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A Delaware Salt Marsh Finds its way to Restoration by Channeling Success

This is a post by Simeon Hahn, Regional Resource Coordinator for the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division.

You can find the Indian River Power Plant situated along the shores of Indian River Bay in southern Delaware. This shallow body of water is protected from the Atlantic Ocean by a narrow spit of land to the east and is downriver of the town of Millsboro to the west.

In December 1999, the power plant’s owner at the time, Delmarva Power and Light, discovered a leak in an underground fuel line that over a decade had released approximately 500,000 gallons of oil.  The fuel oil had leaked into the soil and groundwater beneath the plant. When the edge of the underground oil plume reached Indian River Bay, oil seeping from the shoreline impacted the fringe of salt marsh growing along the beach, as well as the shallow-water area a short distance offshore.

In the cleanup that followed, about 1,000 tons of oily sediment were excavated from these marshes and replaced with a similar sand quarried from nearby. As part of the restoration, Delmarva replanted the area with hundreds of seedlings of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and other native plants common to the shores of Delaware’s inland bays. But further restoration was needed to compensate for the environmental services lost during the period when the marshes were oiled.

When I took on this case in 2007 as a NOAA coordinator  for the subsequent Natural Resource Damage Assessment, Slough’s Gut Marsh had already been selected as the site of an additional restoration project on Indian River Bay. Slough’s Gut Marsh, east of the James Farm Ecological Preserve near Ocean View, Del., is located on land owned by Sussex County and managed by the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays. The area was described to me as 24 acres of eroded and degraded salt marsh. After a lot of hard work, some innovative thinking, and five years of monitoring the results, I’m pleased to report that Slough’s Gut Marsh has been successfully restored.

What Does it Take to Fix a Marsh?

Previously, however, Slough’s Gut was on the decline, with many of the plants growing in its salty waters either stunted or dying off. The overriding goal, as with many marsh restoration projects, was to reverse this trend and increase the vegetative cover. But does just revegetating a marsh really restore it? On the other hand, some folks, including a few at NOAA, asked whether Slough’s Gut should even be considered for “restoration” since it was already functionally a marsh and … wasn’t the ecosystem working OK? The answer on both accounts was: We were about to find out.

Although the cause of the marsh plant die-offs was not entirely clear, we suspected it had to do with changes to the natural water drainage systems associated with:

  1. Historical mosquito ditching.
  2. Sea level rise.
  3. The gradual sinking of the land.
  4. All of the above.

These suspicions were based on monitoring conducted before Slough’s Gut was ever slated for restoration. It appeared that water would not drain sufficiently off the marsh during the tidal cycle and this was suppressing the vegetation, in a phenomenon known as “waterlogging.”

I became involved as we began scoping the restoration project design. At this point, I suggested that although revegetating the marsh was a reasonable goal, the primary emphasis should be on restoring a more natural network of tidal channels, replacing the old mosquito ditches. Around the 1940s, this salt marsh had been dug up and filled in, creating a series of parallel ditches connecting at a straightened main river channel (a now-questionable practice known as “mosquito ditching” because it aimed to reduce mosquito populations). The current configuration of channels that was leading to the loss of vegetation in Slough’s Gut was likely also impacting the fish, crabs, and other aquatic life that would normally use the marsh.

Looking to a similar project on Washington, DC’s Anacostia River, the design team decided on a technique for restoring tidal channels that uses observations from relatively unimpacted marshes. This example helped us answer questions such as:

  • How big should the channels be?
  • What would a natural channel network look like? (e.g., how often would the channels split, how much would they wind)?

Next, Delmarva Power and Light hired the contractor Cardno ENTRIX to develop a restoration design that used the existing channels as much as possible but restored the channel network by creating new channels while plugging and filling others. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), which has extensive experience working in wetlands, executed the design. Then, we watched and waited.

The End Game

The number of birds observed at Slough's Gut Marsh has doubled since 2008. Here, a heron perches at the site.

The number of birds observed at Slough’s Gut Marsh has doubled since 2008. Here, a heron perches at the site. (Cardno ENTRIX)

Cardno ENTRIX monitored the renovated marsh for five years and collected data on its recovery. This past summer, the natural resource agencies involved (NOAA, the Delaware DNREC, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) together with Delmarva Power and Light, Cardno ENTRIX, and the Center for Inland Bays (the project hosts) visited Slough’s Gut Marsh to view and discuss its progress.

Based on the past five years of data, the marsh is on a path toward successful restoration. There has been a 50 percent increase in the density of fish, shrimp, and crabs living in Slough’s Gut, compared with levels before we restored the natural tidal channels. With this extra food, the number of birds observed there has doubled since 2008.

Additional environmental sampling showed localized drainage improvements, indicating that the new channel network is stable yet adaptable, as it should be in natural marshes. This feature is particularly beneficial when confronted with issues like sea level rise and hurricanes. Protecting and restoring tidal wetlands is an important effort in adapting to climate change in coastal areas.

This project demonstrates that ecological impacts in tidal marshes from historical ditching and diking can be restored by reconstructing a more natural tidal channel network. But don’t take my word for it. Next time you’re in the area, go see the success at Slough’s Gut yourself and leave time to visit the Center for the Inland Bays to learn more about other great environmental efforts going on in Delaware’s inland bays. The center is easily accessible and the view is tremendous.

The natural resource trustees celebrate the restoration of Slough's Gut Marsh in August 2013. Simeon Hahn is at the far right.

The natural resource trustees celebrate the restoration of Slough’s Gut Marsh in August 2013. Simeon Hahn is at the far right. (Cardno ENTRIX)

Simeon Hahn is an Office of Response and Restoration Regional Resource Coordinator in the Mid-Atlantic Region for the NOAA Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program. He is located in EPA Region 3 in Philadelphia, Pa., and works on Superfund and state remedial projects and Natural Resource Damage Assessment cases. He has been an environmental scientist with expertise in ecological risk assessment, site remediation, and habitat restoration at NOAA for 15 years and 10 years before that with the Department of Defense.


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In New Jersey, Celebrating a Revived Marsh and the Man who Made it Possible

This is a post by the NOAA Restoration Center’s Carl Alderson.

Ernie Oros speaking next to Woodbridge marsh.

Former State Assemblyman and champion of open space, Ernie Oros at the Woodbridge marsh dedication ceremony on Oct 16, 2007. (New York New Jersey Baykeeper/Greg Remaud)

Ernie Oros, former New Jersey State Assemblyman and octogenarian, stood next to me on the bank of a newly created tributary to the Woodbridge River and looked out across an expanse of restored tidal marsh. It was May 2008 and the marsh that he had long championed was now lush and green and teeming with fish. This inspiring sight before us was the result of a marsh restoration project undertaken by NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Years ago a tall berm was raised between the Woodbridge River and this marshland, effectively walling it off from the reach of the tides that replenished it. Reeds that grow in damaged marshes choked off the tides even further.

He gave a pause, drew a breath and was on to the next subject before I had finished marveling at the sea of grass standing before us. “When can you get the observation walkway back up?” Ernie asked me. “Soon,” I replied, “we have a plan.” “Good,” he said, “I’m not getting any younger.”

That’s how the conversation went until August 2012 when Ernie passed away at the age of 88. The construction of the tidal marsh itself—with all the complexities of hydrology, chemistry, biology, logistical twists and turns, negotiations, permits, and contract discussions—seemed to go up in a snap. In two years it went from design contract to dedication ceremony. Yet, the observation boardwalks—there were now two—seemed to lag behind in a mire of contract disputes, tight budgets, two hurricanes, and extension after extension of funding agreements.

A Vision to Restore

I never wondered why Ernie was so anxious to move forward; he was after all in his 80s and by his own account in failing health. In his knock-around clothes, he looked like an old clam digger, but in his best suit, like the one he wore the day of the marsh dedication ceremony, he still cut the figure of the State Assemblyman he once was. Ernie had a vision for this place, and he was now on a roll. He had long ago established Woodbridge River Watch, a community organization to advocate for open space in Woodbridge, N.J.; he had guided the town through major acquisition and conservation efforts; he gathered momentum for his butterfly garden; planned to landscape the perimeter with local historic artifacts; and now he could add the marsh restoration to his list of achievements.

Among all of his accomplishments, nothing could be more dramatic than having blown life into this dying marshland. It linked the past and the future to a community that blossomed at the cross roads of the American colonial experience in the 17th century, soared to the peak of industrialization beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries, then boomed and at last came to rest upon the suburbanization movement of the 20th century. For myself, I could live with the simple sweet note of this being an urban habitat: a rebirth for colonial wading birds, ribbed mussels, fiddler crabs, and young juvenile bluefish called “snappers.” But for Ernie, the marsh was the opening hymn to a chorus of American history.

It took me a long time to realize what Ernie was up to. The marsh wasn’t just a host for the history garden; it itself was an artifact. The marsh represented every century that came before the first European settlers arrived. Better than any artifact, the marsh was living history as far as Ernie was concerned.

An interpretative sign displaying the flora and fauna found in Woodbridge Marsh.

An interpretative sign displaying the flora and fauna found in Woodbridge Marsh. (Illustrations: Jorge Cotto. Design: Ann Folli)

The observation boardwalks were the last piece of the plan. Both Ernie and I viewed the future boardwalks and their brightly designed story panels as a means of drawing in the citizens of Woodbridge. Boardwalks send a signal of welcome where a marsh alone often does not. The signs would interpret for them the plants, the animals, the natural processes unfolding in the marsh around them.

That is why Ernie was so anxious to see this vision through to completion. Despite the town’s position on the waterfront of three major bodies of water—the Raritan River, Raritan Bay, and Arthur Kill (a tidal straight separating the township from New York City)—very little of it was accessible to the public. Ernie hoped to change that by inviting people into a renewed Woodbridge Marsh.

A Day to Remember

Greg Remaud is the Deputy Director for the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper. The Baykeeper, a long-time partner of NOAA and advocate for open space in New York Harbor, is a non-profit organization committed to the conservation and restoration of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. For Remaud, it had become increasingly apparent that the post-industrial age presented opportunities to create New Jersey’s waterfront in a new image.

Greg had met up with Ernie Oros years before. With the help of many others, this pair championed a new way forward for the Woodbridge River. Eventually, they were able to draw the attention of key agencies and help these dreams take the shape of Spartina grasses, High Tide bush, and killifish.

Then, earlier this year, I learned of the Baykeeper’s plan to honor Ernie’s memory with a day-long celebration.

One of the sons and great-grandsons of Ernie Oros canoeing on the banks of the Woodbridge River on Ernie Oros Celebration Day, September 28, 2013.

Ernie’s son Richard Oros and Michael Kohler, Ernie’s great-grandson, canoeing on the banks of the Woodbridge River on Ernie Oros Celebration Day, September 28, 2013. (Carl Alderson/all rights reserved)

On the astonishingly beautiful Saturday morning of September 28, 2013, the NOAA Restoration Center was on hand to be part of a very special event to honor Ernie’s life. To honor his legacy, the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper held a family-friendly event right next to what I consider Ernie’s greatest environmental achievement: the 67-acre Woodbridge River Wetland Restoration Project.

In a day that featured music, games, picnics, and face painting, the most popular event was the free kayak tours with the very capable staff of the Baykeeper, who led citizens through a seeming maze of restored marshes and tidal creeks. Several of Ernie’s family members were present. His sons, granddaughters, and great-grandkids jumped into canoes and kayaks to venture a ride through Ernie’s great achievement.

A Role for NOAA

NOAA’s involvement with the Woodbridge River Wetland Restoration Project began to take shape sometime in the late 1990s. We provided funds from natural resource damage settlements for two local oil spills to conduct feasibility studies, design, and permitting in 2000. Under a partnership of federal and state agencies, the project was designed and constructed between 2006 and 2007. NOAA and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection provided $2.3 million, combining it with funds from the Army Corps of Engineers Harbor Deepening Program to make the full project come together for the Woodbridge River.

The project removed berms and obstructions that had sealed the former wetland from the Woodbridge River for decades and reunited two large tracts of land with the tides via created tidal creeks and planted marsh grasses. Today, the site is once again the home of wading birds, waterfowl, fiddler crabs, ribbed mussels, and seemingly hundreds of thousands of killifish. Ernie had tirelessly dedicated much of his adult life to campaign for the acquisition, protection, and restoration of his beloved Woodbridge River wetlands and his achievements will live on in their vibrant waters.

Carl Alderson.

Carl Alderson (left, NOAA) and Greg Remaud (right, NY/NJ Baykeeper) on the banks of the Woodbridge River on Ernie Oros Celebration Day, Sept. 28, 2013. Credit: Susan Alderson.

Carl Alderson is a Marine Resource Specialist with the NOAA Restoration Center, located at the JJ Howard Marine Science Lab in Highlands, N.J. Carl provides oversight of coastal habitat restoration projects and marine debris programs through NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) and Community-based Restoration Grants Program (CRP) in the mid-Atlantic region. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and is a Licensed Landscape Architect. Before joining NOAA, Carl worked for the City of New York and led a decade long effort to restore tidal wetlands, marine bird, and fish habitat as compensation for natural resources damages resulting from oil spills in New York Harbor. Carl is recognized as a national leader in restoration of coastal wetlands and bay habitats.


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Celebrate Where Rivers Meet the Sea during National Estuaries Week

This is a post by Lou Cafiero of NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.

A resting kayak at the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Rhode Island.

A resting kayak at the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Rhode Island. Kayaking is just one of the many recreation opportunities available at our 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves. (Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve)

National Estuaries Day rolls in like the tide on the last Saturday of September each year. Established in 1988, this annual event inspires people to learn about and protect the unique environments formed where rivers and other freshwater flow into the ocean, creating bays, lagoons, sounds, or sloughs.

This year, the 25th anniversary of National Estuaries Day will be celebrated around the country on September 28, 2013, but for the first time we are taking an entire week to celebrate, from September 23-29. Outdoor lovers can learn and have fun at each of the 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves throughout the country. Managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in partnership with coastal states and territories, these special reserves were set aside for long-term research and education activities in estuaries.

However, they also offer abundant recreational opportunities, such as swimming, boating, fishing, wildlife viewing, and bird watching. In some reserves you can spot sea otters or manatees swimming with their young, or great blue herons and ospreys soaring in the skies above.

Celebrate at a National Estuarine Research Reserve

First, locate the estuarine research reserve nearest you. You’ll find contact information and directions to all 28 reserves. There are numerous nation-wide activities in honor of National Estuaries Day and Week, such as:

  • Photography contests in Florida.
  • Canoe trips in Washington.
  • Estuary cleanups in North Carolina.
  • Exhibits at state capitals.
  • Guided estuary tours in Texas.
  • Festivals in California.

Find even more events, including one near you, on this National Estuaries Week map of events.

How Estuaries Affect You

Aerial view of estuary.

A total of 1.3 million acres of coastal wetland areas are managed and conserved through NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserves. (NOAA)

Estuaries are incredibly diverse and productive ecosystems. Learn more and then help spread the word about why estuaries matter. For example, estuaries:

  • Are vital temporary homes for migratory species, such as mallards and striped bass.
  • Provide critical nesting and feeding habitat for a variety of aquatic plants and animals, including shrimp, oysters, and other commercial seafood.
  • Help prevent coastal erosion.
  • Filter harmful pollutants washing off the land.
  • Reduce flooding during storms.
  • Are important recreational and tourist destinations.
  • Are crucial to our future and the health of the ocean.

How We Affect Estuaries

Estuaries need everyone’s help and hard work to keep them clean and safe. There are many things you can do to help protect and conserve estuaries. Check out these 10 ways to protect estuaries and then explore even more ways to protect estuaries, from taking easy steps around your house to outings at the beach and onto your boat. An example of one important way to keep estuaries clean is to report oil spills or fuel leaks by calling the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802.

But sometimes oil spills can be much bigger than one person and have serious impacts for estuaries, commerce, and people. For example, in June of 1989, the Greek tanker World Prodigy hit ground in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, releasing approximately 290,000 gallons of home heating oil into New England’s largest estuary. Not only did the oil affect vast numbers of lobsters, crabs, fish, and shellfish at various stages of life, but the spill also closed beaches and the bay to commercial and recreational clammers.

Through a legal settlement for the World Prodigy grounding’s environmental damages, NOAA secured $567,299 to restore these natural resources. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, through the Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program, partnered with the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve on one of the resulting restoration projects. In 1996 and 1997, the NOAA team and its partners transplanted eelgrass beds in Narragansett Bay to restore habitat for the species affected by the spill. More than 7,000 eelgrass plants were transplanted in 10 locations within Narragansett Bay. Dubbed “meadows of the sea,” eelgrass beds provide shelter, spawning grounds, and food for fish, clams, crabs, and other animals while helping keep coastal waters clean and clear.

Don’t Forget to Get Involved

Help celebrate National Estuaries Week this September! Get involved with estuaries by visiting the reserve nearest you. Check out the events scheduled at the reserves or at other estuary locations around the country. Volunteer or become a friend of the National Estuarine Research Reserves and participate in the many educational programs offered.

Louis Cafiero is the communications lead for NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management and works closely with the National Estuarine Research Reserves and other federal and nonprofit partners to coordinate outreach efforts to promote National Estuaries Day.


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Historic New England Town, Once Plagued by Tack Factory’s Toxic Pollution, Enjoys Revitalized Coastal Marshes

In spring of 2013, the transformation of the polluted Atlas Tack Superfund site into vibrant coastal habitat is hard to miss. Here, you can see the new freshwater marsh with the town of Fairhaven, Mass., in the background. (NOAA)

In spring of 2013, the transformation of the polluted Atlas Tack Superfund site into vibrant coastal habitat is hard to miss. Here, you can see the new freshwater marsh with the town of Fairhaven, Mass., in the background. (NOAA)

For much of the 20th century, the Atlas Tack Corporation was the main employer in the historic coastal town of Fairhaven, Mass., a place settled in the 1650s by Plymouth colonists. But the presence of this tack factory, shuttered in 1985, left more than a history of paychecks for the area’s residents. It also left saltwater marshes so stocked with cyanide and heavy metals that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed the location of the factory as a Superfund site in 1990 and slated it for three intensive rounds of cleanup.

A Brief History of Atlas Tack

Atlas Tack Corporation became one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of wire tacks, bolts, shoe eyelets, bottle caps, and other small hardware. January 17, 1955. (Spinner Publications/All rights reserved)

Atlas Tack Corporation became one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of wire tacks, bolts, shoe eyelets, bottle caps, and other small hardware. Unfortunately, these decades of production left a toxic legacy for Fairhaven’s coastal marshes. January 17, 1955. (Spinner Publications/All rights reserved)

Henry H. Rogers, Standard Oil multimillionaire and friend of famed American author Mark Twain, formed the Atlas Tack Corporation after consolidating several tack manufacturing companies in 1895. The Fairhaven company became one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of wire tacks, bolts, shoe eyelets, bottle caps, and other small hardware.

However, decades of acids, metals, and other chemical wastes oozing through the factory floor boards and being dumped in building drains, the nearby Boys Creek marsh, and an unlined lagoon left the property contaminated with hazardous substances. Found in the soils, waters, and surrounding marsh were volatile organic compounds, cyanide, heavy metals such as arsenic, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (a toxic oil compound).

EPA led the Superfund cleanup (referred to as a “remedy”) of this hazardous waste site, and the Office of Response and Restoration, through NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program, contributed scientific and technical guidance to the EPA during the cleanup and restoration of the site’s coastal marshes.

Determining the Remedy: Scalpel vs. Cleaver

Before restoration: A June 2007 view of the area north of the hurricane dike, following the removal of contaminated sediments. (NOAA)

Before restoration: A June 2007 view of the area north of the hurricane dike, following the removal of contaminated sediments. (NOAA)

The original cleanup goals would have required excavating the entire marsh—ripping out the whole thing, despite some areas still functioning as habitat for the area’s plants and animals. As a result, NOAA, EPA, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were reluctant to excavate the entire wetland. Instead, the agencies took a more targeted approach, beginning in 2001 and 2002.

First, they completed a bioavailability study to determine where natural resources were adversely exposed to contaminants from the old tack factory. This study determined which areas of the existing marsh could be preserved while removing the toxic sediment that posed a risk to human health and the environment.

The next part of the remedy was undertaken in three phases from 2006 to 2008. Phase one included demolishing several buildings, sheds, and the power plant and excavating 775 cubic yards of contaminated soil and sludge from 10 acres of the designated commercial area of the manufacturing site. Phase two excavated and disposed off-site 38,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris.  With NOAA’s scientific and technical assistance—and later with help from the Army Corps—EPA, as part of phase three, excavated and later restored 5.4 acres of saltwater and freshwater marsh.

More Than a Remedy: Working Toward Revitalization

After restoration: A newly created northern salt marsh, shown in June 2013, at the site of the former Atlas Tack factory. Bare spots are filling in but a fully covered wetland landscape is likely still a few years away. (NOAA)

After restoration: A newly created northern salt marsh, shown in June 2013, at the site of the former Atlas Tack factory. Bare spots are filling in but a fully covered wetland landscape is likely still a few years away. (NOAA)

While planning to remove the contaminated wetland sediments, we recognized that the culvert running under the hurricane dike prevented the nearby Atlantic Ocean’s tide from replenishing the upstream native saltwater marsh. As a result, invasive reeds were taking over the marsh above the dike.

Reconstructing the culvert would have cost millions of dollars, so the agencies got creative. They designed a new strip of land that would divide the existing, poorly functioning saltwater marsh into a smaller, productive saltwater marsh that could be supported with the existing saltwater supply and a new freshwater wetland supported by rainfall and groundwater. The agencies also removed contaminated sediment from and then replanted a salt marsh south of the dike. Across all three marshes, more than 14,000 native marsh plants were planted, providing valuable habitat for birds and other animals.

By working together, NOAA, EPA, and Army Corps created an effective cleanup solution for the polluted factory site while enhancing the environment by returning this contaminated marsh to a functioning and sustainable habitat, a process known as ecological revitalization. Today, NOAA, along with the EPA, Army Corps, and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, is helping observe and monitor the success of the restoration projects. A recent visit revealed that two of the marshes already are brimming with healthy plants and wildlife, while the salt marsh which had contaminants removed is showing considerable improvement.


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Over a Century after Texas Strikes Oil, Marsh Restoration Completed for an Old Refinery’s Pollution

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Jessica White.

On January 10, 1910, the famous Lucas gusher, named after the persistent oil explorer who drilled the well, struck oil at Spindletop Hill in a geyser that launched more than 100 feet in the air for nine days. This kicked off the Texas oil boom and was the impetus for opening the nearby Gulf Oil Company refinery. (John Trost)

On January 10, 1910, the famous Lucas gusher, named after the persistent oil explorer who drilled the well, struck oil at Spindletop Hill in a geyser that launched more than 100 feet in the air for nine days. This kicked off the Texas oil boom and was the impetus for opening the nearby Gulf Oil Company refinery. (John Trost)

About five miles from the Texas-Louisiana border sits what was once the Gulf Oil Company’s refinery. It’s now owned by Valero, by way of Chevron. But this century-old refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, has been operating since a year after the famous discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901, which came in the form of a more than 100-foot-high, nine-day-long oil gusher.

Spindletop is the salt dome oil field that sparked the oil boom in Texas, ushering in the exploration of oil in the region that has persisted to this day. It also paved the way for oil to become a significant energy source.

Oil Boom not Necessarily a Boon

With the oil boom came a number of hazardous substances to the former Gulf Oil refinery site and its surrounding areas. Historically, the refinery produced jet fuel, gasoline, petrochemicals, and a variety of other oil and chemical products. But this took a toll on the site’s soil, water, and aquatic habitats. Ecological risk assessment studies led by the state of Texas have revealed the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, a toxic component of oil), lead, zinc, nickel, cadmium, copper, and more in the water and sediment on the site.

In 2004, NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Texas natural resource trustees, working cooperatively with Chevron, determined that the public was owed ecological restoration for the contaminated surface water, soil, and sediments at the former Gulf Oil refinery [PDF]. Our assessment showed that we could accomplish this by constructing 83 acres of tidal wetland and 30 acres of coastal wet prairie and improving 1,332 acres of coastal wetlands via new water control structures in the Sabine Lake/Neches River basin.

A black-necked Stilt and Snowy Egrets in the restored wetland habitat. (Photo provided courtesy of Chevron.)

A black-necked Stilt and Snowy Egrets in the restored wetland habitat.
(Photo provided courtesy of Chevron.)

Based on this information, the natural resource trustees negotiated with Chevron (which assumed the legal responsibility of the former Gulf Oil site) a $4.4 million settlement of state and federal natural resource damage claims related to the site. This money would go toward implementing the environmental restoration.

The settlement included three projects meant to restore coastal habitat to compensate the public for natural resources lost or injured by historical contamination from the refinery. Two of the projects involved restoring a natural hydrology to coastal wetlands by installing water flow enhancement structures and berms. The third project aimed to create intertidal estuarine marsh and coastal wet prairie by using nearby dredge material.

These projects were a significant undertaking for Chevron and their contractors. They involved several different restoration techniques, some of which had to be modified in the middle of construction to adapt to changes in the field.

Clumps of planted marsh grass in restored estuarine marsh, looking towards Bridge City. February 1, 2013 (NOAA/ National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Clumps of planted marsh grass in restored estuarine marsh, looking towards Bridge City. February 1, 2013 (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Building Marsh out of Mud Pancakes

In 2002, Chevron set up a pilot project to determine the feasibility of constructing marsh habitat by placing local dredge material into open-water habitat. The resulting constructed marsh terrace was able to maintain the necessary elevation for native marsh vegetation to take root.

Based on the successful pilot, the full-scale project for building marsh planned to mix dredge material with water, forming slurry that could then be pumped into open water to form mounds and terraces. Once they reached the suitable elevation, the mounds and terraces would later be planted with native marsh grasses. On the other hand, the coastal wet prairie would be constructed by removing dredged sediment to lower the elevation and make it suitable for supporting vegetation found in that habitat type.

Established estuarine marsh in the Old River South marsh complex. Note the elevated mounds of mud beneath the marsh grass. (NOAA/ National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Established estuarine marsh in the Old River South marsh complex. Note the elevated mounds of mud beneath the marsh grass. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Full-scale construction for the projects kicked off in 2007. This timeline was pushed back a few years from the pilot project because in 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita increased demand for the heavy equipment used in the marsh environment and also damaged habitat and vegetation at the project site.

Another challenge came after Chevron pumped the dredged sediments into the open water to create marsh mounds. Unlike during the pilot project, when the pumped-in sediment stacked well, the sediment used in the marsh construction spread out and formed pancakes instead of the desired mounds. To prevent the sediment from spreading, the restoration team tried changing the pump’s spout, but spraying the dredge slurry into mounds was still a challenge. The mounds became mudflats.

Changing the construction technique again, they next pumped in dredged sediments and then excavated mounds and terraces. This technique had greater success, but in the end, it was still necessary to pump in additional sediment to some areas to achieve the necessary elevations. Because the team was using so much more dredge material than originally planned, they had to find an alternative sediment source from a nearby canal. If they continued taking sediment from the original source, they would have risked lowering the elevation of the area, which was adjacent to the coastal wet prairie and could affect its hydrology.

View of Rainbow Bridge from restored estuarine marsh. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

View of Rainbow Bridge from restored estuarine marsh. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Despite a number of setbacks, the restoration projects were finished in 2009 and after a monitoring period, the trustees certified them as successfully completed in February of 2013. These projects will improve the fish and shellfish abundance in this part of southeast Texas, provide habitat for wildlife and fish, increase recreational opportunities for bird watching and fishing, and improve the habitat for waterfowl (a benefit for hunters).

The area is also highly visible for anyone driving south through the Beaumont-Port Arthur area. Just look out your window as you cross the Neches River and you’ll see the marsh mounds, coastal wet prairie, and maybe even a few Snowy Egrets on display.

Jessica White.

Jessica White.

Jessica White is a Regional Resource Coordinator with the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has been working with NOAA in the Gulf since 2003 and recently relocated to the Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. Jessica has assessed and restored Superfund sites in Texas and Louisiana and has supported oil spill and marine debris cleanup. She has a B.S. in Biology from Texas Tech University and a M.S. in Environmental Science from the University of North Texas.


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The Oil Spill That Helped a South Carolina Community Transform an Abandoned Naval Golf Course Back into a Healthy Coastal Marsh

This Earth Day and every day, NOAA honors our planet by using cutting-edge science to understand Earth’s systems and keep its habitats and vital natural resources healthy and resilient. Learn more at http://www.noaa.gov/earthday.

Pelicans and dark, oiled marsh are visible in front of the container ship M/V Everreach, which spilled oil into the Cooper River and Charleston Harbor on September 30, 2002. (NOAA)

Pelicans and dark, oiled marsh are visible in front of the container ship M/V Everreach, which spilled oil into the Cooper River and Charleston Harbor on September 30, 2002. (NOAA)

Around 100,000 residents call North Charleston, S.C., home, and since 2000, more and more people have been flocking to this urban center that balances the benefits of a lively port city with the rich history and natural beauty of a southern coastal town. Yet this isn’t by coincidence. It’s by decision and design. The City of North Charleston actively promotes a prosperous and livable community, which includes restoring green spaces and opening public access to the hard-working waterfront.

This spring, NOAA (through our Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program) and our fellow natural resource trustees supported that vision as we restored approximately 12 acres of salt marsh (coastal wetlands) and an additional acre of upland buffer area on Noisette Creek, a tributary of the Cooper River adjacent to the city’s scenic Riverfront Park. These efforts were part of a larger restoration plan to address the environmental and recreational impacts from an accidental oil spill in 2002.

Turning an Oil Spill into an Opportunity

An aerial view of the former Navy base and the Cooper River (foreground) looking up Noisette Creek, dating to approximately 2003. The area restored back to coastal wetlands appears on the left side of the creek.  The building at the point with a red roof was the former Naval Officers Club, which has been replaced by a city park at the point. The project site starts where the Officers Club parking lot ends and extends to the first road crossing the creek. (The Noisette Company/Jim Augustin)

An aerial view of the former Navy base and the Cooper River (foreground) looking up Noisette Creek, dating to approximately 2003. The area restored back to coastal wetlands appears on the left side of the creek. The building at the point with a red roof was the former Naval Officers Club, which has been replaced by a city park at the point. The project site starts where the Officers Club parking lot ends and extends to the first road crossing the creek. (The Noisette Company/Jim Augustin)

At the end of September in 2002, as the container ship M/V Everreach pulled away from North Charleston for its next destination, approximately 12,500 gallons of oil spilled out of it and into the waters of the Cooper River and Charleston Harbor.

The oil was seen over some 30 miles of shoreline and sediments, including tidal flats, fringing marshes, intertidal oyster reefs, sandy beaches, and manmade structures (e.g., docks, piers, bulkheads). Most of the oil concentrated in the vicinity of the North Charleston Terminal on the Cooper River and old Navy base piers and docks.

This spill impacted pelicans and shorebirds, closed a shellfish bed operation, and temporarily disrupted recreational shrimp-baiting in local waters.

The state and federal agencies charged with preserving the area’s public natural resources—NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources—worked cooperatively with the ship’s owner, Evergreen International, to determine the resulting environmental injury and resolve legal claims for natural resource damages.

From Marsh to Golf Course and Back Again

After carefully assessing the impacts, we the natural resource trustees worked with North Charleston’s property owners, developers, and local officials to restore a marsh-turned-naval golf course back into a functioning wetland that could support birds, fish, invertebrates, and vegetation.

As part of a restoration project after the 2002 M/V Everreach oil spill, NOAA and our partners constructed a network of tidal creeks along Noisette Creek in North Charleston, S.C. (NOAA/Restoration Center/Howard Schnabolk)

As part of a restoration project after the 2002 M/V Everreach oil spill, NOAA and our partners have just finished constructing a network of tidal creeks along Noisette Creek in North Charleston, S.C. (NOAA/Restoration Center/Howard Schnabolk)

Back in 1901, decades before North Charleston became its own city, the City of Charleston provided riverfront land to the U.S. Navy to develop a naval base. This also involved converting a marsh on the base into a golf course. The former Navy golf course along Noisette Creek in North Charleston was used until the base closed in 1996 and the property was transferred back to the City of North Charleston with a small portion owned by the Noisette Company. In 2002, the city and Noisette Company began arrangements and planning for the Noisette Preserve, a 135 acre “recreation and nature preserve at the heart of the redevelopment, located around Noisette Creek and its marshes, creeks and inlets” [Final Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment, PDF]

A newly established inlet in the Noisette Creek Preserve, looking towards the interior of the restored marsh. (NOAA/Restoration Center/Howard Schnabolk)

A newly established inlet in the Noisette Creek Preserve, looking towards the interior of the restored marsh. (NOAA/Restoration Center/Howard Schnabolk)

To increase the tidal exchange and drainage needed to restore this area to a salt marsh, the project required removing a berm in two areas along Noisette Creek and constructing a network of tidal creeks throughout the property, which also provides access for recreational paddlers. Roads, drainage tiles, rip-rap, and other sources of debris were removed during the process as well.

As a result, the public will be able to enjoy a beautiful living shoreline which supports the surrounding area’s ecological services and ultimately benefits activities like boating, fishing, shellfish harvest, and shrimp baiting.

Supporting Green Communities

In cooperation with Evergreen International, we will monitor the wetland enhancements over the next five years to ensure the project achieves the desired ecological improvements. This project, the first of the planned restoration completed for the Noisette Creek Preserve, has created momentum and excitement for several similar projects slated for this small urban watershed. By aligning these restoration efforts with the larger goals for the City of North Charleston’s smart and sustainable growth, we and our partners have been able to build stronger, greener coastal communities and support a thriving local economy—a success for both the environment and the people of North Charleston.

Readers, how are you supporting resilient and sustainable coastal communities near you this Earth Day (and every day)?


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When Studying How to Clean Oiled Marshes, NOAA Scientists Have Their Work Cut Out for Them

This is a post by Office of Response and Restoration Biologist Nicolle Rutherford.

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill oozes out from beneath a vegetation mat in a marsh in Barataria Bay's Bay Jimmy, Louisiana. (Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality/Mike Broussard)

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill oozes out from beneath a vegetation mat in a marsh in Barataria Bay’s Bay Jimmy, Louisiana. (Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality/Mike Broussard)

To clean, or not to clean: That is the question.

And if you’re going to clean, how best to do it? This is a question that responders face whenever oil ends up on a shoreline after an oil spill. It’s a particularly difficult question when this happens on the shoreline of marshes.

Although we may sometimes think of marshes as murky, swampy, or smelly, marshes are highly sensitive environments with soft sediments that support a huge diversity of creatures, including birds, mammals, fish, crabs, and shrimp. Marshes are also incredibly productive habitats that act as nurseries for many juvenile organisms and whose large amounts of decaying plant material are the base of a complex food web. They also provide other important ecological services like storm surge protection and shoreline stabilization and water quality improvement. In many instances, when marshes get oiled, the best response action is no response—meaning no human-led cleanup. In the spill response world, we call this “natural recovery.”

Natural recovery is often the best option for an oiled marsh because nearly all types of active cleanup will include some unintentional habitat damage or disturbance. This can stem from the type of equipment used, the way it is used, or the mere presence of cleanup workers disturbing wildlife or trampling the marsh vegetation. The last 40 years of cleaning up oil spills in marshes has demonstrated that active, aggressive cleaning can cause as much or more short- and long-term damage than leaving the oil in place to break down naturally.

When Natural Recovery Is Not Enough

So, when over 30 miles of sensitive salt marshes in Louisiana’s Northern Barataria Bay were heavily oiled as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, natural recovery was the preferred approach. However, in the areas with the most substantial and persistent oiling, the oil did not appear to be weathering or naturally degrading over time.

After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, a heavy layer of oiled vegetation mats were preventing the thick emulsified oil underneath from breaking down in Barataria Bay. (NOAA/Scott Zengel)

After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, a heavy layer of oiled vegetation mats were preventing the thick emulsified oil underneath from breaking down along Barataria Bay’s marshes. (NOAA/Scott Zengel)

In these areas, a dense, heavy layer of oiled, matted vegetation was lying overtop thick, fresher-looking emulsified oil (meaning it had water mixed in it). The vegetation mats were limiting the oil’s exposure to sunlight, air circulation, and tidal flushing—all natural factors which help break down oil. A number of “traditional” methods of marsh cleanup were tried earlier in the spill response, including low-pressure flushing with ambient seawater, skimming, vacuuming, applying materials to absorb the oil, and natural recovery. However, they performed poorly and in some cases caused additional damage to the marsh.

So what to do? Since the tried-and-true, traditional methods of cleanup weren’t working, this spill’s Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT) program (which surveys an affected shoreline after an oil spill) proposed a field test of various treatment methods, led by the oil spill science experts on NOAA’s Scientific Support Team. In addition to proposing a series of test treatments, they set aside several “no treatment” (natural recovery) sites with similar oiling conditions, and established nearby reference sites as well, both for later comparison to the treated sites.

All of the proposed test treatments included cutting the oiled vegetation to expose the thick oil beneath it, in order to accelerate weathering of the oil. In addition to vegetation cutting, the following treatments were tried:

  • Using two different chemical shoreline cleaners that are designed to make oil “lift and float.”
  • Low-pressure flushing.
  • Marsh vacuuming.

Weed Whackers, Rakes, and Hedge Trimmers

As it turned out, conventional “weed whackers” were no match for the dense, heavily oiled vegetation mats, even when we tried different cutting techniques and cutting attachments. So we raked the vegetation.  In the end, the only treatment that showed promise was the vegetation raking.

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As we monitored the treated plots, however, we found that the ebb and flow of the tide laid the raked vegetation back down on the marsh, reforming the oiled vegetation mats and continuing to trap the layer of thick emulsified oil on the marsh surface. It quickly became apparent to us SCAT program scientists that any successful treatment would require removing the oiled vegetation. A fresh round of investigation into cutting devices began.

Ultimately, a heavy-duty, commercial power hedge trimmer was the solution. It was successfully used to cut through the dense, heavily oiled mats of laid-over vegetation and to cut oiled vegetation that still stood upright. By aggressively raking the oiled vegetation and the thick oil layer on the surface of the marsh, we were able to remove much of the oil, reducing the surface oiling and risk of re-oiling other vegetation.

Initial monitoring showed that this approach resulted in completely removing the heavily oiled vegetation mats in the raked and cut plots. Most importantly, the character of the remaining oil on the marsh area changed from mostly thick emulsified oil to a predominance of more weathered surface oil residue that posed far less of a risk to wildlife or for refloating and re-oiling the marsh.

In all, seven miles of the most heavily oiled areas in Northern Barataria Bay, La., were treated by raking and cutting. Most of this work was conducted by hand, using walk boards to reduce the foot traffic in the marsh. It appears that the treatment was effective and that impacts to the marsh from the cleanup action were limited.

NOAA SCAT team scientist, Carl Childs.

NOAA SCAT team scientist, Carl Childs.

We are continuing to monitor the test plots in order to fully understand whether this cleanup action was the best approach and what the ecological effects or impacts of “treatment” versus “no treatment” are. Stay tuned for a future post that explores the results of the data collected thus far.

Nicolle Rutherford, blog author and SCAT team scientist.

Nicolle Rutherford, blog author and SCAT team scientist.

Nicolle Rutherford is a biologist in NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division. Nicolle received a bachelor’s degree in marine science from the University of South Carolina, Coastal Carolina College, and a master’s degree from Western Washington University in biology with a concentration in marine and estuarine science.

NOAA contractor and SCAT team scientist, Scott Zengel.

NOAA contractor and SCAT team scientist, Scott Zengel.

After graduate school, she and her husband served in the U.S. Peace Corps in the Republic of Vanuatu. Upon her return to the States, Nicolle worked for an environmental consulting firm as a wetland ecologist for several years before taking a position as a biologist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps). She came to NOAA from the Corps.


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Texas Restoration Projects to Transform Concrete to Marsh, Undoing Bayou’s Pesticide-laden History

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Jessica White.

One of the restoration projects making up for the history of pesticide pollution at Greens Bayou, Texas, will create 11 acres of marsh at the Baytown Nature Center. But this park has a history of its own: here is the concrete pad of a former residence and the remains of a boat house from the once-ritzy but now-abandoned Brownwood subdivision. (NOAA)

One of the restoration projects making up for the history of pesticide pollution at Greens Bayou, Texas, will create 11 acres of marsh at the Baytown Nature Center. But this park has a history of its own: here is the concrete pad of a former residence and the remains of a boat house from the once-ritzy but now-abandoned Brownwood subdivision. (NOAA)

If, like most Americans, you live in a city, then you’re probably familiar with their crowds, busy streets, and steel-and-glass skyscrapers. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could occasionally break away from the city to watch wood storks fly by, or take a leisurely stroll on a trail surrounded by live oaks and tall grasses?

For the lucky residents of Houston, Texas, they can make this happen in as little as 45 minutes at the Baytown Nature Center and Spring Creek Greenway. But these natural escapes hold a few surprising secrets. The waters and greenery of Baytown have their origins in an abandoned waterfront housing development, and their transformation from concrete to marsh, along with the preservation of Spring Creek’s wetlands, actually owe some thanks to Greens Bayou, a previously pesticide-laden industrial site just down the interstate.

The Site

In the heart of Houston's industrial area, chemical manufacturers spent years dumping untreated waste and pesticides in ditches that eventually leached into Greens Bayou. Here, you can see the mouth of the Harris County Flood Control District Ditch where it enters Greens Bayou. January 30, 2009 (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Tammy Ash)

In the heart of Houston’s industrial area, chemical manufacturers spent years dumping untreated waste and pesticides in ditches that eventually leached into Greens Bayou. Here, you can see the mouth of the Harris County Flood Control District Ditch where it enters Greens Bayou. January 30, 2009 (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Tammy Ash)

The Greens Bayou site, located in Houston, is 217 acres of chemical manufacturing facilities, a flood control ditch that leads into the bayou itself, and the undeveloped land that surrounds all of this. Greens Bayou is a tidally influenced area whose brackish waters run into those of the well-trafficked Houston Ship Channel.

Historically, the area’s chemical plants disposed of untreated liquid waste and wastewaters from manufacturing operations in unlined, earthen ditches, which then flowed into Greens Bayou. These ditches were the primary way pesticides were able to leach into the soil, sediment, surface water, and ground water in this environment. In particular, DDT and its by-products were found at high levels, signaling to us the potential for adverse effects for the bayou’s bottom-dwelling invertebrates, fish, and aquatic-dependent wildlife.

The Investigation

I became involved with Greens Bayou in 2004. By this time, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) had commenced the remedial investigation under the Texas Risk Reduction Program. This investigation included a detailed assessment of risk to the environment, which involved sampling and chemical analysis of sediment, soil, water, and fish tissue from Greens Bayou. The assessment’s results indicated that the natural resources found at this site were at risk of injury or loss. This prompted the natural resources trustees—NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, TCEQ, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department—to initiate a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) in 2005. This meant we were performing our own assessment, which used information from the remedial investigation to quantify the harm done to the habitats, fish, birds, and wildlife there. As a result, our assessment continued on a parallel track to the remedial investigation. This collaboration helped us work more efficiently as we collected and analyzed data.

At the conclusion of the damage assessment, the trustees determined that this chemical facility site required ecological restoration to offset the past injuries to the forested wetlands and submerged mud bottom habitats. The next step in the NRDA process was to identify suitable restoration projects which would benefit the natural resources that depended on the injured habitats. Restoration is defined as the rehabilitation, replacement, or acquisition of the equivalent natural resources that were lost or injured. In this case, we trustees selected both the route of restoration and acquisition to compensate the public for the loss of these natural resources. (The final damage assessment and restoration plan is available online. [PDF])

The Restoration

The restoration project we chose for the submerged mud bottom habitat is the creation of nearly 11 acres of estuarine marsh at the Baytown Nature Center located in Baytown, Texas. To accomplish this, the existing shoreline and adjacent area will be re-contoured to a lower elevation. Further lowering the elevation of the shoreline will allow more water to infiltrate the land and support the addition of marsh plants. However, this also involves breaking up the concrete sidewalks and foundations remaining from the area’s past life as an upscale residential neighborhood known as Brownwood.

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In the 1940s and 50s, Brownwood became home to impressive two-story residences and their boathouses, framed by palm trees and the San Jacinto River. The death of this booming subdivision came slowly, delivered by local industry’s massive extraction of water beneath Brownwood, which caused the land to subside significantly. More than two decades of hurricanes and storm surges began flooding residents out of their sinking homes, and after Hurricane Alicia devastated the area in 1983, the city of Baytown worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to buy out the last of Brownwood’s homeowners. Baytown then agreed to transform the abandoned neighborhood into a public park and nature center. One of the few surviving signs of Brownwood will be a swimming pool the trustees have decided to leave amid the re-created saltmarsh.

Across town, on the north side of Houston, we will replace Greens Bayou’s lost forested wetland habitat with 100 acres of similar habitat, located in the Spring Creek Greenway. The acreage has already been acquired and placed under a conservation easement. This easement will protect the property, already surrounded by subdivisions, from development. It will also ensure the land is available for the public to enjoy through a number of activities such as nature hiking, biking, and bird-watching.

Settlement of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Greens Bayou case includes reimbursement for the trustee assessment and restoration oversight costs as well as the cost to implement the restoration projects (estimated at approximately $375,000 for the Baytown Nature Center project and $417,000 for the Spring Creek project). Both the Baytown Nature Center and Spring Creek Greenway are places where people can enjoy nature in the highly developed Houston area. By partnering with these existing initiatives, we trustees were able to ensure the restoration projects would build on the local momentum to protect and appreciate the natural environment while reversing the ecological damage done at Greens Bayou.

Jessica White.

While you can see here the kind of wildlife Jessica is comfortable around, she is fully dedicated to protecting the environment.

Jessica White is a Regional Resource Coordinator with the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has been working with NOAA in the Gulf since 2003 and recently relocated to the Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. Jessica has assessed and restored Superfund sites in Texas and Louisiana and has supported oil spill and marine debris cleanup. She has a B.S. in Biology from Texas Tech University and a M.S. in Environmental Science from the University of North Texas.


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For Submerged Oil Pollution in Western Gulf of Mexico, Restoration Is Coming After 2005 DBL 152 Oil Spill

By Sandra Arismendez, Regional Resource Coordinator for the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division.

Imagine trying to describe the state of 45,000 acres of habitat on the ocean bottom—an area the size of over 34,000 football fields. And you have to do it without four of your five senses. You can’t touch it. You can’t taste it. You can’t smell it. You can’t hear it. Sometimes you can barely see a few inches in front of your scuba mask as you swim 60 feet below the surface in the murky waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But that was the task NOAA scientists faced seven years ago in the wake of a large offshore oil spill in the western Gulf of Mexico.

The DBL 152, shown here on November 13, 2005 shortly before capsizing, ended up discharging nearly 2 million gallons of a thick slurry oil, which sank to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX)

The DBL 152, shown here on November 13, 2005 shortly before capsizing, ended up discharging nearly 2 million gallons of a thick slurry oil, which sank to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX)

An Oily-Fated Journey

The oil was released from tank barge (T/B) DBL 152 as it was traveling from Houston, Texas, to Tampa, Fla., in November 2005.  While in transit, the barge struck the submerged remains of a pipeline service platform that collapsed a few months earlier during Hurricane Rita. The double-hulled barge was carrying approximately 5 million gallons of slurry oil, a type of oil denser than seawater, which meant as the thick oil poured out of the barge, it sank to the seafloor.

Heavy chains dragged absorbent material along the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico in order to detect submerged oil. (ENTRIX, 11/19/2005)

Heavy chains dragged absorbent material along the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico in order to detect submerged oil. (ENTRIX, 11/19/2005)

Eventually, the barge’s tug was able to tow it toward shore, hoping to ground and stabilize it in shallower waters. However, the barge grounded unexpectedly 30 miles from shore, releasing more oil and eventually capsizing. Approximately 1.9 million gallons of oil drained into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. To find, track, and clean up the oil in these cloudy waters, oil spill responders used information from divers, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and oil trajectory models. Executing this process over such a large area of the seafloor took more than a year. While divers were able to recover an estimated 98,910 gallons of oil, some 1.8 million gallons more remained unrecovered.

NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) provides the unique scientific and technical expertise to assess and restore natural resources injured by oil spills like the DBL 152 incident as well as releases of hazardous substances and vessel groundings.  For more than 20 years, DARRP has worked cooperatively with other federal, tribal, and state co-trustees and responsible parties to assess the injuries and reverse the effects of contamination to our marine resources, including fish, marine mammals, wetlands, reefs, and other ocean and coastal habitats.

Oil Spill Sentinels in the Open Sea

So what happened to the other 1.8 million gallons of oil which were not feasible to clean up? Initially, the oil sank to the ocean bottom, creating a “footprint” of the impacted area.

Crab pot sentinels used to detect submerged oil on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX, Dec. 3, 2005)

Crab pot sentinels used to detect submerged oil on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX, Dec. 3, 2005)

Immediately following the spill, NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard, Texas state trustees, and the responsible party worked together to assess impacts to natural resources and habitats affected by the spill. Scientists collected and analyzed oil samples, bottom-dwelling animals living in the sediments, and samples of sediments and water taken in the oiled areas. In particular, creatures on the seafloor were at risk of being smothered or contaminated by the dense oil as it sank to the bottom.

As you might expect, assessing injuries to an area of the open ocean covering 34,000 football fields is no easy task, especially considering how difficult it is to detect the oily culprit itself. Because we couldn’t always see the submerged oil over such a large area, oil-absorbing pads were dragged systematically across miles of ocean to locate patches of oil. Underwater sorbent “sentinels,” oil-absorbing tools used to detect oil, also were placed and monitored strategically in the predicted path of the spilled oil to tell us if the footprint of the remaining oil at the ocean bottom was relatively stationary, and if not, in what general direction it was moving. Monitoring revealed the oiled area was moving and dissipating over time as it weathered due to exposure to physical forces such as currents.

The environmental assessment showed that fish and organisms living on or near the ocean floor (such as worms, clams, and crabs) were injured by the oil that sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. That submerged oil impacted approximately 45,000 acres of ocean floor. However, much of this area recovered over time as the oil naturally dissipated and weathering broke it up.

A Path Forward

Submerged oil from Tank Barge DBL 152 on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (EXTRIX, December 2005)

Submerged oil from Tank Barge DBL 152 on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (EXTRIX, December 2005)

In March 2013, NOAA released the Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan [PDF] for the DBL 152 incident, which demonstrates that restoration is possible for this oil spill. The plan outlines injuries to natural resources and proposes a restoration project to implement estuarine shoreline protection and salt marsh creation at the Texas Chenier Plain National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Galveston Bay, Texas. The preferred shoreline protection and marsh restoration project proposed in the draft plan is designed to replenish the natural resources lost due to the oiling during the period both when they were injured and while they recovered.

Public comments can be submitted through April 15, 2013 by mailing written comments to: 

NOAA, Office of General Counsel, Natural Resources Section
Attn: Chris Plaisted
501 W. Ocean Blvd., Suite 4470
Long Beach, CA 90802

Or submitting comments electronically at www.regulations.gov (Docket I.D.:  NOAA-NMFS-2013-0034).

Following the close of the public comment period, NOAA will consider any comments and release a Final Restoration Plan. This comment period is the last step before restoration projects are selected and funding is sought from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund for implementation.

Since the party responsible for the oil spill reached its legal limit of liability and is not obligated to pay further liabilities by law, NOAA will submit a claim to the National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC), administered by the U.S. Coast Guard, to cover the cost of enacting the needed environmental restoration. The Pollution Funds Center serves as a safety net to help cover the costs of reclaiming our nation’s invaluable natural resources following these types of events.

Sandra Arismendez

Sandra Arismendez

Sandra Arismendez is a coastal ecologist and Regional Resource Coordinator for the Gulf of Mexico in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.


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$2 Million in Aquatic Restoration Projects Proposed for Polluted Housatonic River in Connecticut

Housatonic River with covered bridge.

The latest round of aquatic restoration projects for the Housatonic River will also indirectly improve water quality, increase buffering during coastal storms, and reduce runoff pollution into the river. (NOAA)

NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Connecticut released a proposal to use approximately $2 million from a 1999 settlement with General Electric Company (GE) to fund projects to increase fish habitat and restore marshes on the Housatonic River. Between 1932 and 1977, GE discharged polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other chemical wastes from its facility in Pittsfield, Mass, into the Housatonic River, which runs through western Massachusetts and Connecticut. As a result, the Housatonic’s fish, wildlife, and their habitats suffered from the effects of these highly toxic compounds.

Part of an amendment to the 2009 restoration plan [PDF] for the Housatonic site, these latest projects highlight aquatic restoration because the original plan primarily focused on recreational and riparian restoration, with more than half of those projects already complete. The amendment identifies seven preferred restoration projects and three non-preferred alternatives to increase restoration of injured aquatic natural resources and services. These projects aim to more fully compensate the public for the full suite of environmental injuries resulting from GE’s decades of PCB contamination by:

  • Enhancing wetland habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife.
  • Supporting native salt marsh restoration by eradicating nonnative reeds and removing large debris (e.g., plywood and lumber).
  • Restoring migratory fish and wildlife passages by removing dams and constructing bypass channels.
  • Promoting recreational fishing, other outdoor activities, and natural resource conservation.

The 1999 legal settlement with GE included $7.75 million for projects in Connecticut aimed at restoring, rehabilitating, or acquiring the equivalent of the natural resources and recreational uses of the Housatonic River injured by GE’s Pittsfield facility pollution. Settlement funds grew to more than $9 million in an interest-bearing fund. NOAA and its co-trustees are using the majority of the remaining $2,423,328 of those funds to implement these additional aquatic natural resources projects.

Public comments and additional project proposals for this draft amendment to the restoration plan will be accepted through March 11, 2013. Comments should be sent to Robin Adamcewicz, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Eastern District Headquarters, 209 Hebron Road, Marlborough, CT 06447, or emailed to robin.adamcewicz@ct.gov

Learn more about Restoring Natural Resources in Connecticut’s Housatonic River Watershed [PDF].

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