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 Tale of Two Shipwrecks: When History Threatens to Pollute

Last year I wrote about NOAA’s work in identifying potentially polluting shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

Several men work to pump oil onto a barge on the ocean.

During November 2013, the Canadian Coast Guard (Western Region) worked with Mammoet Salvage to remove the oil remaining on board the wreck of the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski. The Zalinski sank off the North Coast of British Columbia, Canada, and its wreck remains upside down on top of an underwater cliff. (Daniel Porter, Mammoet Salvage)

One of the wrecks that we’ve been watching with interest has been the wreck of the Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski, a World War II U.S. Army transport ship that ran aground and sank in 1946 near Prince Rupert, Canada.  For the past decade the vessel has been the source of chronic oil spills in British Columbia’s Inside Passage, and patches to the hull were only a temporary solution.

Response operations were just completed in late December 2013, and the Canadian government reported that two-month-long operations safely extracted approximately 44,000 liters (about 12,000 gallons) of heavy Bunker C oil and 319,000 liters (84,000 gallons) of oily water from the wreck.  More information on the project is on Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans website.

Every shipwreck has its own story to tell. One of the interesting bits of trivia about the Zalinski is that the crew of the sinking ship back in 1946 was rescued by the Steam Ship Catala. The Zalinski, lying in Canadian waters, is not in our database of potentially polluting shipwrecks, but the S.S. Catala is, or should I say, was.

The Catala met its end in 1965 when the ship grounded during a storm and was abandoned on a beach on the outer coast of Washington state.  Over time the vessel was buried in sand, but 40 years later, winds and tides had changed the face of the beach, re-exposing the Catala’s rusted-out, oil-laden hull.  In 2007, the State of Washington led a multi-agency effort to remove not only the 34,500 gallons of oil still on board but also the ship’s wreckage and the potential for a major oil spill near a number of state parks and national wildlife refuges on the coast.

Learn more about how NOAA worked with the U.S. Coast Guard and Regional Response Teams to prioritize potential threats to coastal resources from the nation’s legacy of sunken ships.


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As North American Oil Production Explodes, So Do Oil Trains

National Transportation Safety Board officials at the scene of the Casselton, N.D., train derailment and explosion on January 1, 2014 in below-zero temperatures. One of the burned-out trains is in the background.

National Transportation Safety Board officials at the scene of the Casselton, N.D., train derailment and explosion on January 1, 2014 in below-zero temperatures. One of the burned-out trains is in the background. (National Transportation Safety Board)

December 30, 2013 turned out to be an explosive day. On that date, a train hauling grain near Casselton, N.D., derailed into the path of an oncoming crude oil train, resulting in several oil tank cars exploding.

Fortunately, the burning tank cars caused no injuries, but local residents were evacuated as a precaution. The North Dakota accident is one of a number of high-profile rail accidents in North America over the past year, which included the July 2013 accident in Quebec, Canada, that killed 47 people. Earlier this week, on January 8, another train accident occurred, this one in New Brunswick near the Maine border. It resulted in several crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas tank cars catching fire.

The growth in U.S. and Canadian oil production has exceeded pipeline capacity and has resulted in a dramatic increase in oil shipments via rail. According to the Association of American Railroads [PDF], in 2008 U.S. railroads moved “just 9,500 carloads of crude oil. In 2012, they originated nearly 234,000 carloads.”

These recent accidents have also raised concerns about the safety of some of these crude oils being transported. Within days of the North Dakota oil train accident, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a warning to emergency responders that “crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.” The full safety alert can be found online [PDF].

This rise in transporting oil by rail is one way the growth in the domestic oil industry and changing oil transportation patterns can pose new environmental and safety risks. Unit trains carrying oil are becoming a common sight. (A “unit train” is an entire train carrying the same product to the same destination. A crude oil unit train of 100 tanker cars would carry about 60,000 barrels, or about 2.5 million gallons.) Additional rail terminals have been proposed in Washington state and elsewhere to accommodate growing oil production in the Dakotas and eastern Montana, particularly from the Bakken oil fields.

NOAA and other spill responders are working to understand these emerging risks in order to effectively and safely respond to oil spills. We are currently working with the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment on a project to explore these risks from changes in oil and gas production and transportation. Stay tuned for future blog posts about the progress and findings of this project. UPDATE:


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What Is the Current State of Arctic Sea Ice and What’s in Store?

This is a post by Samantha Guidon, Constituent and Legislative Affairs Intern with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Arctic sea ice near Barrow, Alaska.

Patches of newly formed ice are visible in the open water of the Chukchi sea, offshore of “landfast ice.” Landfast ice, which is frozen to the shoreline, is an essential platform for local Inupiat people’s winter and spring hunting. This photo was taken during a flight between Barrow and Wainwright, Alaska, in early 2013. (NOAA)

A look at the Arctic region uncovers many hot-button issues: climate change, energy extraction, and cultural impacts, just to name a few—all in a remote area with a harsh environment. Recently, I received a crash course and status update on the Arctic’s disappearing sea ice at the 5th Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations. Co-hosted by the United States National/Naval Ice Center and the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the conference brought together key stakeholders for information sharing and discussion.

Two facts were apparent over the course of the three-day conference: (1) sea ice in the Arctic is shrinking—more rapidly than scientists originally predicted, and (2) “ships” will be essential to the future of the Arctic.

NOAA Research Oceanographer Dr. Jim Overland predicted that the Arctic will most likely be functionally ice free in the summer by 2050, at the latest; however, he agreed with others that it may happen even sooner. Rear Admiral Jonathan W. White, Navy Oceanographer and Navigator and Director of the Task Force on Climate Change, set his prediction at 2022, which may be plausible given that all of the older ice in the region has already melted. And, currently, the oldest ice in the Arctic is a mere three years old, according to Dr. Ignatius Rigor of the International Arctic Buoy Program.

Regardless of when it happens, the Arctic will be ice-free at some point within our lifetimes, a reality that comes with the potential to alter significantly business and life in the region and across the globe. It is because of these implications that three kinds of “ships” will play a key role in the region’s future: icebreaking or ice-capable ships, partnerships, and chairmanship.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in the Bering Sea to assist the tanker Renda on its way to deliver winter fuel supplies to Nome, Alaska.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the U.S.’s only operational polar icebreaker, breaks ice in the Bering Sea to assist the tanker Renda on its way to deliver winter fuel supplies to Nome, Alaska, on Jan. 8, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Wanted: Ships

The United States currently has only one icebreaker, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is mission-ready for the Arctic. Yet transit—via maritime commerce, tourism, and energy exploration—within and through the Arctic will increase, whether or not there are enough ice-capable ships able to assist them in an emergency. This fact raised questions about U.S. ship capabilities, especially because icebergs will still be around and posing risks even without historical sea ice levels. While the U.S. does have a strong Arctic maritime presence, there is plenty of room to increase that presence in the future.

As part of the U.S. Coast Guard’s “Arctic Shield” drill this September, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) will be participating in an oil spill training exercise on the icebreaker Healy in Alaska. During the exercise, they will test possible spill response techniques and tools, including a new version of NOAA’s Arctic ERMA, an online mapping tool that brings together, visualizes, and shares key data from NOAA and its partners in a centralized, easy-to-use format during an environmental response scenario. Developed by OR&R through its partnership with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, this new “Stand-alone ERMA” has been adapted for use by responders in a remote command post, vessel, or other areas with limited or no internet connection.

In addition, the Coast Guard is preparing a second icebreaker, Polar Star, which should be ready for work in November and would give the United States two functioning icebreakers.

Partnerships Are Key

The need for partnerships (interagency, national, indigenous, and international), especially in an area so vast during a time with limited resources, was another key theme. One successful partnership brought up was the Memorandum of Understanding between NOAA and Shell to share data in the Arctic, demonstrating how government and industry can work together effectively. An area where there could be strengthened partnerships and better forms of communication is in working more closely with indigenous peoples to incorporate and use traditional knowledge in Arctic emergency planning, which OR&R’s Dr. Amy Merten mentioned in her talk on Arctic ERMA.

Chairmanship of the Arctic Council

Chairmanship of the Arctic Council was also on everyone’s mind. Canada just assumed chairmanship in 2013 and the United States is on deck for 2015, which will result in four years of North American chairmanship. Julia Gourley, U.S. Senior Arctic Official at the Department of State, discussed the desire to communicate and work with Canada in order to accomplish both of the countries’ goals and manage the Arctic to the best of their abilities.

However, several questions arose out of the Arctic Council discussion, including: When chairmanship moves away from North America, will the priorities shift? The Arctic Council does not have any authority for governance; will this be a problem in the future? Agreements between Arctic Council nations on oil spill response and search and rescue are great ideas in theory, but how will they be implemented during an actual emergency? This may be a compelling reason for supporting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which, according to the U.N., extends “international law to the vast, shared water resources of our planet,” and under whose provisions the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard already operate, though the U.S. has not yet ratified it.

How Will the U.S. Move Ahead?

Some concerns about the U.S. status in the Arctic stem from having only one functioning ice breaker, the USCG Cutter Healy. However, Rear Admiral White referenced the fact that our country is still in transition from a nation with an Arctic state to an Arctic nation. Other Arctic nations have needed additional resources for quite some time because they have always relied on the area for trade. However, within the United States, attention on the Arctic is still a relatively new phenomenon to non-Alaskans, so it may take more time to gain the status of some of the other Arctic nations.

President Barack Obama released his National Strategy for the Arctic Region in May 2013, which outlines an overall plan for the Arctic region, focusing on security, stewardship, and partnerships. There are at least 10 other reports from federal agencies, including the Coast Guard, NOAA, U.S. Arctic Research Commission, and the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, also outlining their own Arctic strategies and policy recommendations, making it difficult to identify a common direction when moving forward in the Arctic region.

Because of this, I am composing a report for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration that will examine all of these plans and policy recommendations and identify a key policy that is common among the reports in order to suggest a priority for implementation.

Learn more about our work in the Arctic, from oil spill response support to marine debris removal.

Samantha Guidon is currently a graduate student at University of Pennsylvania studying Environmental Policy and OR&R’s Constituent and Legislative Affairs Intern for the summer. Prior to UPenn, Sam graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in the spring of 2012 with a BA in Environmental Policy. Sam is originally from Cranford, New Jersey, and loves to vacation to the Jersey Shore.


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NOAA Hosts Forum Exploring Oil Sands and the Challenges of When They Spill

Water and sediment sampling on Morrow Lake near Battle Creek, Mich., during the response to the Enbridge pipeline spill of oil sands product. August 2, 2010 (U.S. Coast Guard)

Water and sediment sampling on Morrow Lake near Battle Creek, Mich., during the response to the Enbridge pipeline spill of oil sands product. August 2, 2010 (U.S. Coast Guard)

Unless there is a big spill or accident, most people probably don’t think much about different types of crude oil, where it comes from, or how it is transported.

Yet there is an ongoing national debate about Canada’s Alberta oil sands and whether to complete the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry Alberta oil sands products to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast. This proposed pipeline has gotten a lot of attention, but there are existing pipelines carrying oil sands products around Canada and across the border into the U.S., as well as tanker, barge, and rail operations doing the same.

The Exxon Pegasus pipeline spill in Mayflower, Ark., on March 29, 2013, was a reminder that oil sands are already being transported and, whenever oil is transported, there is risk of a spill.

Oil sands are considered an unconventional oil type that has been growing in prominence as oil prices fluctuate and production technologies improve. As a result, there are many questions about how best to respond to spills of crude oil products derived from oil sands. One of the major concerns is the buoyancy of oil sands products, and their potential to sink, especially in sediment-laden waters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still cleaning up submerged oil from the July 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

Last week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration participated in an Oil Sands Products Forum held at NOAA’s Western Regional Center in Seattle, Wash. The forum was sponsored by the Washington State Department of Ecology Spills Program, U.S. Coast Guard, and the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force. The University of New Hampshire Center for Spills in the Environment facilitated the forum.

The two-day meeting included a full day of presentations and discussions about oil sands (also known as tar sands or bitumen) and their related products—covering everything from extraction, refining, and transportation to chemistry, how they move and react in the environment, and recent case studies of spill responses. Over 50 environmental specialists, oil spill planners, and responders attended from government agencies, tribal governments, nongovernmental organizations, and industry.  Several oil sands experts from Canadian agencies and organizations also attended and presented.

On the second day, spill responders were presented with four different spill scenarios involving oil sands products, and the potential issues and challenges highlighted by the different spill situations were thoroughly discussed and recorded. Presentations and meeting notes will be made available through the Center for Spills in the Environment.  The focus of this forum was not to discuss whether or not oil sands should be exploited as a resource, but rather, how to prepare better for and then deal effectively with a spill of oil sands products when it happens.


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Alcoa Aluminum Factories Settle $19.4 Million for Pollution of St. Lawrence River Watershed, Most Will Fund Restoration of Tribal Culture, Recreational Fishing, and Habitat

For decades, two Alcoa alumininum facilities discharged toxic PCBs into the St. Lawrence River, its tributaries the Grasse and Raquette Rivers, and the surrounding area in Massena, N.Y. Alcoa and Reynolds are paying $19.4 million to settle the resulting damages to natural resources. (NOAA)

For decades, two Alcoa alumininum facilities discharged toxic PCBs into the St. Lawrence River, its tributaries the Grasse and Raquette Rivers, and the surrounding area in Massena, N.Y. Alcoa and Reynolds are paying $19.4 million to settle the resulting damages to natural resources. (NOAA)

In the northern reaches of upstate New York, just across and upriver from Canada, two factories chug along. Both now owned by aluminum manufacturer Alcoa, these factories have been producing aluminum on the banks of the Grasse and St. Lawrence Rivers since 1903 and 1958. And like many other industries in the past, these two Alcoa plants in Massena, N.Y., discharged a stream of toxic pollutants into the water, air, and soil around them.

Now, only a few miles away, dozens of young Mohawk children at the Akwesasne Freedom School attempt to reclaim their Mohawk heritage and a connection with the natural world and traditional practices endangered in part by the area’s contaminated history.

Today, the majority of the $19.4 million settlement with Alcoa and the former Reynolds Metals Company will go toward healing past wounds to this rich ecological and cultural environment with a suite of proposed restoration projects.

A History of Pollution on the St. Lawrence

Starting in the late 1950s, Alcoa and Reynolds used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in hydraulic fluid and electrical equipment as they produced aluminum at these two factories. Nearby, General Motors Central Foundry (GM) also used PCBs in the hydraulic fluids when building automotive engines and in electric equipment. The PCBs from these three facilities in turn made their way into the St. Lawrence River, its tributaries the Grasse and Raquette Rivers, and the surrounding area.

Banned in 1979, PCBs are a group of persistent and highly toxic compounds which, in addition to causing cancer in animals, affects growth, behavior, reproduction, immune response, and neurological development. Manufacturing activities at these three factories released a slew of other industrial pollutants [PDF] that impacted the environment, including aluminum, fluoride, cyanide, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, a hazardous component of oil, coal, and tar).

In 2000, Alcoa purchased Reynolds and as a result, Reynolds’ facility is now known as Alcoa East. Its sister facility, Alcoa West, is the longest continually operating aluminum facility in the world. The third, now-shuttered, General Motors factory sits next door to Alcoa East and has already paid approximately $1.8 million for environmental restoration in separate bankruptcy proceedings. Combined with $18.5 million from Alcoa’s settlement, the Alcoa and GM settlements will provide approximately $20.3 million for specific projects to restore access to recreational fishing, fish and wildlife, and Mohawk traditional practices and language.

Moving Toward Environmental Restoration

The St. Lawrence Environmental Trustee Council, a group of federal, state, and tribal governments which includes NOAA, has coordinated with the companies to assess the damages to ecological resources, recreational fishing, and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s cultural resources. Due to the history of industrial pollution released from these factories into the St. Lawrence River watershed, the sediments, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians along the St. Lawrence, Grasse, and Raquette Rivers have all suffered. Under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, various cleanup activities, such as dredging and capping contaminated river sediments, have been attempting to remediate the polluted environment.

Improvements to spawning habitat and stocking of lake sturgeon is one of the restoration projects preferred by the natural resource trustees. (Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe)

Improvements to spawning habitat and stocking of lake sturgeon is one of the restoration projects preferred by the natural resource trustees. (Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe)

As part of a process that moves beyond cleanup, the trustees, led by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, have identified preferred recreational fishing, ecological, and cultural restoration projects to compensate the public for the resulting environmental injuries.

For example, contaminants from the three facilities degraded adult and juvenile fish habitat for species such as the American eel (currently being considered for Endangered Species Act protection) and the state-threatened lake sturgeon. The presence of toxic PCBs triggered fish consumption advisories for the St. Lawrence, Grasse, Raquette, and St. Regis Rivers. In place since 1984, these advisories have resulted in an estimated 221,000–250,000 fewer fishing trips on these rivers, both in the past and into the future. In response, four new boat launches will be constructed and one existing launch will be upgraded to provide shoreline and in-river fishing access points.

The trustees also will protect and restore wetland and upland habitat, enhance stream banks, improve impeded fish and other wildlife passage through the rivers, enhance fish stocks and spawning habitat, and restore bird habitat. The preferred restoration projects are described in the St. Lawrence River Environment Restoration Compensation and Determination Plan [PDF]. The public can comment on this plan and on the Alcoa $19.4 million natural resource damage settlement, which includes $18.5 million for restoration and nearly $1 million in reimbursement for past environmental assessment costs.

Reconnecting to the Natural World

One of the most creative examples of the preferred restoration projects centers not on restoring natural resources such as sturgeon, a species important to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, but on restoring the unique culture of the Mohawks, which is tied closely to the natural world.

A tribal apprenticeship program will work to restore traditional Mohawk cultural practices, including basketmaking. (Akwesasne Museum and Cultural Center)

A tribal apprenticeship program will work to restore traditional Mohawk cultural practices, including basketmaking. (Akwesasne Museum and Cultural Center)

Grassy meadows on both sides of the Lower Grasse River were set aside for the Mohawks of Akewsasne by the Seven Nations of Canada Treaty of 1796. The name Akwesasne means “the land where the partridge drums,” a reference to the sound created by the rapids of the St. Lawrence River prior to the construction of dams.

The people of Akwesasne were directly impacted by the contamination from the Alcoa, Reynolds, and GM factories. An innovative tribal apprenticeship program will seek to restore traditional Mohawk cultural practices that have been lost or impaired since contamination limited use of the uplands, the rivers, and their natural resources. The tribe, as a trustee, has targeted four traditional areas for apprentices to receive hands-on training from experienced masters:

  • Water, fishing, and use of the river.
  • Horticulture and basketmaking.
  • Medicinal plants and healing.
  • Hunting and trapping.

The apprenticeship program will provide experience in directly harvesting, preparing, preserving, and producing traditional Mohawk cultural products while promoting Mohawk language in each aspect of the training.

Restoration funding also will support existing institutions and programs focused on recovering cultural practices and language injured by contaminants from these manufacturing sites.

For more information and instructions on how to comment on the preferred restoration projects and the settlement, visit the NOAA Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program website.


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NOAA and Canadian Partners Share Arctic Data Across Borders

Arctic Ocean, Canada Basin, July 22, 2005. (NOAA/Jeremy Potter)

Arctic Ocean, Canada Basin, July 22, 2005. (NOAA/Jeremy Potter)

The United States and our neighbors to the north in Canada share a border approximately 5,525 miles long. Some 1,538 miles (or roughly 28%) of which are shared with the State of Alaska alone. And with this shared boundary comes shared natural resources, shared interests, and the need for a shared understanding of how we can work together to protect our communities, wildlife, and environment from the escalating risk of oil spills and other accidents in the Arctic.

To that end, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration co-hosted a workshop in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, with the Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat (a Canadian delegate representing aboriginal interests to the Arctic Council) and the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center from February 12-13, 2013. The goal was to bring together representatives from both the U.S. and Canada to examine the potential for incorporating Canadian data into NOAA’s online mapping tool, Arctic ERMA®.

Arctic ERMA (Environmental Response Management Application) is an online Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool being used to prepare and plan for Arctic pollution response, assessment, and environmental restoration. ERMA brings together critical information needed for an effective emergency response in the Arctic’s distinctive conditions, such as the extent and concentration of sea ice, locations of ports and oil and gas pipelines, and vulnerable environmental resources which could be harmed by an oil spill.

The workshop participants came from a variety of organizations. Here, top row: NASA, Consultant, Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Ice Service, Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat. Bottom row: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Environment Canada, NOAA. (University of New Hampshire/Kathy Mandsager)

The workshop participants came from a variety of organizations. Here, top row: NASA, Consultant, Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Ice Service, Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat. Bottom row: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Environment Canada, NOAA. (University of New Hampshire/Kathy Mandsager)

Discussions at the workshop focused on identifying the regional gaps in data in Arctic ERMA, usable data formats, and how to improve functionality and access to information and tools that would help in the case of an oil spill or environmental accident. Workshop participants spanned multiple areas of expertise: government emergency responders, environmental protection and fisheries managers, weather and natural resource agencies, private industry, non-governmental organizations, local indigenous communities, and universities.

By the end, the workshop improved our understanding of U.S. and Canadian data management practices and systems, how we identify both the data that are available and still needed, and what the long-term training needs are for Arctic communities. We also discussed at length how to better incorporate traditional local knowledge about landscapes and natural resources in Arctic ERMA. We hope that engaging in these conversations and building strong relationships today will promote the kind of cooperation and collaboration that will carry us through any environmental emergencies in the future.

This joint workshop is a project under the Arctic Council’s Emergency, Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group and under the agreement between Environment Canada and NOAA. Learn more about how the Office of Response and Restoration is preparing for oil spills and other pollution incidents in the Arctic.


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Digging for Data at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium

This is a post by NOAA Environmental Scientist Dr. Amy Merten.

View of Kruzof Island, Sitka Sound, Alaska.

The ShoreZone project photographs, maps, and collects information about Pacific Northwest shorelines, like in this view of Kruzof Island, Sitka Sound, Alaska. (NOAA Fisheries)

As Chief of the Spatial Data Branch in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, my focus is all about data. In particular, that means figuring out how to access data related to oil spills: the type of information useful for planning before a spill and for the response, environmental injury assessment, and restoration after a spill. Once we get that data, which often comes from other science agencies, universities, and industry, we can then ingest it into Arctic ERMA®, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental disaster data. While at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium this week, I have spent much of my time working with experts who provide and manage that kind of data.

For example, the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS) provides real-time and historical coastal data to multiple stakeholders, including NOAA for Arctic ERMA. AOOS is also the host for the newly signed data-sharing agreement [PDF] between NOAA and three oil companies (Shell, ConocoPhillips, and StatOil). These companies have agreed to share the physical oceanographic, geological, and biological data they have been collecting near areas of Arctic offshore oil and gas activities since 2009. This is an unprecedented amount of data that the industry now is sharing with the federal government and the public. The data are available at www.aoos.org.

A view of Anchorage from the Alaska Marine Science Symposium.

A view of Anchorage from the Alaska Marine Science Symposium. (NOAA)

My colleague and our Arctic ERMA geographic information system (GIS) expert, Zach Winters-Staszak, attended the Arctic Mapping Workshop sponsored by our partners at the University of Alaska Fairbanks GINA program. Their geographic information network gives us access to high-resolution base maps, imagery, high frequency radar, ice radar, webcams, and more.  Zach learned about new data sets and new ways for pulling high impact data into Arctic ERMA.

Another helpful information source I learned more about was NOAA’s ShoreZone project.  ShoreZone [PDF] is a popular Pacific Northwest dataset of high-resolution aerial videos and photographs of the shoreline in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon at extreme low tide. The photos and videos are augmented with habitat classifications of the different zones along the shoreline, such as salt marsh or kelp beds. We already pull in ShoreZone data layers into our Arctic and Pacific Northwest ERMA sites.

These data are valuable for preparedness and response to oil spills and for understanding places where oil and marine debris may accumulate naturally. It’s especially useful for understanding what the shoreline might look like before going out to survey for signs of oil or marine debris accumulation. It can help you decide how you’re going to access the shore (boat, helicopter, on foot) and what you might expect to find. ShoreZone surveyed the Kotzebue and North Slope regions of the Alaskan Arctic this past summer, which we’re excited to draw into Arctic ERMA when they are available.

Read more about Arctic ERMA and our plans for this environmental data tool.

Amy Merten with kids from Kivalina, Alaska.

Dr. Amy Merten is pictured here with children from the Alaskan village of Kivalina. She was in Alaska for an oil spill workshop in the village of Kotzebue.

Amy Merten is the Spatial Data Branch Chief in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Amy developed the concept for the online mapping tool ERMA (Environmental Response Mapping Application). ERMA was developed in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire. She expanded the ERMA team at NOAA to fill response and natural resource trustee responsibilities during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Amy oversees data management of the resulting oil spill damage assessment. She received her doctorate and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland.


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What Are the Increased Risks From Transporting Tar Sands Oil?

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Robin, Terry, Shanese, Jeff, Ali, and Colin.

Scientists assessed impacts to mussel shells from response-related boat traffic after an oil spill in the Kalamazoo River, Michigan.

In July of 2010, an Enbridge-owned pipeline spilled oil — which later turned out to be diluted bitumen from Canadian tar sands — into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Because the heavier elements of the oil became submerged in the river, response-related boat traffic trying to remove the oil ended up crushing freshwater mussels. The scientists shown here were assessing those impacts. (NOAA)

What are tar sands?

How are they different than other forms of oil, and why have they been such a hot topic in the news recently?

What environmental risks might tar sands oil pose if spilled during transportation?

How would this affect NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R)?

As tar sands production continues to rise in North America, these are some of the core questions NOAA hopes to answer—and therefore, are the focus of our research. Our project team of six graduate students at the University of Washington is working to gather information that will help inform OR&R’s preparedness and response efforts for potential spills of tar sands oil.

Tar Sands: The Basics

Tar sands, also referred to as oil sands, are a combination of clay, sand, water, and heavy black viscous oil called bitumen. They can be extracted and processed to separate the bitumen, which is upgraded to synthetic crude oil and refined to make asphalt, gasoline, and jet fuel.

Bitumen.

Bitumen. (Government of Alberta, Canada)

Because of its thick consistency (which resembles peanut butter), bitumen, unlike most conventional crude oils, must be diluted with a cocktail of other petroleum compounds before it is able to flow through pumps and tanks or pipelines for transport. This thinner, more fluid product is called diluted bitumen or dilbit. Another similar blend made from bitumen and synthetic crude oil is called synthetic bitumen or synbit.

Over the past decade, this resource which was previously uneconomical due to the high cost of extraction has become profitable as oil prices have increased and extraction technologies have improved. While many countries, including the U.S., have known deposits of tar sands, the world’s largest reserves are located across three deposits in northern Alberta, Canada—the Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River deposits. The Government of Alberta estimates its total reserves of bitumen at about 170 billion barrels.

A map of current and proposed Canadian and U.S. oil pipelines

A map of current and proposed Canadian and U.S. oil pipelines which carry tar sands oils. It includes the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline which would cross the U.S.-Canadian border and six U.S. states. (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers/The Facts on Oil Sands Report 2012)

Increased Spill Risks and NOAA

Canada has been producing tar sands products since 1967, but recently, production has ramped up substantially.

Because Canada exports most of its tar sands products, the transportation infrastructure for bitumen—pipelines, rail, and ships— has been expanding as well.

A notable example is the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline which would cross the Canadian-U.S. boundary, extending from Alberta to Texas. Other proposed projects would increase transportation capacity for tar sands products on both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. Expanding traffic to markets in the U.S., Asia, and elsewhere is predicted to increase the potential for spills in and around the Great Lakes, Washington’s Puget Sound, and at other major U.S. shipping terminals and river crossings.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has the responsibility to respond to and provide scientific support for oil and chemical spills in U.S. coastal waters. This means OR&R must be able to anticipate and plan for the increased risks that a tar sands oil spill might bring.

At present, knowledge about the chemical properties and behavior of tar sands products during a marine spill is limited. For example, would the diluted bitumen float or sink in the brackish waters of many ports, where rivers’ fresh water mixes with salty seawater? How should responders be ready to remove that oil if it were suspended in the water column instead of floating on the surface?

These gaps in information make effective spill planning and response more difficult for NOAA and its partners. Key information about tar sands’ chemical and physical properties is proprietary, and regulatory agencies’ knowledge of where and when this material is being transported is limited as well. OR&R has been learning on the job how to deal with some of these challenges, as in the 2010 case of an Enbridge pipeline spilling what later turned out to be tar sands oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

Project Scope

Over the past three months we have begun investigating key environmental, economic, and transportation issues facing tar sands oil production. We have met with key players, including NOAA scientists and responders, U.S. Coast Guard, Washington Department of Ecology, oil industry representatives, and environmental groups, to define our research questions and the project scope. Currently at the halfway point of our project, we are meeting with NOAA to discuss preliminary findings and further refine our research goals for OR&R’s benefit.

Here’s a peek at what we’ve found so far:

  • To be transported, bitumen is diluted with a variety of petroleum compounds, and some of this information may be considered trade secrets and is not generally shared, with potential implications for human health and environmental impacts.
  • Because the base bitumen product has a similar density to water, it has the potential to sink when spilled and undergo significant changes once in the environment—an important consideration for spill response and cleanup.
  • Canadian tar sands are currently transported across Canada and the United States by ship, rail, and pipeline, with plans to expand substantially.
  • Because the tar sands industry is relatively new and key information is proprietary, there are gaps in knowledge that warrant additional information sharing and research to improve NOAA’s and other government agencies’ readiness to deal with tar sands oil spills.

The project will wrap up in March 2013, and we will present our final report to the Office and Response and Restoration. We will update our progress on this blog as we get closer to finishing the final report. We look forward to hearing your feedback.

Learn more at our project website: NOAA Oil Sands Project.

Robin, Terry, Shanese, Jeff, Ali, and Colin are graduate students at the University of Washington in programs at the Evans School of Public Affairs, the Foster School of Business, and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. OR&R is sponsoring their research project, “Understanding the Risks from Transportation of Tar Sands and Diluted Bitumen” as part of the Environmental Management Certificate Program at the University of Washington. It focuses on providing information to OR&R that will help inform preparedness and response to future spills. 


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Government of Japan Gifts NOAA $5 Million to Address Tsunami Marine Debris

A 66-foot floating dock from Japan sits on Agate Beach, Oregon.

A 66-foot dock sits on Agate Beach, Oregon. Debris of all different sizes and types from the March 2011 tsunami in Japan has washed ashore in the United States. (Oregon Dept. of Parks and Recreation)

On November 30, 2012, the Government of Japan announced a gift of $5 million to the United States, through NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, to support efforts in response to marine debris washing ashore in the U.S. from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The funds will be used to support marine debris response efforts, such as removal of debris, disposal fees, cleanup supplies, detection and monitoring. NOAA anticipates distributing funds to affected regions as the funds are received from Japan and will work to determine immediate needs and plan for future applications.

Since the disaster, NOAA has been leading efforts with federal, state and local partners to coordinate a response, collect data, assess the debris, and reduce possible impacts to natural resources and coastal communities.

Debris from the disaster has drifted across the Pacific and reached shorelines in the U.S. and Canada. In July, NOAA provided $50,000 each to Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and California to support response efforts.

Items from the tsunami that have drifted to U.S. shores include sports balls, a floating dock, buoys, and vessels. Mariners and the public can help report debris by emailing DisasterDebris@noaa.gov with information on significant sightings.


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Small Japanese Boat Found near Vancouver Island, Canada, Even as Summer Currents Hold Marine Debris at Bay for now

Small boat on rocky shore.

The small boat which washed up on remote Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, was positively identified as a vessel lost during the 2011 Japan tsunami. Credit: Kevin Head.

On remote Spring Island, northwest of Vancouver Island, Canada, a small boat inscribed with Japanese characters washed up with the tide this summer. A Canadian provincial official has confirmed this boat was lost during the 2011 Japan tsunami. Emergency Management British Columbia matched the serial number on the boat’s hull with one on the Japanese consulate’s list of vessels lost due to the tsunami. Eric Gorbman, who owns a nearby resort, and Kevin Head found and reported the boat on August 9, 2012.

A Summer Decrease in Debris

While this brings the total number of confirmed tsunami debris sightings to 11, summer weather patterns have created a lull in debris turning up on nearby Washington’s coast. This has the state Department of Ecology taking back some of the additional trash receptacles they provided near public access points earlier this summer. Recent decreases in reported marine debris in these areas, along with reports of someone using them to dump household waste, led to the removal.

“We want to ensure we are stretching our dollars as far as we can,” said Peter Lyon, a Washington Department of Ecology regional manager. “In June, when the boxes were placed along beaches, a southwest wind pattern directed more debris ashore in those areas than we are seeing now. When weather patterns shift again in the fall, we are likely to see higher amounts of debris again. So we want to conserve our resources in case that happens.”

The Washington Department of Ecology states that the trash bins can be easily and quickly redeployed within about 24 hours to accommodate possible increases in marine debris in the future. The funding to stock the bins and litter bags came from Department of Ecology’s litter account, setting aside $100,000 to deal with marine debris. These supplies help support community and volunteer efforts to collect and dispose of debris on Washington beaches.

Where Is the Debris Now?

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has oceanographers Glen Watabayashi and Amy MacFadyen using our GNOME model to give us an understanding of where debris from the tsunami may be located today. GNOME is a software modeling tool used to predict the possible route pollutants might follow in a body of water, and we use it most frequently during an oil spill.

Our oceanographers are incorporating into this model how the winds and ocean currents since the tsunami may have moved items through the Pacific Ocean. However, rather than forecasting when debris will reach U.S. shores in the future, this model uses data from past winds and currents to show possible patterns of where debris may be concentrated right now.

“For me the story is not what’s been found but what hasn’t been found,” said NOAA oceanographer Glen Watabayashi. “With all the summer vessel traffic along the West Coast and out in the North Pacific, there have been no reports of any large concentrations of debris.”

Learn more at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/.

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