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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When the Dynamics of an Oil Spill Shut Down a Nuclear Power Plant

Yellow containment boom floats on a river next to a nuclear power plant.

Precautionary containment boom is visible around the water intake system at the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey on December 6, 2004. The nuclear plant was shut down for 11 days to prevent the heavy, submerged oil from the Athos spill from clogging the water intakes. (NOAA)

“I’ve never reopened a nuclear power plant,” thought NOAA’s Ed Levine. Despite that, Levine knew it was his job to get the right information to the people who ultimately would make that decision. This was his role as a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator during oil spills. However, most major oil spills do not affect nuclear power plants. This wintry day in 2004 was an exception.

Forty miles north of the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey, an oil tanker called the Athos I had struck an object hidden beneath the Delaware River. As it was preparing to dock at the CITGO refinery near Philadelphia on November 26, the ship began tilting to one side, the engine shut down, and oil started gushing out.

“Not your typical oil spill,” later reflected Jonathan Sarubbi, who served as U.S. Coast Guard Captain of the Port and led the federal response during this incident. Not only did no one immediately know what the ship had hit—or where that object was located in the river channel—but the Athos, now sitting too low in the water to reach the dock, was stuck where it was. And it was still leaking its cargo of heavy Venezuelan crude oil.

Capt. Sarubbi ordered vessel traffic through this busy East Coast shipping channel to stop until the object the Athos hit could be found. Little did Capt. Sarubbi, Levine, and the other responders know that even more challenges would be in store beneath the water and down the river.

Getting Mixed up

Most oils, most of the time, float on the surface of water. This was precisely what responders expected the oil coming out of the Athos to do. But within a couple days of the spill, they realized that was not the case. This oil was a little on the heavier side. As it shot out of the ship’s punctured bottom, some of the oil mixed with sediment from the river bottom. It didn’t have far to go; thanks to an extremely low tide pulling the river out to sea, the Athos was passing a mere 18 inches above the bottom of the river when it sprung a leak.

Now mixed with sediment, some of the spilled oil became as dense as or denser than water. Instead of rising to the river surface, it sank to the bottom or drifted in the water column. Even some of the oil that floated became mixed with sediment along the shoreline, later sinking below the surface. For the oil suspended in the water, the turbulence of the Delaware River kept it moving with the currents increasingly toward the Salem nuclear plant, perched on the river’s edge.

NOAA’s oil spill trajectory model GNOME forecasts the spread of oil by assuming the oil is floating on the water’s surface. Normally, our oceanographers can verify how well the forecasts are doing by calibrating the model against twice-a-day aerial surveys of the oil’s movement. The trouble with oil that does not float is that it is harder to see, especially in the murky waters of the Delaware River.

Responders were forced to improvise. To track oil underwater, they created new sampling methods, one of which involved dropping weighted ropes into the water column at various points along the river. The ropes were lined with what looked like cheerleader pom-poms made of oil-attracting plastic strips that would pick up oil as it passed by.

Nuclear Ambitions

Nuclear plants like the Salem facility rely on a steady flow of freshwater to cool their reactors. A thin layer of floating oil was nearing the plant by December 1, 2004, with predictions that the heavier, submerged oil would not be far behind. By December 3, small, sticky bits of oil began showing up in the screens on the plant’s cooling water intakes. To keep them from becoming clogged, the plant decided to shut down its two nuclear reactors the next day. That was when NOAA’s Ed Levine was tasked with figuring out when the significant threats due to the oil had passed.

Eleven days later, the Salem nuclear plant operators, the State of New Jersey, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed the plant to restart. A combination of our modeling and new sampling methods for detecting underwater oil had shown a clear and significant drop in the amount of oil around the plant. Closing this major electric generating facility cost $33.1 million out of more than $162 million in claims paid to parties affected by the Athos spill. But through our innovative modeling and sampling, we were able to reduce the time the plant was offline, minimizing the disruption to the power grid and reducing the economic loss.

Levine recalled this as an “eye-opening” experience, one yielding a number of lessons for working with nuclear power plants should an oil spill threaten one in the future. To learn more about the Athos oil spill, from response to restoration, visit response.restoration.noaa.gov/athos.

A special thanks to NOAA’s Ed Levine and Chris Barker, former U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jonathan Sarubbi, and Henry Font, Donna Hellberg, and Thomas Morrison of the Coast Guard National Pollution Funds Center for sharing information and data which contributed to this post.


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Preventing Chemical Disasters by Improving our Software Tools

On April 17, 2013, in the farming community of West, Texas, the storage and distribution facility of West Fertilizer Company caught fire. As firefighters attempted to douse the flames, tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the facility detonated, resulting in an explosion [warning*] packed with the force of a small earthquake. The blast killed fifteen people, injured more than 300, and damaged or destroyed more than 150 buildings.

Just two months later, on June 13, disaster struck again—this time at one of 12 chemical plants along a 10-mile stretch of the Mississippi River. In the industrial town of Geismar, Louisiana, the Williams Olefins chemical facility exploded and caught fire, killing two workers and injuring at least 75 others. The blast sent a huge fireball and column of smoke into the air. Fueled by the petrochemical propylene, the fire burned for more than three hours. Authorities ordered residents to remain indoors for hours to avoid the billowing smoke.

Getting Information into the Right Hands Before an Emergency

One of the challenges in preventing disasters such as these is to ensure that critical information gets into the planning cycle, and into the hands of the local emergency planning and responder community. To reduce the likelihood of chemical disasters in the United States, Congress has imposed requirements for governments, tribes, and industry.

For example, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986 was created to help communities plan for emergencies involving hazardous substances. EPCRA requires federal, state, and local governments; Indian tribes; and the chemical industry to plan for hazardous chemical emergencies. It also requires industry to report on the storage, use, and releases of hazardous chemicals to federal, state, and local governments.

NOAA’s CAMEO software suite, jointly developed since 1987 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Emergency Management, is a key tool in the implementation of EPCRA. CAMEO is a suite of software tools used to plan for and respond to chemical emergencies. Developed to assist front-line chemical emergency planners and responders, CAMEO can access, store, and evaluate information critical for developing emergency plans, such as locations of hazardous chemical storage and nearby hospitals, schools, and other at-risk population centers.

From the Desk of the President

Chemical plant lit up at night.

Federal agencies are focused on changing the national landscape of chemical facility safety and security in the wake of the 2013 tragedies. (U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration)

After the two major chemical disasters of 2013, President Obama signed Executive Order 13650 (EO 13650) to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities and to reduce the risks of hazardous chemicals to workers and communities.

In addition to several other provisions, this executive order established a senior work group from six different departments and agencies, including the EPA, all of whom are responsible for chemical facility safety and security. In a report released June 6, 2014 [PDF], this work group identified specific actions for the agencies to take, and directly called out enhancements to the CAMEO suite to help address chemical facility safety and security.

A Safer Future Is a More Mobile-Friendly One

Because the executive order specifies that the changes in CAMEO be completed by the end of fiscal year 2016, our office and our EPA partner are crafting a two-year plan for CAMEO. Here are a couple of examples of the work we have ahead.

To ensure broad access to critical chemical information for emergency planners and responders, we will be adding new standards—the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards—to the regulatory section on our chemical datasheets, which already includes information from EPCRA, the Clean Air Act, and other regulations. This addition will help provide a linkage between regulatory programs.

Another recommendation is that chemical facility data reported under EPCRA be easier for emergency responders and planners to access. As a result, we and our partners will review plans for providing online access to this data via mobile applications. Currently, our CAMEO software programs are mostly stand-alone, computer desktop applications.

To expand offline access to emergency response information for people working in the field, we plan to add a mobile app version of our chemical database tool CAMEO Chemicals, which will have all of the program’s data loaded onto an individual’s smartphone. This will be in addition to the desktop, website, and mobile website versions of CAMEO Chemicals already available.

To maximize access to our chemical plume modeling program, ALOHA, we will make an Internet browser-based ALOHA program that is available as both a website and a desktop application. In addition, we will completely redesign the CAMEO data management program, CAMEOfm, which includes creating a supplemental CAMEO mobile application for viewing the EPCRA data from the linked desktop program.

Chemical accidents are infrequent, and through work like this, we hope to keep them—and their impacts—that way.

*The video and audio recording of the explosion linked to here may be disturbing to some audiences.


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The Earth Is Blue and We’d Like to Keep It That Way

Pod of dolphins swimming.

Spinner dolphins in the lagoon at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. A pod of over 200 spinner dolphins frequent Midway Atoll’s lagoon. (NOAA/Andy Collins)

Often, you have to leave a place to gain some perspective.

Sometimes, that means going all the way to outer space.

When humans ventured away from this planet for the first time, we came to the stunning realization that Earth is blue. A planet covered in sea-to-shining-sea blue. And increasingly, we began to worry about protecting it. With the creation of the National Marine Sanctuaries system in 1972, a very special form of that protection began to be extended to miles of ocean in the United States. Today, that protection takes the form of 14 marine protected areas encompassing more than 170,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters.

Starting October 23, 2014, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is celebrating this simple, yet profound realization about our planet—that Earth is Blue—on their social media accounts. You can follow along on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and now their brand-new Instagram account @NOAAsanctuaries. Each day, you’ll see an array of striking photos (plus weekly videos) showing off NOAA’s—and more importantly, your—National Marine Sanctuaries, in all of their glory. Share your own photos and videos from the sanctuaries with the hashtag #earthisblue and find regular updates at sanctuaries.noaa.gov/earthisblue.html.

You can kick things off with this video:

Marine sanctuaries are important places which help protect everything from humpback whales and lush kelp forests to deep-sea canyons and World War II shipwrecks. But sometimes the sanctuaries themselves need some extra protection and even restoration. In fact, one of the first marine sanctuaries, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off of southern California, was created to protect waters once imperiled by a massive oil spill which helped inspire the creation of the sanctuary system in the first place.

Japanese tsunami dock located on beach within Olympic National Park and National Marine Sanctuary.

To minimize damage to the coastline and marine habitat, federal agencies removed the Japanese dock that turned up on the Washington coast in late 2012. In addition to being located within a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park, the dock was also within NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and adjacent to the Washington Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. (National Park Service)

At times NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is called to this role when threats such as an oil spill, grounded ship, or even huge, floating dock endanger the marine sanctuaries and their incredible natural and cultural resources.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary

In March 2013, we worked with a variety of partners, including others in NOAA, to remove a 185-ton, 65-foot Japanese floating dock from the shores of Washington. This dock was swept out to sea from Misawa, Japan, during the 2011 tsunami and once it was sighted off the Washington coast in December 2012, our oceanographers helped model where it would wash up.

Built out of plastic foam, concrete, and steel, this structure was pretty beat up by the time it ended up inside NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park. A threat to the environment, visitors, and wildlife before we removed it, its foam was starting to escape to the surrounding beach and waters, where it could have been eaten by the marine sanctuary’s whales, seals, birds, and fish.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

In an effort to protect the vibrant marine life of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA’s Restoration Center began clearing away illegal lobster fishing devices known as “casitas” in June 2014. The project is funded by a criminal case against a commercial diver who for years used casitas to poach spiny lobsters from the sanctuary’s seafloor. Constructed from materials such as metal sheets, cinder blocks, and lumber, these unstable structures not only allow poachers to illegally harvest huge numbers of spiny lobsters but they also damage the seafloor when shifted around during storms.

A spiny lobster in a casita on the seafloor.

A spiny lobster in a casita in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA is removing these illegal lobster fishing devices which damage seafloor habitat. (NOAA)

Also in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, our office and several partners ran through what it would be like to respond to an oil spill in the sanctuary waters. In April 2005, we participated in Safe Sanctuaries 2005, an oil spill training exercise that tested the capabilities of several NOAA programs, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard. The drill scenario involved a hypothetical grounding at Elbow Reef, off Key Largo, of an 800-foot cargo vessel carrying 270,000 gallons of fuel. In the scenario, the grounding injured coral reef habitat and submerged historical artifacts, and an oil spill threatened other resources. Watch a video of the activities conducted during the drill.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

Even hundreds of miles from the main cluster of Hawaiian islands, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument does not escape the reach of humans. Each year roughly 50 tons of old fishing nets, plastics, and other marine debris wash up on the sensitive coral reefs of the marine monument. Each year for nearly 20 years, NOAA divers and scientists venture out there to remove the debris.

This year, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Dianna Parker and Kyle Koyanagi are documenting the effort aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. You can learn more about and keep up with this expedition on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.


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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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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Fall 2014

Two men standing on a beach with one holding a bin of sand.

These trainings help oil spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions, and also include a field trip to a beach to apply newly learned skills. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of November 17–21, 2014 in Norfolk, Virginia.

We will accept applications for this class through Friday, October 3, 2014, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, October 17, 2014.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

These trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

Additional SOS courses will be held in 2015 in Houston, Texas; Mobile, Alabama; and Seattle, Washington. Course dates will be posted as they are determined.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


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OR&R Defines the Issues Surrounding Oil Spill Dispersant Use

Oil floating on water's surface.

Oil on the water’s surface. (NOAA)

I recently had the opportunity to attend an interesting seminar on the use of dispersants in oil spill response. On August 8, 2014, OR&R Emergency Response Division marine biologist, Gary Shigenaka, and Dr. Adrian C. Bejarano, aquatic toxicologist, made presentations to a group of oil spill response professionals as part of the Science of Oil Spills class, offered by OR&R in Seattle last week.

Mr. Shigenaka introduced the subject, giving the students background on the history of dispersant use in response to oil spills, starting with the first use in England at the Torrey Canyon spill. Because the first generation of oil dispersants were harsh and killed off intertidal species, the goal since has been to reduce their inherent toxicity while maintaining effectiveness at moving oil from the surface of the water into the water column. He gave an overview of the most prevalent commercial products, including Corexit 9527 and Corexit 9500, manufactured by Nalco, and Finasol OSR52, a French product.

Aerial view of testing facility with long pool.

The Ohmsett facility is located at Naval Weapons Station Earle, Waterfront. The research and training facility centers around a 2.6 million-gallon saltwater tank. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

Shigenaka reviewed the U.S. EPA product schedule of dispersants as well as Ohmsett – National Oil Spill Response Research Facility in Leonardo, N.J. Ohmsett is run by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. He showed video clips of oil dispersant tests conducted recently at the facility by the American Petroleum Institute.

The corporate proprietary aspects of the exact formulation of dispersants were described by Shigenaka as one of the reasons for the controversy surrounding the use of dispersants on oil spills.

Dispersant Use in Offshore Spill Response

Dr. Bejarano’s presentation, “Dispersant Use in offshore Oil Spill Response,” started with a list of advantages of dispersant use such as reduced oil exposure to workers; reduced impacts on shoreline habitats; minimal impacts on wildlife with long life spans; and keeping the oil away from the nearshore area thus avoiding the need for invasive cleanup. She followed with some downside aspects such as increased localized concentration of hydrocarbons; higher toxicity levels in the top 10 meters of the water column; increased risk to less mobile species; and greater exposure to dispersed oil to species nearer to the surface.

Dr. Bejarano is working on a comprehensive publicly-available database that will include source evaluation and EPA data as well as a compilation of data from 160 sources scored on applicability to oil spill response (high, moderate, low and different exposures).

Her presentation concluded with a summary of trade-offs associated with dispersant use:

  • Shifting risk to water column organisms from shoreline, which recover more quickly (weeks or months).
  • Toxicity data are not perfect.
  • Realistic dose and duration are different from lab to field environment.
  • Interpretation of findings must be in the context of particular oil spill considerations.

Dr. Bejarano emphasized the need for balanced consideration in reaching consensus for the best response to a particular spill.

Following the formal presentations, there was a panel discussion with experts from NOAA, EPA, and State of Washington, and the audience had an opportunity to ask questions. Recent research from the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service/ Montlake Laboratory was presented, focusing on effects of oil and dispersants on larval fish. The adequacy of existing science underlying trade-offs and net environmental benefit was also discussed.

Read our related blog on dispersants, “Help NOAA Study Chemical Dispersants and Oil Spills.”


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A Major Spill in Tampa Bay—21 Years Ago this Month

Two barges next to one another; one with oil spilled on its deck.

An oil soaked barge, after the 1993 Tampa Bay spill. (NOAA)

 

OR&R’s Doug Helton recalls his experience responding to a major spill in 1993.

August 10 is an anniversary of sorts.  21 years ago, I spent much of the month of August on the beaches of Pinellas County, Florida.  But not fishing and sunbathing. On August 10, 1993, three vessels, the freighter Balsa 37, the barge Ocean 255, and the barge Bouchard 155, collided near the entrance of Tampa Bay, Florida.

A barge on fire, with smoke coming form the deck.

The collision resulted in a fire on one of the barges and caused a major spill. (NOAA)

The collision resulted in a fire on one of the barges and caused a major oil spill. Over 32,000 gallons of jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline and about 330,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled from the barges. Despite emergency cleanup efforts, the oil fouled 13 miles of beaches and caused injury to birds, sea turtles, mangrove habitat, seagrasses, salt marshes, shellfish beds,  as well as closing many of the waterways to fishing and boating.

The prior year I had been hired by NOAA and tasked with developing a Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) to provide a quick response capability for oil and chemical spill damage assessments, focusing on the collection of perishable data and information, photographs, and videotape in a timely manner to determine the need for a natural resource damage assessment. The emergency nature of spills requires that this type of information be collected within hours after the release. Time-sensitive data, photographs, and videotape are often critical when designing future assessment studies and initiating restoration planning—and are also used later as evidence in support of  Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) claims. The Tampa Bay spill was one of the first major responses for the RAP team.

The case was settled long ago and restoration projects have all been implemented to address the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of the spill. But some of the damage assessment approaches developed during that incident are still used today, and some of the then innovative restoration approaches are now more commonplace.

Sunset behind a bridge over a bay.

Tampa Bay, Skyway Bridge sunset, August 3, 2013. (Jeff Krause/Creative Commons)

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