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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NOAA and Partners Invest in an Innovative New Stewardship Program for Washington’s Commencement Bay

A group of people holding a giant check for $4.9 million.

NOAA hands off a $4.9 million check to the nonprofit EarthCorps, which will use the funding for planning, restoration, monitoring, and maintenance at 17 restoration sites across Washington’s Commencement Bay. U.S. Representatives Dennis Heck (WA), Derek Kilmer (WA), and Peter DeFazio (OR) were also in attendance. (NOAA)

Last week, NOAA and partners awarded $4.9 million to EarthCorps for long-term stewardship of restoration sites in Commencement Bay near Tacoma, Washington. The Commencement Bay Stewardship Collaborative is part of a larger investment that will conserve habitat for fish and wildlife and give local urban communities access to the shoreline.

EarthCorps, which was competitively selected for this funding, is a non-profit organization that trains environmental leaders through local service projects.

Volunteers plant ferns at a restoration site in Commencement Bay.

Volunteers restore a site in Commencement Bay. (NOAA)

The funding will support planning, restoration, monitoring, and maintenance at 17 sites across the Bay. These sites were restored over the past 20 years as part of the ongoing Commencement Bay natural resource damage assessment (NRDA) case. This is the first time that a third party has received funding to launch a comprehensive stewardship program as part of a NRDA case. We hope it will become a model of stewardship for future cases.

Commencement Bay is the harbor for Tacoma, Washington, at the southern end of Puget Sound. Many of the waterways leading into the Bay—which provide habitat for salmon, steelhead, and other fish—have been polluted by industrial and commercial activities. NOAA and other federal, state, and tribal partners have been working for decades to address the contamination and restore damaged habitat.

One of the sites that EarthCorps will maintain is the Sha Dadx project on the bank of the Puyallup River. The lower Puyallup River was straightened in the early 20th century, leaving little off-channel habitat—which juvenile salmon use for rearing and foraging. The project reconnected the river to a curve that had been cut off by levees. This restored 20 acres of off-channel habitat, and fish and wildlife are using the site.

Most of the parties responsible for the contamination have settled and begun implementing restoration. NOAA and its partners are evaluating options for pursuing parties that haven’t settled yet. As new sites are added, stewardship funds will be secured at settlement and likely added to the overall long-term effort.

This story was originally posted on NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Habitat Conservation website.


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Detecting Change in a Changing World: 25 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Life between high and low tide along the Alaskan coast is literally rough and tumble.

The marine animals and plants living there have to deal with both crashing sea waves at high tide and the drying heat of the sun at low tide. Such a life can be up and down, boom and bust, as favorable conditions come and go quickly and marine animals and plants are forced to react and repopulate just as quickly.

But what happens when oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez enters this dynamic picture—and 25 years later, still hasn’t completely left? What happens when bigger changes to the ocean and global climate begin arriving in these waters already in flux?

Telling the Difference

Two people wearing chest waders sift for marine life in shallow rocky waters.

In 2011 NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka (right) sifts through the sediments of Alaska’s Lower Herring Bay, looking for the tiny marine life that live there. (Photo by Gerry Sanger/Sound Ecosystem Adventures)

In the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill hit Alaska’s Prince William Sound, NOAA scientists, including marine biologist Gary Shigenaka and ecologist Alan Mearns, have been studying the impacts of the spill and cleanup measures on these animals and plants in rocky tidal waters.

Their experiments and monitoring over the long term revealed a high degree of natural variability in these communities that was unrelated to the oil spill. They saw large changes in, for example, numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles from year to year even in areas known to be unaffected by the oil spill.

This translated into a major challenge. How do scientists tell the difference between shifts in marine communities due to natural variability and those changes caused by the oil spill?

Several key themes emerged from NOAA’s long-term monitoring and subsequent experimental research:

  • impact. How do we measure it?
  • recovery. How do we define it?
  • variability. How do we account for it?
  • subtle connection to large-scale oceanic influences. How do we recognize it?

What NOAA has learned from these themes informs our understanding of oil spill response and cleanup, as well as of ecosystems on a larger scale. None of this, however, would have been apparent without the long-term monitoring effort. This is an important lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez experience: that monitoring and research, often viewed as an unnecessary luxury in the context of a large oil spill response, are useful, even essential, for framing the scientific and practical lessons learned.

Remote Possibilities

As NOAA looks ahead to the future—and with the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in our recent past—we can incorporate and apply lessons of the Exxon Valdez long-term program into how we will support response decisions and define impact and recovery.

The Arctic is a region of intense interest and scrutiny. Climate change is opening previously inaccessible waters and dramatically shifting what scientists previously considered “normal” environmental conditions. This is allowing new oil production and increased maritime traffic through Arctic waters, increasing the risk of oil spills in remote and changing environments.

If and when something bad happens in the Arctic, how do scientists determine the impact and what recovery means, if our reference point is a rapidly moving target? What is our model habitat for restoring one area impacted by oil when the “unimpacted” reference areas are undergoing their own major changes?

Illustrated infographic showing timeline of ecological recovery after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Tracking the progress of recovery for marine life and habitats following the Exxon Valdez oil spill is no easy task. Even today, not all of the species have recovered or we don’t have enough information to know. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

Listening in

NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka explores these questions as he reflects on the 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the following Making Waves podcast from the National Ocean Service:

[NARRATOR] This all points back at what Gary says is the main take-away lesson after 25 years of studying the aftermath of this spill: the natural environment in Alaska and in the Arctic are rapidly changing. If we don’t understand that background change, then it’s really hard to say if an area has recovered or not after a big oil spill.

[GARY SHIGENAKA] “I think we need to really keep in mind that maybe our prior notions of recovery as returning to some pre-spill or absolute control condition may be outmoded. We need to really overlay that with the dynamic changes that are occurring for whatever reason and adjust our assessments and definitions accordingly. I don’t have the answers for the best way to do that. We’ve gotten some ideas from the work that we’ve done, but I think that as those changes begin to accelerate and become much more marked, then it’s going to be harder to do.”


Read a report by Gary Shigenaka summarizing information about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and response along with NOAA’s role and research on its recovery over the past 25 years.


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After an Oil Spill, Why Does NOAA Count Recreational Fishing Trips People Never Take?

Families fish off the edge of a seawall.

A perhaps less obvious impact of an oil spill is that people become unable to enjoy the benefits of the affected natural areas. For example, this could be recreational fishing, boating, swimming, or hiking. (NOAA)

From oil-coated birds to oil-covered marshes, the impacts of oil spills can be extremely visual. Our job here at NOAA is to document not only these easy-to-see damages to natural areas and the birds, fish, and wildlife that live there. We also do this for the many impacts of oil spills which may not be as obvious.

For example, after spilled oil washes on shore, people often can no longer swim, picnic, or play at that beach. Or you may see fewer or no recreational fishers on a nearby pier.

Restoring Nature’s Benefits to People

After a spill, these public lands, waters, and wildlife become cut off from people. At NOAA, we have the responsibility to make sure those lost trips to the beach for fishing or swimming are documented—and made up for—along with the oil spill’s direct harm to nature.

Why do we collect the number of fishing trips or days of swimming that don’t occur during a spill? It’s simple. Our job is to work with the organization or person responsible for the oil spill to make sure projects are completed that compensate the public for the time during the spill they could not enjoy nature’s benefits. If people did not fish recreationally in the wake of a spill because a fishery was closed or inaccessible, opportunities for them to fish—and the quality of their fishing experience—after the spill need to be increased. These opportunities may come in the form of building more boat ramps or new public access points to the water or creating healthier waters for fish.

Working with our partners, NOAA develops restoration plans that recommend possible projects that increase opportunities for and public access to activities such as fishing, swimming, or hiking. We then seek public input to make sure these projects are supported by the affected community. The funding for these finalized restoration projects comes from those responsible for the spill.

What Does This Look Like in Practice?

On April 7, 2000, a leak was detected in a 12-inch underground pipeline that supplies oil to the Potomac Electric Power Company’s (PEPCO) Chalk Point generating station in Aquasco, Md. Approximately 140,000 gallons of fuel oil leaked into Swanson Creek, a small tributary of the Patuxent River. About 40 miles of vulnerable downstream creeks and shorelines were coated in oil as a result.

We and our partners assessed the impacts to recreational fishing, boating, and shoreline use (such as swimming, picnicking, and wildlife viewing). We found that 10 acres of beaches were lightly, moderately, or heavily oiled and 125,000 trips on the river were affected. In order to compensate the public for these lost days of enjoying the river, we worked with our partners to implement the following projects:

  • Two new canoe and kayak paddle-in campsites on the Patuxent River.
  • Boat ramp and fishing pier improvements at Forest Landing.
  • Boat launch improvements to an existing fishing pier at Nan’s Cove.
  • Recreational improvements at Maxwell Hall Natural Resource Management Area.
  • An Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-accessible kayak and canoe launch at Greenwell State Park.

For more detail, you can learn how NOAA economists count and calculate the amount of restoration needed after pollution is released and also watch a short video lesson in economics and value from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Correct GE’s Misinformation in Latest Hudson River Pollution Report

A manufacturing facility on the banks of a dammed river.

General Electric plant on the Hudson River in New York. (Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees)

The Federal Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees sent a letter to General Electric (GE) today, addressing misinformation and correcting the public record in regard to the recently released Hudson River Project Report, submitted by GE to the New York Office of the State Comptroller. Trustees are engaged in a natural resource damage assessment and restoration (NRDAR) of the Hudson River, which is extensively contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) released by GE.

“We take our responsibility to keep the public informed throughout the damage assessment process seriously,” said Wendi Weber, Northeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the Trustees engaged in the NRDAR process. “An informed public is key to the conservation and restoration of our treasured natural resources.”

“The extensive PCB contamination of the Hudson River by General Electric has clearly injured natural resources and the services those resources provide to the people of New York State,” said Robert Haddad, Assessment and Restoration Division Chief of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a Federal Trustee in the Hudson River NRDAR process.

The Federal Trustees affirm these five facts in the letter [PDF]:

(1) Trustees have documented injuries to natural resources that the Report does not acknowledge.

Trustees have published injury determination reports for three categories of the Hudson River’s natural resources that GE does not mention in the report. Trustees anticipate that GE will be liable for the restoration of these injured natural resources.

  • Fishery injury: For more than 30 years, PCB levels in fish throughout the 200 mile Hudson River Superfund Site have exceeded the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) limit for PCBs in fish. Fish consumption advisories for PCB-contaminated fish have existed since 1975.
  • Waterfowl injury: In the upper Hudson River, over 90 percent of the mallard ducks tested had PCB levels higher than the FDA limit for PCBs in poultry. The bodies of mallard ducks in the Upper Hudson River have PCB levels approximately 100 times greater than those from a reference area.
  • Surface and ground water injury: Both surface water in the Hudson River itself and groundwater in the Towns of Fort Edward, Hudson Falls and Stillwater have PCB contamination in excess of New York’s water quality criteria. PCBs levels higher than these standards count as injuries. Additionally, the injuries to surface water have resulted in a loss of navigational services on the Hudson River.

(2) GE has been advised that additional dredging would reduce their NRD liability.

Federal trustees have urged GE to remove additional contaminated sediments to lessen the injuries caused by GE’s PCB contamination. Federal trustees publicly released maps showing hot spots that could be targeted for sediment removal over and above that called for in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remedy, and calculated the acreage to be dredged based on specific surface cleanup triggers. Information on these recommendations is publicly and explicitly available. Therefore, GE’s statement that they have “no basis to guess how much additional dredging the trustee agencies might want, in which locations, and applying which engineering or other performance standards” is incorrect.

(3) GE’s very large discharges of PCBs prior to 1975 were not authorized by any permit.

Two GE manufacturing facilities began discharging PCBs into the river in the late 1940s, resulting in extensive contamination of the Hudson River environment. In its report, GE states that “GE held the proper government permits to discharge PCBs to the river at all times required,” suggesting that all of GE’s PCB releases were made pursuant to a permit.

The implication that all of GE’s PCB releases were permitted is inaccurate. In fact, the company had no permit to discharge PCBs between 1947 and the mid-1970s, and thus GE discharged and released massive, unpermitted amounts of PCBs to the Hudson River from point sources (engineered wastewater outfalls) and non-point sources (soil and groundwater) at the Fort Edward and Hudson Falls facilities. After GE obtained discharge permits in the mid-1970s, the company at times released PCBs directly to the River in violation of the permits that it did hold. Not all of GE’s releases were permitted, and regardless, GE is not absolved of natural resource damage liability for their PCB releases.

(4) GE’s characterization of inconclusive studies on belted kingfisher and spotted sandpiper is misleading.

Trustees hold the scientific process in high regard. In its report, GE inaccurately states that studies on spotted sandpiper and belted kingfisher demonstrate no harm to those species from exposure to PCBs. In truth, those studies were simply unable to show an association between PCBs and impacts to these species. Both studies make a point of stating that the lack of association may have resulted from the sample size being too small. The studies are therefore inconclusive.

(5) The Trustees value public input and seek to ensure the public is informed and engaged.

The Trustees are stewards of the public’s natural resources and place high value in engaging with the public. GE incorrectly implies in the report that the Trustees have been secretive with respect to their NRDAR assessment. The Trustees strive to keep the public informed of progress by presenting at Hudson River Community Advisory Group meetings and at events organized by scientific, educational, and nonprofit organizations, as well as releasing documents for public review and providing information through web sites and a list serve.

To access the letter to GE and for more information, visit the Hudson River NRDAR Trustee websites:

www.fws.gov/contaminants/restorationplans/hudsonriver/index.html

www.darrp.noaa.gov/northeast/hudson/index.html

www.dec.ny.gov/lands/25609.html

The Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees agencies are the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and the state of New York. These entities have each designated representatives that possess the technical knowledge and authority to perform Natural Resource Damage Assessments. For the Hudson River, the designees are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which represents DOC; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which represents DOI bureaus (FWS and the National Park Service) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which represents the State of New York.


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When the North Cape Ran Aground off Rhode Island, an Unexpected Career Took Off

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Acting Chief of Staff Kate Clark.

January 19, 1996 was a Friday. I was a senior at the University of Rhode Island, pursuing an ocean engineering degree. I had no idea what I would do with it once I got it, but I loved the ocean, I had a tuition waiver since my dad taught there, and, hey, they had a well-known engineering program. I was living with roommates “down the line” in the fishing village of Point Judith in Narragansett, R.I.

When my friends and I returned home from a night out, it was the usual weather I was accustomed to during a coastal Rhode Island winter storm: foggy, rainy, and windy. But what I was not accustomed to was the nauseating smell of gasoline in the air and the helicopter traffic overhead.

Nudist Beach to Oiled Wreck

I woke on January 20 to the news that a ship had run aground, roughly four miles east on Moonstone Beach in South Kingstown. Being Rhode Island–born and Rhode Island–bred (as the fight song goes), I was all too familiar with Moonstone Beach, so called for the numerous ocean-polished silicate rocks that lined the beach. This town beach where I grew up was idyllic for families because the shallow, warm salt ponds that sat right behind the thin strip of sandy beach were perfect for young kids. As a child I spent long summer days there combing the beach for shells and jellyfish.

However, other sections of Moonstone Beach were well known throughout the 1970s and 1980s as a popular nudist beach. When public access to Moonstone Beach was closed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1988 to save habitat for endangered least tern and piping plover, it shut down the East Coast’s last fully staffed oceanic nudist beach.

The tank-barge that grounded on Moonstone Beach during that harsh winter storm in 1996 was called the North Cape. Its hull ripped open and spilled 828,000 gallons of home heating oil into the pounding surf. That strong smell of oil in the air around the southern shores of South Kingstown and Narragansett was soon replaced by the stench of rotting crustaceans, shellfish, and starfish that died from the oil and washed up in droves along the beaches of Block Island Sound.

In the weeks that followed, the local fishing and lobstering economy was brought to its knees as 250 square miles of Block Island Sound was closed to fishing. Families I had grown up with and classmates who went to work fishing after high school struggled to make ends meet.

Lessons for Life

During the spring of 1996, I was in need of a topic for my required senior project. At that time, the chair of the Ocean Engineering Department was interested in using media reports and other sources to do a hindcast investigation into the reported volume of oil spilled. I worked on it for several months that spring and became extremely familiar with the details of the incident. Ultimately, the project was a non-starter and I moved on to a different project. (If you’re doing the math, yes, it took me more than four years to graduate).

A large pile of dead lobsters in the bed of a pickup truck.

Dead lobsters collected from Rhode Island beaches after the North Cape oil spill, which killed 9 million lobsters. (Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management)

While I did this research, I knew nothing about oil spill response or assessing damages to natural resources, but the seed was planted. One thing I learned was that the North Cape spill was unique in the way the heavy surf thoroughly mixed the spilling oil into the water column, pounded it into the substrate, and ultimately carried it offshore to deliver a staggering blow to Block Island Sound’s thriving bottom-dwelling sea life.

Once I joined the work force after graduation, it seems all roads led back to oil spill preparedness, response, and restoration. It began with planting eel grass with funds from the World Prodigy oil spill and continued with consulting on containment and spill prevention for the Department of Defense. As I was finishing up graduate school at Louisiana State University, I came across a job opportunity to work for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) conducting Natural Resource Damage Assessments along the Gulf Coast. That was 12 years ago and I have worked at OR&R ever since.

An Environment for Success

The environmental damages from the North Cape oil spill resulted in $7.8 million for restoration along Rhode Island’s coast, which went to lobster and shellfish restoration, seabird and piping plover habitat protection, water quality improvements, and recreational fishing enhancements. The success of these projects required innovation, teamwork, and perseverance on the behalf of federal and state trustees, local officials, fishermen, and the public.

The last of the successful restoration projects wrapped up well after I started working for OR&R. I was pleased to be involved at times in this damage assessment and restoration work, though certainly not as involved as many of my colleagues. Still, it felt as though I had come full circle. The North Cape oil spill that devastated a local community and its natural resources 18 years ago this month set the course for my career. As the Grateful Dead song goes, “Once in a while you get shown the light. In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

Kate Clark.Kate Clark finally graduated with an ocean engineering degree from the University of Rhode Island and went on to complete a masters degree in oceanography from the Louisiana State University. She is now the Acting Chief of Staff for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. For nearly 12 years she has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has also managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.


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As NOAA Damage Assessment Rules Turn 18, Restoration Trumps Arguing Over the Price Tag of a Turtle

Kemp's Ridley sea turtle on beach in Texas.

How do you put a price tag on natural resources like this endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle? (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

What is a fish or sea turtle or day of sailing worth?  Some resources may be easily valued, such as a pound of lobsters, but other natural resources may not be assigned values as easily, such as injured habitats or non-game wildlife. And what about the value of a lobster in nature rather than in a soup pot? In 1989, under the paradigm in place at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, damage assessments were based on the economic value of natural resources and their uses lost as a result of a spill.

Eighteen years ago, on January 6, 1996, NOAA issued its final rules for conducting Natural Resource Damage Assessments (NRDA) for oil spills. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, prompted by the Exxon Valdez spill, changed many aspects of the U.S. response to oil spills, including the approach to damage assessments.

One of the lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez and other incidents was that restoration became delayed when the focus was on arguing over the monetary value of natural resource damages. This was because once government agencies reached a dollar-based settlement with the organization responsible for the spill, we still had to conduct studies to figure out what restoration was really necessary. Furthermore, since the process focused on calculating monetary damages rather than restoration costs, the trustees did not always receive sufficient funds to conduct restoration (the economic value of a fish or acre of wetland may not represent the costs to restore that resource).

NOAA's Doug Helton during the response to the August 10, 1993, Tampa Bay oil spill.

NOAA’s Doug Helton during the response to the August 10, 1993, Tampa Bay oil spill. A collision between a freighter and two fuel barges resulted in hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spilled into the Bay. The damage assessment that evaluated injuries to birds, sea turtles, mangrove habitat, seagrasses, salt marshes, and recreational uses was an early example of a restoration-based claim, and NOAA used this experience in developing the damage assessment rules. A number of ecological and recreational restoration projects were conducted to address or compensate for these injuries. For more information, see http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/southeast/tampabay/

To reform this issue, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 required that NOAA promulgate new damage assessment regulations, and I was assigned to work with a team of attorneys and scientists to help develop a rule that made sense legally and scientifically. In response to the lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez and other recent oil spills, we developed a new approach, focusing on the ultimate goal of restoration rather than attempting to establish a price tag for each fish, bird, or marine mammal injured by a spill. In other words, the damage claim submitted to the responsible party is based on the cost to conduct restoration projects for the damages rather than the value of the injured resource.

The Oil Pollution Act regulations also turned Natural Resource Damage Assessment into a more open process through three major changes:

  • Making assessment results and critical documents available to the public in an administrative record.
  • Requiring that the public have a chance to review and comment on restoration plans.
  • Inviting the organizations responsible for the spill to actively cooperate in the assessment and restoration planning.

The rulemaking process took several years, and we had lots of comments from the public, nongovernmental organizations, and the marine insurance, shipping, and oil industries. Finally, after incorporating all of the comments and developing a series of guidance documents, we published the final rule on January 6, 1996.

We had little time to relax, however. The first test of those cooperative, restoration-based regulations came a couple weeks later when the Barge North Cape and Tug Scandia ran aground in Rhode Island on January 19.  Stay tuned for the story of how that grounding off of a former nudist beach inspired an unexpected career for a young college student.


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A Video Update on California Kelp Restoration from Thank You Ocean

Giant kelp.

The goal of removing the excess urchins is to allow young kelp plants to establish themselves and grow into a diverse, healthy kelp forest. (NOAA Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

“Imagine a barren underwater ‘desert’ turned back into a lush, healthy habitat in mere months!”

A recent video podcast produced by the Thank You Ocean Report welcomed NOAA scientist David Witting to discuss a project to restore kelp forests off the coast of southern California.

To bring back the decimated kelp forests, volunteer divers, commercial urchin divers, researchers, and local nonprofit groups are removing urchins to keep them from eating every newly settled kelp plant. This is one of the projects aimed at restoring fish habitat in southern California and was funded by the NOAA Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

So, take a few minutes, kick up your feet (or flippers), and enjoy this early success story about NOAA and our partners’ efforts to restore the forests of the sea:


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How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

Coral habitat in the Hawaiian Islands.

Coral habitat in the Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

A warming, more acidic ocean. Grounded ships and heavy fishing nets. Coral reefs face a lot of threats from humans. For these tiny animals that build their own limestone homes underwater, oil spills may add insult to injury.

But how does spilled oil reach coral reefs? And what are the effects?

How an oil spill affects corals depends on the species and maturity of the coral (e.g., early stages of life are very sensitive to oil) as well as the means and level of exposure to oil. Exposing corals to small amounts of oil for an extended period can be just as harmful as large amounts of oil for a brief time.

Coral reefs can come in contact with oil in three major ways:

  1. Oil floating on the water’s surface can be deposited directly on corals in an intertidal zone when the water level drops at low tide.
  2. Rough seas can mix lighter oil products into the water column (like shaking up a bottle of salad dressing), where they can drift down to coral reefs.
  3. As heavy oil weathers or gets mixed with sand or sediment, it can become dense enough to sink below the ocean surface and smother corals below.

 

Oil slicks moving onto coral reefs at Galeta at low tide after the Bahia las Minas refinery spill, Panama, in April 1986.

Oil slicks moving onto coral reefs at Galeta at low tide after the Bahia las Minas refinery spill, Panama, in April 1986. (NOAA)

Once oil comes into contact with corals, it can kill them or impede their reproduction, growth, behavior, and development. The entire reef ecosystem can suffer from an oil spill, affecting the many species of fish, crabs, and other marine invertebrates that live in and around coral reefs.

As oil spill responders, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has to take these and many other factors into account during an oil spill near coral reefs. For example, if the spill resulted from a ship running aground on a reef, we need to consider the environmental impacts of the options for removing the ship. Or, if an oil spill occurred offshore but near coral reefs, we would advise the U.S. Coast Guard and other pollution responders to avoid using chemical dispersants to break up the oil spill because corals can be harmed by dispersed oil.

We also provide reports and information for responders and natural resource managers dealing with oil spills and coral reefs:

You can learn more about coral reefs, such as the basic biology of corals, how damaged coral reefs can recover from an oil spill or be restored after a ship grounding, and what we’ve learned about oil spills in tropical reefs.

For lessons a little closer to home, be sure to find out five more things you should know about coral reefs and listen to this podcast about threats to coral health from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.



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Emergency Restoration Is in a Basketful of Coral

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Matthew Parry also contributed to this post.

Basket of loose corals collected from the area damaged by the VogeTrader's grounding, where divers are removing rubble.

Basket of loose corals collected from the area damaged by the VogeTrader’s grounding, where divers are removing rubble. (NOAA)

In 30 feet of water, just outside the entrance to Hawaii’s Kalaeloa Harbor, emergency coral restoration is just getting underway. NOAA and our partners are working with the owners of the cargo vessel M/V VogeTrader to repair corals that were injured when the vessel accidentally lodged itself onto the reef one morning in 2010.

The 734-foot bulk carrier M/V VogeTrader after it ran aground near Oahu, on February 5, 2010. The milky color in the water beneath the ship is the pulverized coral.

The 734-foot bulk carrier M/V VogeTrader after it ran aground near Oahu, on February 5, 2010. The milky color in the water beneath the ship is the pulverized coral. (U.S. coast Guard)

The grounding—and the response activities taken to haul the vessel off the reef and prevent it from spilling any of its fuel—crushed, broke, dislodged, and buried various species of corals. A few of the types of marine life affected include the common coral species Montipora capitata (rice coral), Porites lobata (lobe coral), Pocillopora meandrina (cauliflower coral); sponges; and other bottom-dwelling invertebrates. We’re pursuing emergency restoration [PDF] to prevent unnecessary future injuries that might occur if actions are further delayed.

Beginning on October 30, 2013, teams of divers began working to reattach broken coral and remove rubble to prevent loose pieces from moving with wave action and causing further damage to the reef.

This restoration project requires a series of trips, over several months, to the grounding location near the coast of Oahu. NOAA and our partners undertook the first of many of these missions during a recent two-day effort. Leaving from Kalaeloa/Barber’s Point Harbor, the first day was spent conducting acoustic mapping surveys to determine exactly where the rubble was located and the size of the affected area.

On the second day divers were back to find and move any live corals and coral fragments out of the area where rubble is going to be removed. We recovered the corals by hand, placing them in baskets before transporting them a short distance to areas outside the work zone. The corals will be safe there until after the rubble is removed and they can be transported back into the cleared area for reattachment.

Stay tuned as we post updates and photos of the progress. In the meantime, you can learn more about the underwater techniques and technologies we use for these types of projects.

Dr. Matthew Parry got his Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Hawaii in 2003. He came to work for the NOAA Restoration Center in Honolulu as part of the Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program in 2007. He continues to work at NOAA as a Fishery Biologist specializing in Natural Resource Damage Assessment

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