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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A Pennsylvania Mining Town Moves Beyond Toxic History of Denuded Mountains and Contaminated Creeks

Palmerton, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania’s coal region, had its beginnings largely as a company town. In fact, it was incorporated in 1912 around the area’s growing zinc mining industry, which began in 1898. For many years, the New Jersey Zinc Company was the largest U.S. producer of zinc, which is used to make brass and construction materials. The town actually was named after Stephen Palmer, once head of the company. But this company left more than just a name imprinted on this part of Pennsylvania. It also left a toxic legacy on the people and the landscape.

One of the New Jersey Zinc Company's abandoned factories, located on the west side of the site in Palmerton, Penn.

One of the New Jersey Zinc Company’s abandoned factories, located on the west side of the site in Palmerton, Penn. Credit: Dennis Hendricks/Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

The backdrop for this industrial town of just under 5,500 people is Blue Mountain, a few miles from the Appalachian Trail, and Aquashicola Creek, which drains into the Lehigh River, used extensively for transporting the region’s coal and a tributary of the Delaware River.

As a result of the industrial activities that took place in Palmerton for more than 80 years, the town was left with an enormous smelting residue pile called the “Cinder Bank.” The Cinder Bank is what is left of the 33 million tons of slag (rocky waste) left by the New Jersey Zinc Company as a byproduct of their mining operations. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this pile extends for 2.5 miles and is over 100 feet high and 500 to 1000 feet wide.

Lehigh River runs between a mountain and ridge with a town in the background.

Palmerton and the former zinc smelters are located near the Lehigh River, which flows through a valley between Blue Mountain (left) and Stony Ridge. (Christine McAndrew/Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License)

In addition, the smelting operations, a high-heat process that extracts metals from ore, released heavy metals, including cadmium, lead, and zinc, into the air and waters of the surrounding area. These activities killed off vegetation on 2,000 acres of Blue Mountain and allowed contaminants to flow into the Aquashicola Creek and Lehigh River. According to the EPA, children in this area tested over the years showed elevated levels of lead in their blood. Horses, cattle, and fish were also shown to contain contaminants.

Because of a declining market for zinc and increased attention to hazards of environmental contamination, zinc smelting in Palmerton stopped in 1980. The Palmerton site was added to the Superfund National Priorities List on September 8, 1983. Cleanup of the town, Blue Mountain, and the Cinder Bank, overseen by U.S. EPA Region 3, has been going on since 1987. It has included activities such as grading, revegetation, cleaning of residences, cleanup of surface water, and water treatment.

People standing on both sides of a state game lands sign in a field.

In August 2013, the Natural Resource Trustee Council members and guests celebrated the acquisition of more than 300 acres for state game lands and the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge. (NOAA)

NOAA and other federal and state agencies, comprising the natural resource trustee council for this Superfund site, reached a settlement for damages to natural resources in 2009. Over $20 million in cash and property have been paid to compensate the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the natural resource damages to the Aquashicola Creek and Lehigh River watershed. Throughout this process, the Office of Response and Restoration’s Peter Knight and the National Marine Fisheries Services’ John Catena have been providing scientific review and input on the environmental cleanup and restoration plans for this site.

In August of 2013, the Palmerton Natural Resource Trustee Council and its partners announced the acquisition of more than 300 acres for state game lands and the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge, home to the endangered bog turtle, and located just 30 minutes from Palmerton. Other properties designated for restoration include habitats along Aquashicola Creek and its tributaries. Acquiring and protecting these lands and waters are part of the larger restorative effort making up for the loss of both natural areas and their benefits due to Palmerton’s mining activities.

After many years of collaboration by a number of organizations and individuals, today the Lehigh River is popular with rafters and Blue Mountain is home to a lush 750 acre nature preserve and a 12 lift ski resort. According to its Chamber of Commerce, Palmerton is again a growing town and making incredible progress in moving beyond the once-tainted shadow of its history.

Agencies represented by the Palmerton Natural Resource Trustee Council include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Pennsylvania Game Commission, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The Office of Response and Restoration represents NOAA on this council.


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Changing Technology Changing Science Changing Us

Ice on a river with a bridge crossing it in a city.

The frozen Chicago River outside of the AAAS Annual Meeting. (NOAA)

Freezing temperatures and blackened piles of snow along the Chicago streets were the backdrop to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting on February 13–17.

Alongside the thousands of scientists, journalists, and other professionals, I was there mostly to learn about the latest technology and trends in science communications, but was pleased to discover that the need for better communication was a theme throughout this science conference, even in sessions that had little to do with communications per se.

Evolving Access to Science and its News

Highlighted in the science communication seminars were differences in how today’s audiences receive information and how changing technology plays into that. In the symposium, “Communicating Science: Engaging with Journalists,” Carl Zimmer, science writer at the New York Times, talked about how scientists are now able to post their papers directly to field-specific archive sites, which, rather than being restricted to small and specific audiences, are available for anyone to see not only the paper but the subsequent comments and discussion. This represents a huge change from the older model for scientific journal articles, which are critiqued by other scientists in that discipline (“peer reviewed”) before being published, instead of after.

Sign from the AAAS Meeting.The upside of this, according to Zimmer, is that it is easier for journalists to find information on new developments from papers on these “pre-print servers.” The downside is the possibility that the information is not yet valid to report. David Baron, another panelist and science editor for PRI’s “The World” radio podcast, sees a bigger role for science foundations as alternative sources for finding objective information.

Robert Lee Hotz, science writer at the Wall Street Journal, talked about the span of what he calls the “digital age,” starting with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak introducing the Apple II computer in 1977, to the advent of 24/7 news in 1987, to the mass availability of free news via the Internet at present. He pointed out however, that there are roughly the same amount of professional science journalists in this country now as then—40,000, a fact which indicates to him that despite increased availability of news sources, “more and more people are getting less.” At the same time as these changes in coverage are happening at traditional media, many people have stopped going to traditional media for news. This trend has created opportunities for alternative science news models, demonstrated by the creation of 172 non-profit online news sites since 1980, including ProPublica, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy newsletter, and InsideClimateNews.

David Baron advocates a storytelling approach to communicating about science issues, as audiences are more likely to be engaged longer by a narrative style. He cited a recent episode about climate change on the radio program This American Life. Instead of just presenting facts and figures, the narrative follows Nolan Duskin, state climatologist of Colorado, as he talks with ranchers at a farm conference to illustrate the challenges of climate change in the context of everyday life.

Paula Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA at WGBH Boston, sees more choices on TV but less science now than in the past, and describes the NOVA of today as not just a popular science TV series but a broader media brand extending online. The majority of NOVA consumers are going to the online archives from search. This is consistent with the current expectation for media to be on more platforms all the time. The challenge, according to Apsell, is to alter the style to these other platforms without “dumbing down” the substance. With so much information now available on the Web, there are also increased opportunities for error. As a result, Apsell emphasized the need for skepticism when researching science stories and rigorous cross-checking.

MASHing Science with Dating

A man gesturing on a stage.

Plenary speaker (and M*A*S*H star) Alan Alda discussed science communication, which he teaches at Stony Brook University, to an audience of about 1500 at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago on February 15, 2014. (Alan Kotok/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

From my perspective as a science communicator, the highlight of the conference was “Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science,” a plenary session presented by Alan Alda, actor and the director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. The Center grew out of Alda’s interest in science and 12 years of experience hosting the show Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, which he calls “the best thing I ever did in front of a camera.” Alda is also well known for his role as Captain Pierce in the 1970s TV series M*A*S*H (1972-1983). However, his work on Scientific American Frontiers convinced him that while many researchers have fascinating stories to tell, they are deeply involved in the complexities of their work, which can inhibit their ability to effectively communicate to non-scientists.

He uses the phrase “curve of knowledge” to describe “when you know something so well that you forget what it is like to not know it.” Alda compares the stages of a blind date to the steps in building a relationship with the audience in order to communicate science effectively. When a couple first meets, there is a deficit of trust before they begin to know one another. In the attraction stage, body language and tone are more important than language. The next stage, infatuation, incorporates emotion and memory. Finally, commitment is the stage where both parties are listening to and understanding each other.

He asks his scientist students to keep focusing on what it is about their work that they wish people could understand clearly. They do improvisation to learn to tell their stories in a more personal and engaging way, using emotion to create a memory.

Science Needs to Get Social

On my last day at the conference I attended a multidisciplinary presentation about satisfying food demands for the over 9 billion people expected to inhabit the Earth by 2050—and how we will accomplish this despite climate change, land degradation, and loss of environmental resources. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Kathy Sullivan, Acting NOAA Administrator.

During the discussion, panelist Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University underscored the need for societal understanding of these growing challenges. He emphasized that this problem isn’t a new one: scientists have been warning about global resource shortages in the face of a growing population, climate change, and depleted resources since the 1960s. The problem, he says, is that people still do not understand the implications of these issues for the future and he predicts that social science will need to play a much larger role if society is to take the actions necessary to alleviate these growing pressures on our planet

For more information on the conference, visit the AAAS 2014 Annual Meeting website.


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Protecting the Great Lakes After a Coal Ship Hits Ground in Lake Erie

The coal ship CSL Niagara got stuck in Lake Erie's soft, muddy bottom at the entrance to Sandusky Bay in November 2013.

The coal ship CSL Niagara got stuck in Lake Erie’s soft, muddy bottom at the entrance to Sandusky Bay in November 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the course of a year, from October 2012 to October 2013, the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration responded to 138 oil spills, chemical accidents, and various other threats to coastal environments and communities. Many of these responses required considerable time from the scientific team to estimate where spills might spread, analyze chemical hazards, and assess whether natural resources are at risk. Sometimes, however, we’re called into some incidents that end well, with minimum help needed on our part and no oil spilled.

Last November, LCDR John Lomnicky received a call from the U.S. Coast Guard with an example of an accident that had the potential to be much worse. LCDR Lomnicky is our Scientific Support Coordinator for the Great Lakes region and is based in Cleveland, Ohio.

When Staying Grounded Is a Bad Thing

On November 17, just after 10:00 in the morning, the vessel master of the CSL Niagara reported to the U.S. Coast Guard that his ship had run aground while leaving Sandusky Bay through Moseley Channel to Lake Erie. Aboard the ship were 33,000 metric tons (36,376 U.S. tons) of coal, headed to Hamilton, Ontario, and about 193 metric tons of intermediate fuel oil (a blend of gasoil and heavy fuel oil) and marine diesel. The concern in a situation like this would be that the grounded ship might leak oil. Its stern was stuck in the soft mud at the bottom of Lake Erie. At the time, the vessel master reported there were no injuries, flooding, or visible pollution.

This ship, the CSL Niagara, has a long history of transporting coal in Lake Erie. Launched in April of 1972 for Canada Steamship Lines, Ltd., the new ship was 730 feet long and even then was carrying coal to Hamilton, Ontario. During over 40 years of sailing in the Great Lakes, the Niagara has also carried cargos of grain, coke, stone, and iron ore.

NOAA chart of Lake Erie.

Lake Erie has an average depth of 62 feet, but its western basin, where the CSL Niagara grounded, averages only 24 feet deep. (NOAA Chart)

Even though the vessel hadn’t released any oil, the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit, who had responders at the scene very shortly after the accident, put in a call to the Office of Response and Restoration’s LCDR Lomnicky for scientific support. As a precaution, they requested that we model the trajectory of oil in a worst case scenario if 145 metric tons of intermediate fuel oil and 48 metric tons of diesel fuel were released all at once into the water. We also provided a prediction of when the lake’s lower-than-usual water level would return to normal so a salvage team could refloat the stuck vessel. After gathering all of this information for the Coast Guard, LCDR Lomnicky continued to stand by for further requests.

In the hours that followed the ship’s grounding, the winds grew stronger, hampering efforts to free the vessel. The wind was causing the water level in the lake to drop and NOAA’s National Weather Service in Detroit predicted a 7.5 foot drop in levels for western Lake Erie. By 8:30 p.m., with 30 knot winds in two-to-three foot seas, the three tugboats contracted by the ship’s owner to dislodge the Niagara were making some progress. By midnight, however, with weather conditions worsening, salvage operations were suspended and scheduled to resume at first light.

But the next morning, November 18, the water level had dropped another two feet, and the three tugs still had had no luck freeing the stern of the Niagara from the lake bottom. The ship’s owner was now working on plans for lightering (removing the fuel) and containing any potentially spilled oil. Fortunately, there were still no reports of damage to the vessel or oil discharged into the water. The ship was just stuck.

By 4:00 that afternoon the water conditions had improved and another attempt to free the vessel was planned. Also, a combined tug-barge was en route should lightering become necessary.

Later that evening, shortly after 10:00, the ship was pulled free by two of the tugs and was back on its way early the next morning.

The location where the CSL Niagara grounded in Lake Erie is indicated with a red diamond, along with a window of information and photo of the grounded ship. It is mapped in Great Lakes ERMA, NOAA's online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup, restoration, and response.

The location where the CSL Niagara grounded in Lake Erie is indicated with a red diamond, along with a window of information and photo of the grounded ship. It is mapped in Great Lakes ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup, restoration, and response. (NOAA)

Keeping the Great Lakes Great

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the five Great Lakes, with an average depth of 62 feet. Yet its western basin, where this ship grounding occurred, has an average depth of only 24 feet. The lake is an important source of commerce for both the U.S and Canada, who depend on it for shipping, fishing, and hydroelectric power. These industries place environmental pressure on the lake’s ecosystems, which  are also threatened by urban and agricultural runoff.

Happily, quick responders, sound information, and a break in the weather may have prevented this incident from becoming something much worse. A spill into Lake Erie could be devastating, especially considering its shallow waters, but this time, like many other times along the nation’s coasts, an oil spill was avoided.

Didn’t know that NOAA works in the Great Lakes? Nicknamed “the third coast,” the Great Lakes are a major U.S. water body, with a shoreline that stretches longer than the East Coast and Gulf Coast combined. Learn more about the Great Lakes and NOAA’s efforts there in this Great Lakes regional snapshot.


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After Sandy, Adapting NOAA’s Tools for a Changing Shoreline

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. NOAA and our partners are making sure that we have the most up-to-date tools and resources for whenever the next disaster strikes. To learn more about how you can be prepared for all types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Vicki Loe and Jill Petersen.

While the beach season has come to an end for the East Coast, communities of the northeast continue to repair remaining damage from last fall’s Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy and prepare for future storms. As beachgoers arrived at the shore this past summer, they found a lot of repaired structures and beautiful beaches. But this was side-by-side with reconstruction projects, damaged buildings, and altered shorelines.

In addition to damaging manmade structures, Sandy’s strong winds and waves caused considerable change to shorelines, particularly in the metropolitan New York area, northern Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Tools for Coastal Disasters

In the wake of Sandy, under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, funds were allocated to update the Office of Response and Restoration’s existing northeast Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps to reflect changes caused by the storm and to add information that would enhance the maps’ value when another disaster strikes. Historically used mostly for oil and chemical spills, these maps have also proved to be effective tools in preparing for and responding to storms and hurricanes.

ESI maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that could be at risk in a disaster. Examples include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks). They are used by both disaster responders during a disaster and planners before a disaster.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast. Used in conjunction with a key, this map provides valuable information to planners and responders on the wildlife, habitats, and geographical features of the area.

In the region affected by Sandy, maps will be updated from Maine to South Carolina. The ESI maps are produced on a state or regional basis. They typically extend offshore to include all state waters, and go inland far enough to include coastal biology and human use resources. In addition to the outer coastal regions, navigable rivers, bays, and estuaries are included. In the northeast, these include the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay, which are among those maps being updated with the Sandy funding, as well as Delaware Bay, which was already in progress before the storm hit.

The first region to be updated will be Long Island Sound. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is partnering with the Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA) in NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science to develop the biological and human use information for this region. This partnership will take advantage of studies CCMA currently has underway, as well as contacts they have made with the biological experts in the area.

Keeping up with a Changing Shoreline

A large wildlife conservation area that is managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

You can see representative coastal habitat in a large wildlife conservation area managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

The coastal environment is constantly changing and ESI maps need to be updated periodically to reflect not just storm damage, but changes to resources caused by human use, erosion, and climate change. The new maps will be created with a broad range of potential disasters in mind. To support this goal, some additional data elements and layers are being considered for the ESI maps developed as part of our post-Sandy effort. These may include such things as flood inundation and storm surge areas, environmental monitoring stations, tide stations, and offshore renewable energy sites.

The end products will provide emergency planners and responders with a better tool for protecting the northeast and mid-Atlantic shoreline when the next coastal disaster occurs.

You can learn more about our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps in our blog post “Mapping How Sensitive the Coasts Are to Oil Spills,” and find more technical insights into our work with ESI maps and data on the NOAA ESI blog at noaaesi.wordpress.com.

Jill PetersenJill Petersen began working with the NOAA spill response group in 1988. Originally a programmer and on-scene responder, in 1991 her focus switched to mapping support, a major component of which is the ESI program. Throughout the years, Jill has worked to broaden the ESI audience by providing ESIs in a variety of formats and developing appropriate mapping tools. Jill has been the ESI program manager since 2001.


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Renewal Ahead for Delaware River, Newest Site of Urban Waters Federal Partnership Program

George Washington crosses the Delaware River, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. (Public Domain, Emanuel Leutze)

George Washington crosses the Delaware River, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. (Public Domain, Emanuel Leutze)

You may know the Delaware River only as the partially frozen river George Washington and his troops crossed to victory late at night during the American Revolution, surprising enemy forces based in New Jersey. But many other people—approximately 15 million—know it as their source of water for drinking supplies, industrial uses, irrigation, commerce, and recreation.

The Delaware is one of our nation’s most important rivers. As the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi, it extends from upstate New York to Delaware Bay, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. And historically, transportation on the Delaware River was critical to the early development of Philadelphia, Penn.; Wilmington, Del.; and Trenton and Camden, N.J.

However, population and industrial growth took their toll on urban areas along the Delaware. Until the mid-20th century, human and industrial waste received inadequate treatment before flowing into the river, contributing to extensive water pollution problems. This pollution had the effect of draining the river’s waters of the oxygen needed for fish and other aquatic life to survive. Following the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, conditions have improved, but water quality remains a problem along this river, especially in urban areas.

Over the years, the land around the river has increasingly changed from a natural to an urban setting, losing many of the benefits of nature that the river can offer and at times replacing them with pollutants and failing sewers. Urban infrastructure and abandoned and polluted sites began to claim the riverbanks, severely restricting access to the river.

A Partnership to Reclaim the River

Yet, the outlook for this river appears hopeful. The Delaware River and the land around it, which includes the greater Philadelphia area, is one of 11 places across the U.S. recently welcomed into the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. In order to restore degraded waterfronts and to revitalize economically depressed areas along the river, this partnership will join forces with state, regional, and local organizations to address economic and environmental problems along the river through Philadelphia. NOAA is one of the federal partners coordinating this effort and Office of Response and Restoration staff in the area will be working to ensure the program’s success.

A train crossing over the Delaware River on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia, Penn., to Camden, N.J.  (Creative Commons, Bob Snyder, Rights reserved)

A train crossing over the Delaware River on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia, Penn., to Camden, N.J. (Creative Commons, Bob Snyder, Rights reserved)

The Urban Waters Federal Partnership furthers the work of other national efforts, such as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities and America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. This partnership focuses on a broad range of projects that will protect community investments while also improving erosion and flood control, water quality, economic and environmental health, and access to waterways.

One of the specific ways the partnership and NOAA will benefit the region is by supporting the Camden County Municipal Authority’s development of Phoenix Park, a community park along the Delaware. This project will involve waterfront and shoreline restoration and will be the centerpiece of a larger project to restore the Camden waterfront. Meanwhile, in Wilmington, the partnership will be able to offer additional support for Fox Point State Park, a relatively new public area created on a former Brownfield property.

On another front, NOAA, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service will lead an Urban Waters Federal Partnership effort to address remaining water quality issues in the river. These problems stem from a history of habitat loss from past dredging and filling on the shoreline, underutilized and contaminated waterfront property, failing infrastructure (including sewers), and threats from climate change. A compelling reason for dealing with these issues is that several species of fish that were caught commercially and recreationally in the urban part of the Delaware River are threatened, such as Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, shad and river herring, and eel. Furthermore, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership projects will focus on reconnecting underserved communities to their waterfronts.

A History of Restoration

These efforts will complement NOAA’s longstanding efforts to clean up and restore the Delaware River from the impacts of oil spills and hazardous waste sites. You can view a map (click to zoom to Delaware) depicting the more than a dozen sites that NOAA is actively working on along the Delaware River and its tributaries. The NOAA Restoration Atlas has additional information about restoration projects in the region that NOAA has helped to support.

Once a bustling ferry terminal on the Delaware River during the industrial revolution, Lardner's Point had fallen into disrepair over the years. Then, in 2004, a tanker released more than 265,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware, exposing this area and hundreds of other miles of shoreline to spilled crude oil. Today, Lardner’s Point features a clean and welcoming waterfront public park, with newly restored shorelines. (NOAA)

Once a bustling ferry terminal on the Delaware River during the industrial revolution, Lardner’s Point had fallen into disrepair over the years. Then, in 2004, a tanker released more than 265,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware, exposing this area and hundreds of other miles of shoreline to spilled crude oil. Today, Lardner’s Point features a clean and welcoming waterfront public park, with newly restored shorelines. (NOAA)

One notable example, among many, is Lardner’s Point, a newly established waterfront park in Philadelphia, which NOAA, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, and the Delaware River City Corporation have helped transform from a disused, concrete blight to a vibrant, natural gem. The restored shoreline there is the foundation for continuing revitalization along the central and northern Philadelphia waterfront, as well as community renewal efforts in Chester, Penn., around the Commodore Barry Bridge.

Washington Crossing State Park, north of Philadelphia. (Creative Commons, Nancy Dowd, Rights reserved)

Washington Crossing State Park, north of Philadelphia. (Creative Commons, Nancy Dowd, Rights reserved)

Diverse activities and communities along the Delaware River make clear its importance and value to the people who live near it. Visible from Philadelphia’s major bridges to New Jersey, the Port of Philadelphia is one of the largest freshwater ports in the world, and it shares the urban riverfront with parks and recreational areas.

To the north, along the banks of historic towns such as New Hope, Penn., and Lambertville and Stockton, N.J., favorite river activities include fishing, rafting, tubing, and canoeing. Even further north, the Delaware is classified as a National Wild and Scenic River. While to the south, the Delaware Bayshore is home to swimming, boating, and commercial fishing.

But for too long, the urban populations along the Delaware River have had limited opportunities to enjoy the river right where they live and work. Fortunately, that is changing. NOAA and the Urban Waters Federal Partnership are building on that momentum, aiming to return to the area and its people the renewed benefits of a healthy, accessible river—one that they can be proud to claim again as their own.


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Back to the Shore after Hurricane Sandy

GIS specialist Jay Coady, Environmental Sensitivity Index map specialist Jill Petersen, John Tarpley of the OR&R Emergency Response Division, and Jason Rolfe of the NOAA Marine Debris Program also contributed to this post.

: Two boys take a break on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, during the summer of 2012, before Hurricane Sandy. (Glenda Powell/all rights reserved)

Two boys take a break on the beach in Ocean City, Md., during the summer of 2012, before Hurricane Sandy. (Glenda Powell/all rights reserved)

With Memorial Day approaching and summer weather returning, folks in the northeast will once again be flocking to the shore, as they have for generations.  This summer season is the first since Hurricane Sandy hit the region in late October of 2012, with devastating effects to beaches from Connecticut to Virginia. Much of the damage has been repaired and many visitors likely will find their favorite beaches as enjoyable as ever, but there is much work remaining to do.

Headed for Calmer Shores

A response team formed by the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response Unified Command prior to an overflight during which the U.S. Coast Guard worked with NOAA to map areas of possible pollution threats in New York and New Jersey. LTJG Alice Drury of OR&R is in the middle of the group. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A response team formed by the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response Unified Command prior to an overflight during which the U.S. Coast Guard worked with NOAA to map areas of possible pollution threats in New York and New Jersey. LTJG Alice Drury of OR&R is in the middle of the group. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) responded immediately in the wake of the massive storm. OR&R’s Emergency Response Division provided scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard to contain a major diesel spill at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, N.J., next to New York’s Staten Island and Raritan Bay. We also provided support for the many smaller petroleum product spills in northern New Jersey and southern New York.  Aerial and ground surveys helped identify and prioritize the cleanup of pollution sources from boats, displaced hazardous material containers, and other debris.

OR&R was on scene working with other state and federal agencies to lead a preliminary assessment of natural resource impacts from the oil spills for possible Natural Resource Damage Assessment claims and restoration. In addition, the Coast Guard and other responders used OR&R’s collaborative online mapping tool, Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) for the Atlantic Coast, as the “common operational picture,” that is, the official “big picture” tool for coordinating pollution response activities.

Atlantic ERMA, which is customized for New York and New Jersey waters, was involved in mapping the Hurricane Sandy response and recovery efforts since before the storm hit land. In the days leading up to landfall, OR&R started populating Atlantic ERMA with storm-specific data, such as predicted storm surge models, hurricane track and wind speeds, and NOAA facility locations.

A partially submerged vessel in Navesink River, N.J., Nov. 10, 2012. Boom was placed around the vessel to mitigate pollution during the response efforts. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A partially submerged vessel in Navesink River, N.J., Nov. 10, 2012. Boom was placed around the vessel to mitigate pollution during the response efforts. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Atlantic ERMA served as the common operational picture for the Hurricane Sandy pollution response. It aided the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinators (our pollution first responders), U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the removal and cleanup of identified pollution sources and threats.

Atlantic ERMA integrated these response efforts with environmental data (like locations of sensitive habitat) to give responders a better idea of how to deal with pollution threats while minimizing environmental damages.

As the common operational picture, ERMA provided a single platform for responders to view all of the storm-related data and imagery as well as various cleanup efforts by the states and other federal agencies. Our team of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists working on ERMA also helped provide data management support in tracking the progress made by the pollution response field teams.

Making it Safe to Get Back in the Water

In the Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill, Congress provided the NOAA Marine Debris Program with funds to address marine debris issues resulting from Sandy. In addition, funds were allocated to OR&R’s Emergency Response Division to update our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps on the east coast, with particular emphasis on areas affected by Hurricane Sandy and other coastal storms over the past several years. These maps identify coastal shorelines, wildlife, and habitat that may be especially vulnerable to an oil spill and also include the resources people use, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

Click on this map to view the complete Environmental Sensitivity Index map, created by OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. The map shows sensitive habitats and species that are typically present in the Staten Island area in November and December, the months following Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

Click on this map to view the complete Environmental Sensitivity Index map, created by OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. The map shows sensitive habitats and species that are typically present in the Staten Island area in November and December, the months following Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

Marine debris can be found in concentrations across the impacted region both on the shoreline and below the water surface.  These items pose potential hazards to navigation, commercial fishing grounds, and sensitive ecosystems.

We are using Atlantic ERMA to provide mapping support and tools to show aerial imagery, debris dispersion models, and identified marine debris locations supplied by stakeholders. Our mapping support also helps with the planning efforts for debris cleanup.

A combination of aerial, underwater, and shoreline surveys are necessary to assess the quantity and location of marine debris in the impacted coastal areas.  These assessments will allow NOAA to estimate the debris impacts to economies and ecosystems, identify priority items for removal, support limited removal efforts, and help bring our northeastern shores back to a sunnier state.

Read about more examples of our work protecting and restoring the shores the nation loves to visit.


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For Accidents of Chemistry, a NOAA Tool to Help Predict and Prevent Disaster

This is a post by Vicki Loe with OR&R chemist Jim Farr.

On April 10, 1995, at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. in Savannah, Ga., a chemical tank storing turpentine exploded, triggering a scenario similar to our hypothetical example. The facility stored hundreds of thousands of chemicals in tanks. The explosion resulted in widespread public evacuations and extensive damage. Here, black smoke rises from the fire.

On April 10, 1995, at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. in Savannah, Ga., a chemical tank storing turpentine exploded, triggering a scenario similar to our hypothetical example. The facility stored hundreds of thousands of chemicals in tanks. The explosion resulted in widespread public evacuations and extensive damage. Here, black smoke rises from the fire. (NOAA)

Imagine you’re a chemical engineer in charge of safety at a chemical storage facility supporting the pulp and paper industry. You’re having a normal day when—suddenly—there has been an explosion. It has affected three of the large tanks on the property.

One tank, containing sodium hydrosulfide (NaHS), is damaged and leaking. Sodium hydrosulfide is a chemical used to break down cellulose, the fibrous ingredient in plant cell walls, into pulp, making it a key chemical in the paper industry.

The tank next to it, also damaged by the explosion and now leaking, holds a tank-cleaning solution that contained the corrosive chemical hydrochloric acid (HCl). The third tank, the one that caught on fire and caused the explosion, contained a petroleum distillate material. It damaged the first two tanks, causing their contents to drain into a common area and resulting in a combination of sodium hydrosulfide and hydrochloric acid.

The Chemical Reactivity Worksheet

How would you communicate this scenario—and its potential dangers—to the emergency responders who are on their way to the scene? During chemical accidents, there are frequently many unknowns: What was released? Did it mix with anything? What might happen?

Responders at the 1995 incident caused by a turpentine tank explosion at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. storage facility in Savannah, Georgia.

Responders at the 1995 incident caused by a turpentine tank explosion at Powell Duffryn Terminals, Inc. storage facility in Savannah, Ga. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Chemical Reactivity Worksheet is a free software program you can use to find out about the chemical reactivity of thousands of common hazardous chemicals and predict the hazards associated with mixing two materials together. (Reactivity is the tendency of substances to undergo chemical change, which can result in hazards—such as heat generation or toxic gas byproducts.)

By consulting the Chemical Reactivity Worksheet, you, the safety officer, would quickly learn that when sodium hydrosulfide and hydrochloric acid combine, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas could result. That gas is both toxic and highly flammable—possibly creating a very dangerous situation. To protect public safety, the affected area would require immediate evacuation.

Updating Software for Chemical Safety

A new version of the Chemical Reactivity Worksheet (version 3.0) has just been released and is available for download from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration website: http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/reactivityworksheet. The latest version is a combination of the latest reactivity information and expert knowledge from NOAA and Dow Chemical.

The free software predicts potential hazards from mixing chemicals and is designed for use by safety planners and the chemical industry.  It is a tool that is intended to help to prevent accidents at chemical facilities and, once an accident occurs, to give valuable information about the possible hazards associated.

The work was done as part of NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s joint development of the CAMEO software suite, which provides valuable emergency response and planning tools for releases of hazardous materials. The Center for Chemical Process Safety also contributed to the project.


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What Do Hanford’s Latest Nuclear Waste Leaks Mean for Environmental Restoration?

This is a post by Vicki Loe and Charlene Andrade.

Some of the older nuclear waste storage tanks at Hanford in southeast Washington.

Some of the older nuclear waste storage tanks at Hanford in southeast Washington. (U.S. Department of Energy)

This past February, the U.S. Department of Energy confirmed that six additional nuclear waste storage tanks are leaking at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington. This revelation has drawn attention once again to the ongoing challenges of assessing, cleaning up, and restoring the environment around a massive nuclear waste site.

To understand how these six aging nuclear waste tanks might affect salmon, the sagebrush-filled desert ecosystem, and nearby Columbia River, it helps to understand more about Hanford’s history. In 1943, the Hanford Site was developed by the U.S. Government for the production of plutonium as part of the Manhattan Project that developed atomic bombs during World War II. The site continued to produce plutonium as well as nuclear energy until the last reactor stopped operating in 1987. The weapons production and nuclear energy operations at Hanford left dangerous and environmentally harmful solid and liquid waste, creating one of the largest and most complex cleanup projects in the U.S. That effort has been in progress since 1989.

Hanford’s 177 total storage tanks, some of which date from the 1940s, hold more than 50 million gallons of radioactive waste. These six leaking tanks are among 149 older “single-shell” tanks, which only have one liner. (Tanks constructed more recently feature “double-shells.”) However, these older tanks were designed for a lifespan of only about 20 years. According to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, “This certainly raises serious questions about the integrity of all 149 single-shell tanks with radioactive liquid and sludge at Hanford.”

One of the older waste storage tanks under construction at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

One of the older waste storage tanks under construction at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (U.S. Department of Energy)

While tanks at the site have leaked in the past, news of these recently discovered leaks again raises concerns about the condition of the tanks and underscores the ongoing complexities of this assessment and cleanup.

The six leaking tanks pose no immediate threat to natural resources because they are located 200–300 feet above the groundwater table. The State of Washington indicates that there is no immediate or near-term health risk as the leaking tanks are located more than five miles from the Columbia River. In addition, measures are being taken to prevent contamination currently in the soil from entering the river.

While this latest discovery affects the ongoing cleanup, it does not change the focus of the Hanford Natural Resource Damage Assessment because the Hanford Natural Resource Trustee Council is already evaluating harm from contamination flowing into the Columbia River, which borders the site and is home to Chinook salmon and sturgeon. The council includes representatives from NOAA, three tribal organizations, the States of Washington and Oregon, and two other federal agencies. It is tasked with characterizing the cumulative impacts from decades of releases and contamination to the fish, wildlife, and the habitats they rely upon, and determining the cumulative restoration needed to replace, restore, and offset the total decades of damage.

Discovery of the additional leaking tanks illustrates the challenge of that task: to be able to measure the harm over time, even as new sources of contamination are discovered and await cleanup. Each source  can add to the cumulative impact and ultimately to the amount of restoration that will eventually be needed to offset damages.

For more information about the work of the Hanford Natural Resource Trustee Council, view the Hanford Natural Resource Damage Assessment Injury Assessment Plan, which describes how the council will characterize and quantify the past, ongoing, and future environmental impacts.


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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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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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