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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Post Hurricane Sandy, NOAA Aids Hazardous Spill Cleanup in New Jersey and New York

Oil sheen is visible on the waters of Arthur Kill on the border of New Jersey and New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Oil sheen is visible on the waters of Arthur Kill on the border of New Jersey and New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

[UPDATED NOVEMBER 6, 2012] Hurricane Sandy’s extreme weather conditions—80 to 90 mph winds and sea levels more than 14 feet above normal—spread oil, hazardous materials, and debris across waterways and industrial port areas along the Mid Atlantic. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is working with the U.S. Coast Guard and affected facilities to reduce the impacts of this pollution in coastal New York and New Jersey.

We have several Scientific Support Coordinators and information management specialists on scene at the incident command post on Staten Island, N.Y.

Since the pollution response began, we have been dispatching observers in helicopters with the Coast Guard to survey the resulting oil sheens on the water surface in Arthur Kill, N.J./N.Y. This is in support of the response to a significant spill at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, N.J., as well as for the cleanup and assessment of several small spills of diesel fuel, biodiesel, and various other petroleum products scattered throughout northern New Jersey’s refinery areas.

One of the challenges facing communities after a devastating weather event is information management. One tool we have developed for this purpose is ERMA, an online mapping tool which integrates and synthesizes various types of environmental, geographic, and operational data. This provides a central information hub for all individuals involved in an incident, improves communication and coordination among responders, and supplies resource managers with the information necessary to make faster and better informed decisions.

ERMA has now been adopted as the official common operational platform for the Hurricane Sandy pollution response, and we have sent additional GIS specialists to the command post.

Species and Habitats at Risk

The most sensitive habitats in the area are salt marshes, which are often highly productive and are important wildlife habitat and nursery areas for fish and shellfish. Though thin sheens contain little oil, wind and high water levels after the storm could push the diesel deep into the marsh, where it could persist and contaminate sediments. Because marshes are damaged easily during cleanup operations, spill response actions will have to take into account all of these considerations.

In addition, diesel spills can kill the many small invertebrates at the base of the food chain which live in tidal flats and salt marshes if they are exposed to a high enough concentration. Resident marsh fishes, which include bay anchovy, killifish, and silversides, are the fish most at risk because they are the least mobile and occupy shallow habitats. Many species of heron nest in the nearby inland marshes, some of the last remaining marshlands in Staten Island. Swimming and diving birds, such as Canada geese and cormorants, are also vulnerable to having their feathers coated by the floating oil, and all waterfowl have the potential to consume oil while feeding.

Based on the risks to species and habitats from both oil and cleanup, we weigh the science carefully before making spill response recommendations to the Coast Guard.

Tracking the Spilled Oil

Responders face an oily debris field in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy. Nov. 2, 2012.

Responders face an oily debris field in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy. Nov. 2, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Because no two oils are alike, we train aerial observers to evaluate the character and extent of oil spilled on the water. NOAA performs these aerial surveys, or overflights, of spilled oil like in Arthur Kill to determine the status of the oil’s source and to track where wind and waves are moving spilled oil while also weathering it. The movement of wind and waves, along with sunlight, works to break down oil into its chemical components. This changes the appearance, size, and location of oil, and in return, can change how animals and plants interact with the oil.

When spilled on water, diesel oil spreads very quickly to a thin film. However, diesel has high levels of toxic components which dissolve fairly readily into the water column, posing threats to the organisms living there. Biodiesel can coat animals that come into contact with it, but it breaks down up to four times more quickly than conventional diesel. At the same time, this biodegradation could cause potential fish kills by using up large amounts of oxygen in the water, especially in shallow areas.

Look for photos, maps, and updates on pollution-related response efforts at IncidentNews.

Check the Superstorm Sandy CrisisMap for aggregated information from NOAA, FEMA, and other sources on weather alerts and observations; storm surge and flood water data; aerial damage assessment imagery; and the locations of power outages, food and gas in New Jersey, and emergency shelters.


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With Skiff Found off Maui, NOAA and Partners Confirm Hawaii’s Latest Reports of Japan Tsunami Marine Debris

Skiff covered in barnacles towed behind a boat.

After finding the 20-by-6-foot skiff covered in barnacles floating northeast of Maui, the crew of the F/V Zephyr towed it in and cleaned it up. This skiff is Hawaii’s second confirmed piece of marine debris connected to the 2011 Japan tsunami. (Peter Grillo, F/V Zephyr)

On the heels of Hawaii’s first confirmed report of Japan tsunami debris, NOAA and our partners are already examining the second confirmed item: a barnacled skiff which a fisherman found off the Hawaii coast—and which he wants to keep.

Using the skiff’s registration number, NOAA worked through the Japan Consulate in Hawaii to track down its owner, who expressed no interest in having it returned or in whom took possession of it.

The Zephyr, a longline fishing vessel, discovered the 20-by-6-foot skiff approximately 700 nautical miles northeast of Maui and reported it to the U.S. Coast Guard on September 29. After cleaning the aquatic species from its hull, the crew took it aboard and arrived with it in Honolulu Harbor the morning of October 5.

“We appreciate that this fisherman reached out to us and our partners at the Coast Guard and State of Hawaii to alert us of the skiff and determine appropriate measures to take,” said Carey Morishige, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program Pacific Islands regional coordinator. “Boaters are our eyes on the water and we need their help to be on the lookout for marine debris.”

State marine invasive species experts have already examined the skiff for signs of remaining aquatic life, especially those which may be invasive to Hawaii. Although no items connected to the 2011 Japan tsunami have shown above-normal radiation levels, out of an abundance of caution, state Department of Health officials also checked the boat for radiation.

Plastic bin being towed in to pier off Oahu.


NOAA’s Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory tows in the 4-by-4-foot plastic bin which was the first confirmed item of Japan tsunami marine debris in Hawaii. It was spotted at sea off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012. (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

Just a few weeks ago, the first confirmed piece of Japan tsunami debris in Hawaii [PDF]—a blue seafood storage bin—showed up off the southeast coast of Oahu. The bin belonged to the Japanese seafood wholesaler Y.K. Suisan, Co., Ltd., whose offices were affected by the 2011 Japan tsunami.

On the morning of September 18, personnel from Makai Ocean Engineering pointed out the buoyant blue container, which is used to transport seafood, near a pier on the southeastern shore of Oahu, and NOAA’s Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory fished the 4-by-4-foot box out of the water.

A closeup of the seafood storage bin from Japan found near Oahu and encrusted with marine life.

A close examination of the seafood storage bin from Japan found near Oahu revealed a variety of wildlife both inside (Hawaiian red-footed boobies) and out (gooseneck barnacles and two species of open-water crabs). (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

While the lower, submerged portion of the bin was covered in gooseneck barnacles and crabs common in the open sea, a NOAA marine invertebrate scientist joined state aquatic invasive species experts in examining and confirming that none of the organisms were invasive. When the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory towed in the bin, they also found five Hawaiian red-footed boobies inside; three of which were dead, though two successfully managed to fly off.

Because both the skiff and the seafood bin have unique identifying information, both items have been definitively traced back to Japan and confirmed as lost during the tsunami of March 2011. These items were confirmed with the assistance of the Japan Consulate in Honolulu and Government of Japan.

However, the assorted flotsam which Hawaii residents have reported recently is often nearly impossible to connect to the tsunami. It includes everything from unusual light bulbs and a hard hat to plastic containers and pieces of Styrofoam. Marine debris is an everyday problem, and items like these have been known to wash up on Hawaiian shores long before the 2011 tsunami.

While fishermen reportedly saw a floating concrete dock near the Main Hawaiian Islands, it has not been sighted again [PDF] since initial reports on September 19. In the meantime, NOAA has coordinated with the U.S. Coast Guard, State of Hawaii, and other agencies to prepare for its possible reappearance and support the state in its plan to deal with the dock before it makes landfall.

The 30-by-50-foot dock appears similar to one that washed ashore in Oregon last June, which, when it arrived encrusted in sea life, prompted concerns about the possibility of aquatic invasive species from Japan. If this latest dock reappeared and proved to be a match, it would be the second of three docks reported missing from Japan following the March 2011 tsunami.

However, despite aerial surveys by the U.S. Coast Guard and Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources to identify the dock’s location, no additional sightings have surfaced. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration oceanographers have used our GNOME model to forecast the dock’s possible movement using data on currents from the University of Hawaii’s Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) and wind forecasts from NOAA’s National Weather Service. However, the accuracy of the model’s predictions is unknown due to the lack of observational data on where the dock was traveling over time. In addition, NOAA has prepared two satellite tracking buoys for Hawaii to use in case the dock is relocated.

Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, the state’s lead agency for responding to possible Japan tsunami marine debris, is asking that boaters, fishers, and pilots keep an eye out for debris. If sighted, the agency says to call in reports immediately to 1.808.587.0400. The NOAA Marine Debris Program also is gathering sightings of potential Japan tsunami marine debris at DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.

Keep up with NOAA’s latest efforts surrounding the issue of Japan tsunami marine debris at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/.


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Weeks Later, Responders Still Dealing with Pollution Left in Hurricane Isaac’s Wake

Three cleaned brown pelicans prior to being released at the wildlife rehabilitation center.

Three cleaned brown pelicans prior to being released at the wildlife rehabilitation center. (NOAA/Ed Levine)

Even though Hurricane Isaac blew off the weather radar several weeks ago, the pollution and destruction it left behind in the Gulf of Mexico still remain. After the hurricane’s initial landfall the week of August 28, the U.S. Coast Guard received reports of 158 oil spills and 171 hazardous material targets in the affected areas in Louisiana. Some two weeks later, the numbers are down to 13 open oil discharges and 57 hazardous material targets remaining.

At this time, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has five support personnel, consisting of Scientific Support Coordinators and information management specialists, on scene in the New Orleans command post assisting response operations for these cleanups. The incidents ranged from very small (several gallons) to medium (60,000 gallons) sized releases of oil and a wide variety of chemicals.

Map of locations of oil and hazardous material spills in Louisiana resulting from Hurricane Isaac, as of Sept. 17, 2012.

Map of locations of oil and hazardous material spills in Louisiana resulting from Hurricane Isaac, as of Sept. 17, 2012. Click to enlarge. (NOAA)

NOAA has been involved in assessing shorelines possibly affected by these spills, conducting aerial surveys of coastal waters, making cleanup recommendations, and performing final assessments of oiled areas that have been cleaned up. In addition, our experts have been coordinating the federal and state agencies involved, mapping data, and managing response information in databases.

NOAA's Lieutenant (junior grade) Kyle Jellison describing the location of oil spill sites to the U.S. Coast Guard Situation Unit inside the Hurricane Isaac command post in New Orleans, La.

NOAA’s Lieutenant (junior grade) Kyle Jellison describing the location of oil spill sites to the U.S. Coast Guard Situation Unit inside the Hurricane Isaac command post in New Orleans, La. (NOAA/Ed Levine)

This work is in support of the unified command, which is made up of the U.S. Coast Guard and Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, along with several oil and chemical facilities identified as the originators of materials spilled during the hurricane.

Additionally, OR&R is collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA National Weather Service, Louisiana Office of Historic Preservation, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Scenic Rivers program to address impacts to natural resources and to determine when cleanups are complete. NOAA anticipates being on scene another week.


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

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

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

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

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

Athos I

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

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

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

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

Little did I know how right I was.

Oiled Diver

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

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

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

Shoreline clean up

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

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

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


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Is It Oil?

Photo of leaking well in Bayou Perot.

Oil slicks of varying colors around leaking oil well in Bayou Perot, LA

Crude oils can range in color, from black to red to yellow.

When most people picture oil spills, they often think of a heavy continuous coating of oil on the sea or shoreline, and that may be a fair depiction, but after a few hours or days the oil can become patchy, become mixed with water, and change in color and consistency.

Even close to the source of the spill the colors can be quite variable depending on the thickness of the oil. Check out this spill I worked on a few years ago in Louisiana. A well is leaking and spraying yellowish oil, which is caught in a floating boom. As the oil collects in the boom it gets thicker and becomes orange. The thickest oil is black.

There are a lot of phenomena that may be mistaken for oil. Algae blooms, for example, can confuse even trained observers. I took these photos a couple summers ago at a marina near Seattle. This is naturally occurring algae but it looks a lot like reddish brown oil.

Here are photos showing different kinds of oil and some photos of things commonly confused with oil. How many did you get right? Let me know. If you are interested in more information, go to http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/oil-algae.html.

Image: shows 11 photos that may or may not include oil.

Guess which of these photos indicate oil. Answers above.


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Up in the Air

Oil spills are mostly a water pollution problem, but the best perspective on a spill is generally from the air rather than the deck of a ship.  As a result, we end up flying in helicopters and small planes to track how the oil moves.

These visual observations in the field are passed along to the command post to help plan cleanup, but the information is also used by my colleagues in Seattle who create computer models of oil spills. The observations we make in flight, along with weather and water currents, are used to predict where the oil slick may head.  That information helps those of us responding to a spill to position equipment such as skimmers, floating booms, and cleanup teams in the areas most likely to be oiled.

Steve Lehmann, our Scientific Support Coordinator in New England, in a helicopter over a spill in Buzzards Bay, Mass.

Steve Lehmann, our Scientific Support Coordinator in New England, in a helicopter over a spill in Buzzards Bay, Mass. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Working in small planes and helicopters can be dangerous, so we do a lot of training and carry a lot of safety gear.  And if we can, we like to fly with the door open to have a better view.

In this picture, Steve Lehmann, our Scientific Support Coordinator in New England, is wearing a helmet, safety visor, intercom to the pilot, inflatable vest, and fire-resistant coveralls.  The inflatable vest is a special design for helicopters and contains a small emergency breathing tank called a HEED (Helicopter Emergency Egress Device) with about two minutes of air.  Helicopters that fly over water have inflatable floats on their landing gear, but if the helicopter had to land in the water, it could tip over, so the emergency air bottle gives extra time to escape.

On the seat next to Steve, you can see an orange inflatable life raft with a water-activated strobe light.  The yellow device with the black antenna is called an EPIRB.  That stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. This automatically sends out a distress signal to search and rescue teams if the raft is launched.

Responders undergo safety training in a pool, using SCUBA tanks to refill HEED air tanks.

Here, responders use SCUBA tanks to refill HEED air tanks. Credit: NOAA

In addition to all of the gear, we also do a lot of training on flight safety and what to do in emergencies.  Every couple years we practice in a swimming pool with a mock-up of a helicopter.  This “dunker” simulates a helicopter rolling and sinking after hitting the water.

I’ve flown on a lot of commercial and military helicopters during spills and thankfully never had to use my HEED.  Keeping up with safety in the air is important, even when the mess is in the water.

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