping out basements. Power still out. Mile-long lines of cars at gas stations. Most stores remain closed due to power outage. Although somehow Dunkin Donuts is open. What is their slogan, “America runs on Dunkin”?  Well, certainly appropriate here at the Jersey shore!”

For more photos of the storm’s impacts along the New Jersey coast, check out the first round of Hurricane Sandy damage assessment imagery now available from NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey.


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