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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Protecting, Restoring, and Celebrating Estuaries—Where Salt and Freshwater Meet

Collage: lighthouse, kids viewing wildlife, heron, canoe in water, flowers, and meandering wetlands.

Estuaries are ecosystems along the oceans or Great Lakes where freshwater and saltwater mix to create wetlands, bays, lagoons, sounds, or sloughs. (NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserves)

As the light, fresh waters of rivers rush into the salty waters of the sea, some incredible things can happen. As these two types of waters meet and mix, creating habitats known as estuaries, they also circulate nutrients, sediments, and oxygen. This mixing creates fertile waters for an array of life, from mangroves and salt-tolerant marsh grasses to oysters, salmon, and migrating birds. These productive areas also attract humans, who bring fishing, industry, and shipping along with them.

All of this activity along estuaries means they are often the site of oil spills and chemical releases. We at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration often find ourselves working in estuaries, trying to minimize the impacts of oil spills and hazardous waste sites on these important habitats.

A Time to Celebrate Where Rivers Meet the Sea

September 20–27, 2014 is National Estuaries Week. This year 11 states and the District of Columbia have published a proclamation recognizing the importance of estuaries. To celebrate these critical habitats, Restore America’s Estuaries member organizations, NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and EPA’s National Estuary Program are organizing special events such as beach cleanups, hikes, canoe and kayak trips, cruises, and workshops across the nation. Find an Estuary Week event near you.

You and your family and friends can take a personal stake in looking out for the health and well-being of estuaries by doing these simple things to protect these fragile ecosystems.

How We Are Protecting and Restoring Estuaries

You may be scratching your head wondering whether you know of any estuaries, but you don’t need to go far to find some famous estuaries. The Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay are on the east coast, the Mississippi River Delta in the Gulf of Mexico, and San Francisco Bay and Washington’s Puget Sound represent some notable estuarine ecosystems on the west coast. Take a closer look at some of our work on marine pollution in these important estuaries.

Chesapeake Bay: NOAA has been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defense on cleaning up and restoring a number of contaminated military facilities around the Chesapeake Bay. Because these Superfund sites are on federal property, we have to take a slightly different approach than usual and are trying to work restoration principles into the cleanup process as early as possible.

Delaware Bay: Our office has responded to a number of oil spills in and adjacent to Delaware Bay, including the Athos oil spill on the Delaware River in 2004. As a result, we are working on implementing several restoration projects around the Delaware Bay, which range from creating oyster reefs to restoring marshes, meadows, and grasslands.

Puget Sound: For Commencement Bay, many of the waterways leading into it—which provide habitat for salmon, steelhead, and other fish—have been polluted by industrial and commercial activities in this harbor for Tacoma, Washington. NOAA and other federal, state, and tribal partners have been working for decades to address the contamination and restore damaged habitat, which involves taking an innovative approach to maintaining restoration sites in the Bay.

Further north in Puget Sound, NOAA and our partners have worked with the airplane manufacturer Boeing to restore habitat for fish, shorebirds, and wildlife harmed by historical industrial activities on the Lower Duwamish River, a heavily used urban river in Seattle. Young Puget Sound Chinook salmon and Steelhead have to spend time in this part of the river, which is a Superfund Site, as they transition from the river’s freshwater to the saltwater of the Puget Sound. Creating more welcoming habitat for these fish gives them places to find food and escape from predators.

San Francisco Bay: In 2007 the M/V Cosco Busan crashed into the Bay Bridge and spilled 53,000 gallons of thick fuel oil into California’s San Francisco Bay. Our response staff conducted aerial surveys of the oil, modeled the path of the spill, and assessed the impacts to the shoreline. Working with our partners, we also evaluated the impacts to fish, wildlife, and habitats, and determined the amount of restoration needed to make up for the oil spill. Today we are using special buoys to plant eelgrass in the Bay as one of the spill’s restoration projects


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Oil Spills and the Holidays, Act II: Black Friday Takes a New Meaning

In the last post, Doug Helton talked about the M/V Kuroshima spill in Alaska. The next Thanksgiving story comes to us from Ed Levine, the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for Connecticut to Delaware.

After a wonderful family Thanksgiving seven years ago, what we in the response business refer to as the “Usual Notification”—a call in the middle of the night during a long holiday weekend—came true. At 9:30 p.m. on November 26, 2004, the (Black) Friday after Thanksgiving, the tanker Athos I was damaged while docking at the CITGO refinery on the Delaware River and began spilling its cargo of Venezuelan crude oil. By 2:00 a.m., I was requested to go on-scene and support the Coast Guard’s response in Philadelphia.

My sons and wife were used to this scrambling to pack and run out the door. Little did we know how complicated this response would be and how long it would last!

When I arrived, prior to first light, many details were still unknown or just unfolding. We knew the ship was leaking oil, it was leaning to one side, but it was secure at anchor. At that time we didn’t know how much oil was leaking, where it was going, how far it would spread, the cause of the damage, the environmental and economic impacts it would have, or the duration of the clean up.

Athos I

Tanker Athos I anchored in the Delaware River. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

At daylight, the first helicopter surveys found some oil along the Pennsylvania shoreline, but the first reports were not too alarming. But I knew it was important to get some calibrated eyes on the spill, someone with experience spotting oil from the air. It’s not as easy as it sounds to conduct an aerial survey.

After a few hours in the command post, I had a chance to fly.

During my overflight (aerial survey), it was clear that the ship was still leaking. I observed oil many miles up river and in larger concentrations than previously reported. Upon returning to the command post, I told the Captain of the Port, “we need a bigger boat!” This was a major oil spill, and we were going to be here a long time cleaning it up.

Little did I know how right I was.

Oiled Diver

Commercial diver covered in oil after a bottom survey. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

The ship’s crew was eventually able to transfer cargo around the tanks to stop the outflow of oil, but over 240,000 gallons of heavy crude oil were released from the ship. The cleanup took a full year until all the shorelines were signed off as clean. A nuclear power plant even shut down for over a week. Vessel traffic into the port stopped for eight days until the mysterious object that the vessel struck could be located. Hundreds of birds were oiled. Hundreds of miles of shoreline in three states had to be inspected and the oiled areas cleaned up.

Winter operations became brutal, the river eventually froze over and operations ceased for a couple months. In the early weeks of the response, a boat overturned with five people on board. Luckily for them a NOAA ship was nearby and able to rescue all of them.

Shoreline clean up

Shoreline clean up, Tinicum Island, Delaware River. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

The spilled oil was nearly neutrally buoyant in the brackish waters of the Delaware Estuary, meaning the oil was just as likely to sink as it was to float, complicating cleanup operations. Eventually, the shorelines were cleaned, and damages to natural resources were assessed and restored [leaves this blog].

Because of this accident, the response community has become more prepared and new legislation was passed (President Signs Oil Spill Legislation) [leaves this blog]. It was historic at the time, and I was glad I had given a little piece to the success of the response. It’s a thought that helps me be prepared for the next “Usual Notification” I will receive, whenever it comes.

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