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 Prepares for Bakken Oil Spills as Seattle Dodges Oil Train Explosion

As federal leaders in oil spill response science, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is grateful for each oil spill which does not take place, which was fortunately the case on July 24, 2014 in Seattle, Washington, near our west coast office. A train passing through the city ran off the tracks, derailing three of its 100 tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in the port town of Anacortes, Washington. No oil spilled or ignited in the accident.

However, that was not the case in five high-profile oil train derailments and explosions in the last year, occurring in places such as Casselton, North Dakota, when a train carrying grain derailed into an oil train, causing several oil tank cars to explode in December 2013.

Oil production continues to grow in North America, in large part due to new extraction technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) opening up massive new oil fields in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana. The Bakken region lacks the capacity to transport this increased oil production by the most common methods: pipeline or tanker. Instead, railroads are filling this gap, with the number of tank cars carrying crude oil in the United States rising more than 4,000 percent between 2009 (9,500 carloads) and 2013 (407,761).

Just a day before this derailment, Seattle City Council signed a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, urging him to issue an emergency stop to shipping Bakken crude oil in older model tank train cars (DOT-111), which are considered less safe for shipping flammable materials. (However, some of the proposed safer tank car models have also been involved in oil train explosions.) According to the Council’s press release, “BNSF Railway reports moving 8-13 oil trains per week through Seattle, all containing 1,000,000 or more gallons of Bakken crude.” The same day as the Council’s letter, the Department of Transportation proposed rules to phase out the older DOT-111 model train cars for carrying flammable materials, including Bakken crude, over a two-year period.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is examining these changing dynamics in the way oil is moved around the country, and we recently partnered with the University of Washington to research this issue. These changes have implications for how we prepare our scientific toolbox for responding to oil spills, in order to protect responders, the public, and the environment.

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, N.D.

The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, N.D. (U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)

For example, based on our knowledge of oil chemistry, we make recommendations to responders about potential risks during spill cleanup along coasts and waterways. We need to know whether a particular type of oil, such as Bakken crude, will easily ignite and pose a danger of fire or explosion, and whether chemical components of the oil will dissolve into the water, potentially damaging sensitive fish populations.

Our office responded to a spill of Bakken crude oil earlier this year on the Mississippi River. On February 22, 2014, the barge E2MS 303 carrying 25,000 barrels of Bakken crude collided with a towboat 154 miles north of the river’s mouth. A tank of oil broke open, spilling approximately 31,500 gallons (750 barrels) of its contents into this busy waterway, closing it down for several days. NOAA provided scientific support to the response, for example, by having our modeling team estimate the projected path of the spilled oil.

Barge leaking oil on a river.

Barge E2MS 303 leaking 750 barrels of Bakken crude oil into the lower Mississippi River on February 22, 2014. (U.S. Coast Guard)

We also worked with our partners at Louisiana State University to analyze samples of the Bakken crude oil. We found the oil to have a low viscosity (flows easily) and to be highly volatile, meaning it readily changes from liquid to gas at moderate temperatures. It also contains a high concentration of the toxic components known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that easily dissolve into the water column. For more information about NOAA’s involvement in this incident, visit IncidentNews.


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Who Is Biking to Work in America? NOAA Is!

May is National Bike to Work Month. As usual, those of us at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been donning our two-wheelers and helmets to join in the fun that often starts this month but in Seattle can go year-round. In addition, this year the U.S. Census Bureau has released its first-ever report on biking and walking to work. It holds some interesting insights into the shifts occurring in how people get around town:

Although changes in rates of bicycle commuting vary across U.S. communities, many cities have experienced relatively large increases in bicycle commuting in recent years. The total number of bike commuters in the U.S. increased from about 488,000 in 2000 to about 786,000 during the period from 2008 to 2012, a larger percentage increase than that of any other commuting mode.

Take a look at the top 15 big cities for people biking to work:

Top 15 large cities with the highest percentage of people biking to work.

Top 15 large U.S. cities with the highest percentage of people biking to work.

As you can see, Seattle, Washington, is in the top five, and NOAA’s Seattle contingent is doing its part to help get there. In 2012, NOAA had 132 people riding bikes in the Northwest Federal Bike-to-Work Challenge, landing us the prestigious “Pink Jersey” award—referring to Italy’s Giro d’Italia bike race in May where the leader wears a pink jersey—for our overall participation among federal agencies in the region.

This year, about half-way into Bike Month, it looks like NOAA has roughly 139 people on 12 teams who have been biking to work already. We’ve logged more than 600 trips to and from work and ridden nearly 9,000 miles. That’s a lot of miles not driven in cars, pounds of pollution not emitted, and gallons of petroleum not burned. Let’s not forget the health benefits of integrating bicycling into an active lifestyle too. Many people who bike commute also enjoy being outside, hearing the birds, seeing the change of seasons, having more energy during the work day, and slowing down and unplugging after work.

Six people wearing bike helmets and standing next to bikes.

My Bike to Work Month team stopped for breakfast burritos and then rode in the rest of the way to work together on a brisk May morning in 2013.

Personally, I bought my bicycle about two weeks into my first Bike to Work Month in 2011 (better late than never!). I was a little nervous but more excited. Growing up in the car-friendly suburbs of the Midwest didn’t prepare me at all for biking in a city like Seattle. Fortunately, I had a friend to help ease me into biking, showing me how fun and easy it could be, along with introducing me to some simple biking protocols for staying safe. It also helped to live in Washington, which has been ranked the #1 most bike-friendly state seven years in a row.

That first month of biking to NOAA back in 2011, I was hoping to commute once or even twice a week if I could, but this year, I’m going for three, maybe even four times a week. While my commute isn’t super short—nearly 8 miles each way— I’m lucky enough that I can ride almost the entire way on the Burk-Gilman Trail, a dedicated bike path that “carries as many people during peak hours as a high-performing lane of a major freeway.”

A white bicycle and helmet.

My bike, when it was shiny and new. It’s still pretty shiny, but less new, and with more bike racks and fenders.

It was not so long ago that I thought, “Biking around town? Me? I’ll stick to the bus, thanks.” Now, thanks to a lot of support, I know it’s not a huge deal. The more people there are biking, the safer it becomes for everyone on the road [PDF]. I know I can ride my bike to work (and elsewhere) and I can even do it while wearing a dress and a smile.

Do you bike to work? What do you enjoy about it? Would you bike to work if you could?

Get even more data on biking to work from this video discussion between the U.S. Census Bureau and the League of American Bicyclists.


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Booms, Beams, and Baums: The History Behind the Long Floating Barriers to Oil Spills

Oiled boom on Louisiana beach.

Oiled boom is cleaned so that it can be used to contain oil over and over again. (NOAA)

One of the iconic images of spill preparedness and response is oil boom. You’ve probably seen these long ribbons of orange, yellow, or white material stockpiled on a pier, strung around a leaking vessel, or stretched across a channel to protect sensitive areas threatened by an advancing oil slick. Made of plastic, metal, or other materials, booms are floating, physical barriers to oil, meant to slow the spread of oil and keep it contained.

As we describe on our website, there are three main types of boom:

Hard boom is like a floating piece of plastic that has a cylindrical float at the top and is weighted at the bottom so that it has a “skirt” under the water. If the currents or winds are not too strong, booms can also be used to make the oil go in a different direction (this is called “deflection booming”).

Sorbent boom looks like a long sausage made out of a material that absorbs oil. If you were to take the inside of a disposable diaper out and roll it into strips, it would act much like a sorbent boom. Sorbent booms don’t have the “skirt” that hard booms have, so they can’t contain oil for very long.

Fire boom is not used very much. It looks like metal plates with a floating metal cylinder at the top and thin metal plates that make the “skirt” in the water. This type of boom is made to contain oil long enough that it can be lit on fire and burned up.

But why is it called “boom”? Does it make a sound? Every industry has jargon, and the spill response community, at the intersection of the maritime and oil industry, has more than its fair share. There are whole dictionaries devoted to maritime terms, and others devoted to the oil industry. (Remember “top kill” and “junk shot”—industry terms used to describe attempts to stop the flow of oil from a damaged wellhead?) But when I looked for the origins of the word “boom,” I had to do some digging. I guess boom is such a common term in the response business, nobody thinks much about its derivation. Kind of like asking a chef why spoons are called spoons.

The word “boom” is the Dutch word for tree. German is similar: “baum.” Remember “O Tannenbaum,” a Christmas carol of German origin? From these roots, we get the word “beam” as in a long wooden timber, and of course, a part of a sailboat, the “boom,” that holds the foot of the sail and was traditionally made of wood. Around the Northwest it is pretty common to see a tug boat pulling a big raft of logs to a mill—a log boom.

But what do trees have to do with oil boom? Back to the Dutch. In the Middle Ages, logs were chained together and used as a floating barrier across a waterway to protect a harbor from attack or to force passing ships to stop and pay a toll. During the American Revolution, for example, the Hudson River was boomed with logs to prevent the British from sailing upriver. Similar fortifications were used during the Civil War, and even in World War II to protect U.S. West Coast ports from foreign submarines.

How log booms evolved into oil containment booms is unclear, but we know that every major spill has resulted in a flurry of inventions and improvements, often on the fly as responders adapted available resources to combat the spill. As concern over oil pollution increased over the past century, some of these were patented and form the basis for today’s technologies, but unfortunately there is still no silver bullet; once oil is spilled in the sea, it is a challenge to control and clean up. Learn more about how responders use boom during oil spills [PDF], including the ways to use boom effectively.


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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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Little “Bugs” Can Spread Big Pollution Through Contaminated Rivers

This is a post by the NOAA Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

When we think of natural resources harmed by pesticides, toxic chemicals, and oil spills, most of us probably envision soaring birds or adorable river otters.  Some of us may consider creatures below the water’s surface, like the salmon and other fish that the more charismatic animals eat, and that we like to eat ourselves. But it’s rare that we spend much time imagining what contamination means for the smaller organisms that we don’t see, or can’t see without a microscope.

Mayfly aquatic insect on river bottom.

A mayfly, pictured above, is an important component in the diet of salmon and other fish. (NOAA)

The tiny creatures that live in the “benthos”—the mud, sand, and stones at the bottoms of rivers—are called benthic macroinvertebrates. Sometimes mistakenly called “bugs,” the benthic macroinvertebrate community actually includes a variety of animals like snails, clams, and worms, in addition to insects like mayflies, caddisflies, and midges. They play several important roles in an ecosystem. They help cycle and filter nutrients and they are a major food source for fish and other animals.

Though we don’t see them often, benthic macroinvertebrates play an extremely important role in river ecosystems. In polluted rivers, such as the lower 10 miles of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, these creatures serve as food web pathways for legacy contaminants like PCBs and DDT. Because benthic macroinvertebrates live and feed in close contact with contaminated muck, they are prone to accumulation of contaminants in their bodies.  They are, in turn, eaten by predators and it is in this way that contaminants move “up” through the food web to larger, more easily recognizable animals such as sturgeon, mink, and bald eagles.

Some of the ways contaminants can move through the food chain in the Willamette River.

Some of the ways contaminants can move through the food chain in the Willamette River. (Portland Harbor Trustee Council)

The image above depicts some of the pathways that contaminants follow as they move up through the food web in Oregon’s Portland Harbor. Benthic macroinvertebrates are at the bottom of the food web. They are eaten by larger animals, like salmon, sturgeon, and bass. Those fish are then eaten by birds (like osprey and eagle), mammals (like mink), and people.

An illustration showing how concentrations of the pesticide DDT biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain from macroinvertebrates to fish to birds of prey.

An illustration showing how concentrations of the pesticide DDT biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain from macroinvertebrates to fish to birds of prey. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

As PCB and DDT contamination makes its way up the food chain through these organisms, it is stored in their fat and biomagnified, meaning that the level of contamination you find in a large organism like an osprey is many times more than what you would find in a single water-dwelling insect. This is because an osprey eats many fish in its lifetime, and each of those fish eats many benthic macroinvertebrates.

Therefore, a relatively small amount of contamination in a single insect accumulates to a large amount of contamination in a bird or mammal that may have never eaten an insect directly.  The graphic to the right was developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to illustrate how DDT concentrations biomagnify 10 million times as they move up the food chain.

Benthic macroinvertebrates can be used by people to assess water quality. Certain types of benthic macroinvertebrates cannot tolerate pollution, whereas others are extremely tolerant of it.  For example, if you were to turn over a few stones in a Northwest streambed and find caddisfly nymphs (pictured below encased in tiny pebbles), you would have an indication of good water quality. Caddisflies are very sensitive to poor water quality conditions.

Caddisfly nymphs encased in tiny pebbles on a river bottom.

Caddisfly nymphs encased in tiny pebbles on a river bottom are indicators of high water quality. (NOAA)

Surveys in Portland Harbor have shown that we have a pretty simple and uniform benthic macroinvertebrate population in the area. As you might expect, it is mostly made up of pollution-tolerant species. NOAA Restoration Center staff are leading restoration planning efforts at Portland Harbor and it is our hope that once cleanup and restoration projects are completed, we will see a more diverse assemblage of benthic macroinvertebrates in the Lower Willamette River.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.


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Latest Research Finds Serious Heart Troubles When Oil and Young Tuna Mix

Atlantic bluefin tuna prepares to eat a smaller fish.

Atlantic bluefin tuna are a very ecologically and economically valuable species. However, populations in the Gulf of Mexico are at historically low levels. (Copyright: Gilbert Van Ryckevorsel/TAG A Giant)

In May of 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling for oil in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, schools of tuna and other large fish would have been moving into the northern Gulf. This is where, each spring and summer, they lay delicate, transparent eggs that float and hatch near the ocean surface. After the oil well suffered a catastrophic blowout and released 4.9 million barrels of oil, these fish eggs may have been exposed to the huge slicks of oil floating up through the same warm waters.

An international team of researchers from NOAA, Stanford University, the University of Miami, and Australia recently published a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences exploring what happens when tuna mix with oil early in life.

“What we’re interested in is how the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico would have impacted open-ocean fishes that spawn in this region, such as tunas, marlins, and swordfishes,” said Stanford University scientist Barbara Block.

This study is part of ongoing research to determine how the waters, lands, and life of the Gulf of Mexico were harmed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and response. It also builds on decades of research examining the impacts of crude oil on fish, first pioneered after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Based on those studies, NOAA and the rest of the research team knew that crude oil was toxic to young fish and taught them to look carefully at their developing hearts.

“One of the most important findings was the discovery that the developing fish heart is very sensitive to certain chemicals derived from crude oil,” said Nat Scholz of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

This is why in this latest study they examined oil’s impacts on young bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, and amberjack, all large fish that hunt at the top of the food chain and reproduce in the warm waters of the open ocean. The researchers exposed fertilized fish eggs to small droplets of crude oil collected from the surface and the wellhead from the Deepwater Horizon spill, using concentrations comparable to those during the spill. Next, they put the transparent eggs and young fish under the microscope to observe the oil’s impacts at different stages of development. Using a technology similar to doing ultrasounds on humans, the researchers were able create a digital record of the fishes’ beating hearts.

All three species of fish showed dramatic effects from the oil, regardless of how weathered (broken down) it was. Severely malformed and malfunctioning hearts was the most severe impact. Depending on the oil concentration, the developing fish had slow and irregular heartbeats and excess fluid around the heart. Other serious effects, including spine, eye, and jaw deformities, were a result of this heart failure.

Top: A normal young yellowfin tuna. Bottom: A deformed yellowfin tuna exposed to oil during development.

A normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of abnormalities including excess fluid building up around the heart due to heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (NOAA)

“Crude oil shuts down key cellular processes in fish heart cells that regulate beat-to-beat function,” noted Block, referencing another study by this team.

As the oil concentration, particularly the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), went up, so did the severity of the effects on the fish. Severely affected fish with heart defects are unlikely to survive. Others looked normal on the outside but had underlying issues like irregular heartbeats. This could mean that while some fish survived directly swimming through oil, heart conditions could follow them through life, impairing their (very important) swimming ability and perhaps leading to an earlier-than-natural death.

“The heart is one of the first organs to appear, and it starts beating before it’s completely built,” said NOAA Fisheries biologist John Incardona. “Anything that alters heart rhythm during embryonic development will likely impact the final shape of the heart and the ability of the adult fish to survive in the wild.”

Even at low levels, oil can have severe effects on young fish, not only in the short-term but throughout the course of their lives. These subtle but serious impacts are a lesson still obvious in the recovery of marine animals and habitats still happening 25 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.


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Mapping the Problem After Owners Abandon Ship

This is a post by LTJG Alice Drury of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

One of the largest vessel removal efforts in Washington history was a former Navy Liberty Ship, the Davy Crockett. In 2011 the Davy Crockett, previously abandoned by its owner on the Washington shore of the Columbia River, began leaking oil and sinking due to improper and unpermitted salvage operations. Its cleanup and removal cost $22 million dollars, and the owner was fined $405,000 by the Washington Department of Ecology and sentenced to four months in jail by the U.S. Attorney, Western District of Washington.

As I’ve mentioned before, derelict and abandoned vessels like the Davy Crockett are a nationwide problem that is expensive to deal with properly and, if the vessels are left to deteriorate, can cause significant environmental impacts. Unfortunately Washington’s Puget Sound is no exception to this issue.

Agency Collaboration

I’m part of the Derelict Vessel Task Force led by U.S. Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound. Made up of federal, state, and local agencies, this task force aims to identify and remove imminent pollution and hazard-to-navigation threats from derelict vessels and barges within Puget Sound. Among these agencies there are different jurisdictions and enforcement mechanisms related to derelict vessels.

A key player is Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (WA DNR), which manages the state Derelict Vessel Removal Program (DVRP). The DVRP has limited funding for removal of priority vessels. Unfortunately, according to WA DNR [PDF], with the growing number and size of problem vessels, program funding can’t keep up with the rising removal and disposal costs. The backlog of vessels in need of removal continues to grow.

Keeping Track

I’m working with the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Spatial Data Branch to enter this list of derelict vessels into ERMA®. ERMA is a NOAA online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data to support environmental planning and response operations. Right now the vessels are primarily tracked in the WA DNR DVRP database. By pulling this data into ERMA, the task force will not only be able to see the vessels displayed on a map but also make use of the various layers of environmental sensitivity data already within ERMA. The hope is that this can help with the prioritizing process and possibly eventually be used as a tool to raise awareness.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington's Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline's characteristics and vulnerability to oil.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington’s Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline’s characteristics and vulnerability to oil. (NOAA)

However, there aren’t enough resources within the Derelict Vessel Task Force to gather and continue to track (as the vessels can move) all the data needed in order to map the vessels accurately in ERMA. As a result, the task force is turning to local partners in order to help capture data.

Reaching Out

One such partner is the local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotillas, a group of dedicated civilians helping the Coast Guard promote safety and security for citizens, ports, and waterways. In order to garner support for data-gathering, I recently attended the USCG Auxiliary Flotilla Seattle-Elliott Bay meeting, along with members of the local Coast Guard Incident Management Division who head the Puget Sound Derelict Vessel Task Force.

I spoke about a few local derelict vessel incidents and their impacts to the environment. I also showed how ERMA can be a powerful tool for displaying and prioritizing this information—if we can get the basic data that’s missing. As a result, this Flotilla will follow up with my Coast Guard colleagues and start collecting missing information on derelict and abandoned vessels on behalf of the Coast Guard and WA DNR.

Gathering data and displaying derelict vessels graphically is a small, but important, step on the way to solving the massive problem of derelict vessels. Once complete I hope that ERMA will be a powerful aid in displaying the issue and helping make decisions regarding derelict vessels in the Puget Sound. Stay tuned.

[Editor's Note: You can see a U.S. Coast Guard video of the start-to-finish process of removing the Davy Crockett from the Columbia River along with the Washington Department of Ecology's photos documenting the response.]

Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 and shortly thereafter joined the NOAA Corps. After Basic Officer Training Class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., LTJG Drury was assigned to NOAA Ship McArthur II for two years. LTJG Drury is now assigned as the Regional Response Officer in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. In that assignment she acts as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska, and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators.


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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Abandoned Ships?

This is a post by LTJG Alice Drury of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

Two rusted ships partially sunk in water and surrounded by containment boom.

The old fishing vessel Helena Star has been allowed to become derelict, leaking oil and pulling down its neighboring vessel, the Golden West. (NOAA)

A rusted green hull, punched full of holes and tilted on its side, sits forlornly in the Hylebos Waterway of Tacoma, Washington. The dilapidated boat’s name, Helena Star, is partially obscured because the vessel is half sunk. The boat it is chained to, the equally rusted ship Golden West, is being drawn down into the waters with it. Bright yellow boom and a light sheen of oil surround the vessels. Meanwhile, the owners are nowhere in sight.

This is just one example of the nationwide problem of derelict vessels. These neglected ships often pose significant threats to fish, wildlife, and nearby habitat, in addition to becoming eyesores and hazards to navigation. Derelict vessels are a challenge to deal with properly because of ownership accountability issues, potential chemical and oil contamination, and the high cost of salvage and disposal. Only limited funds are available to deal with these types of vessels before they start sinking. In Washington’s Puget Sound alone, the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division has had several recent responses to derelict vessels that either sank or broke free of their moorings.

Many of these recent responses have come with colorful backstories, including a pair of retired Royal Canadian Navy vessels, a fishing boat that at one time housed the largest marijuana seizure by the U.S. Coast Guard (F/V Helena Star), the first American-designed and –built diesel tugboat (Tug Chickamauga), and the boat that carried author John Steinbeck and biologist Ed Ricketts on their famous trip through the Sea of Cortez (Western Flyer).

Unfortunately, all these vessels have met the end of their floating lives either through the deliberate action or negligence of their owners. Had the owners taken responsibility for maintaining them, the environmental impacts from leaked fuel, hazardous waste, and crushing impacts to the seabed could have been avoided, as well as the costly multi-agency response and removal operations that resulted.

heavy machinery is brought in to raise a sunken vessel from the sea floor.

In May 2012, the derelict fishing boat Deep Sea caught fire and sank near Washington’s Whidbey Island. The boat ended up leaking diesel fuel into waters near a Penn Cove Shellfish Company mussel farm, and the company took the precautionary measure of stopping the harvest. NOAA worked with them to sample mussels in the area for diesel contamination. Here, heavy machinery is brought in to raise the sunken vessel from the sea floor. (NOAA)

Yet there is hope that we can prevent these problems before they start. In Washington state there is momentum to combat the derelict vessel issue through measures to prevent boats from becoming derelict or environmental hazards, and by holding vessel owners accountable for what they own.

Washington State House bill 2457 is currently in the Washington State Legislature. Among other measures, the proposed bill:

  • “Establishes a fee on commercial moorage to fund the state’s derelict and abandoned vessel program.”
  • “Creates new penalties for failure to register a vessel.”

Additionally, Washington’s San Juan County is developing a new Derelict Vessel Prevention program, using a grant from the Puget Sound Partnership. San Juan County, a county composed of small rural Pacific Northwest islands, has a high number of derelict vessels [PDF]. This program is going to be used not only in San Juan County but throughout counties bordering Puget Sound.

On January 15, 2014, Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark (who leads the Department of Natural Resources) announced the state was pursuing criminal charges against the owners of the Helena Star, which sank in Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway, and the Tugboat Chickamauga, which sank in Eagle Harbor. Both vessels released oil and other pollutants when they sank.

It is an ongoing battle to hold accountable the owners of derelict and abandoned vessels and prevent them from causing problems in our nation’s waterways. Yet with cooperation, prevention, and increased accountability we can help manage the problem, and in the end reduce impacts to Washington’s cherished Puget Sound.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more information about how LTJG Drury is working with Washington’s Derelict Vessel Task Force to tackle this growing problem in Puget Sound. Update: Mapping the Problem After Owners Abandon Ship.

Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 and shortly thereafter joined the NOAA Corps. After Basic Officer Training Class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., LTJG Drury was assigned to NOAA Ship McArthur II for two years. LTJG Drury is now assigned as the Regional Response Officer in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. In that assignment she acts as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska, and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators.


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As North American Oil Production Explodes, So Do Oil Trains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Swimming Upstream: Examining the Impacts of Nuclear-age Pollution on Columbia River Salmon

A view of the free-flowing section of Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach, along with the famous white bluffs that line it.

A view of the free-flowing section of Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach, along with the famous white bluffs that line it. (NOAA)

Flowing freely through southeastern Washington is an approximately 50 mile stretch of the Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach. This unique section of river is birthplace and home to many animals at different stages of life, including Chinook salmon, the largest of the river’s Pacific salmon. Yet this same segment of river at one time also served as the birthplace of the nuclear age: at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Today, NOAA, other federal and state agencies, and Indian tribes are still trying to determine the full impact of this nuclear legacy on fish, wildlife, and their habitats.

Beginning in 1943, the Hanford Reach, with its steady supply of water and relative isolation, attracted the attention of the U.S. government during World War II. Searching for a location to erect nuclear reactors for the top-secret Manhattan Project, the U.S. was racing to build an atomic bomb and this work took shape at Hanford.

Two of Hanford's nuclear reactors sit, decommissioned, along the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Two of Hanford’s nine nuclear reactors sit, decommissioned, along the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (NOAA)

The first nuclear reactor built at Hanford—and the first full-scale nuclear production plant in the world—was the B Reactor, which began operating in 1944. This and the other eight reactors eventually constructed at Hanford were located right on the Columbia River, an essential source of water to carry away the extreme heat generated by nuclear fission reactions. In these plants, workers turned uranium (euphemistically referred to as “metal”) into weapons-grade plutonium (known as “product”). The plutonium eventually ended up in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, as well as in nuclear arms stockpiled during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Hanford’s last reactors shut down in 1987.

The River Runs Through It

While the nuclear reactors were operating, however, water was pumped from the Columbia River and aerated at a rate of 70,000 gallons a minute. This was meant to improve its quality as it flowed through a maze of processing equipment—pipes, tubes, and valves—and into the core, the heart of the nuclear reactor. There, in the case of B Reactor, about 27,000 gallons of water gushed through 2,004 process tubes every minute. Each tube held 32 rods of uranium fuel.

The "valve pit" in Hanford's B Reactor, where the thousands of gallons of water that cooled the nuclear reactor's core passed through.

The “valve pit” in Hanford’s B Reactor, where the thousands of gallons of water that cooled the nuclear reactor’s core passed through. (NOAA)

Inside the reactor’s core, where the nuclear reactions were occurring, the water temperature would spike from 56 degrees Fahrenheit to 190 degrees in a single minute. Later in the reactor’s lifespan, the operators would be able to leave the water inside the nuclear reactor core long enough to heat it to 200 degrees before releasing the water into lined but leaky outdoor holding ponds. Once in the holding ponds, the reactor water would sit until its temperature cooled and any short-lived radioactive elements had broken down. Finally, the water would return to the Columbia River and continue its path to the Pacific Ocean.

Water played such an essential role in the nuclear reactor that engineers had four levels of backup systems to keep water constantly pumping through the core. In addition to being aerated, the water was also filtered and chemically treated. To prevent the core’s plumbing equipment from corroding, chromium was added to the water. Hanford’s D Reactor, in particular, handled large quantities of solid hexavalent chromium, a toxic chemical known to cause cancer.

The Salmon Runs Through It

A NOAA scientist takes stock of a male Chinook salmon during their fall run along the Hanford Reach in 2013.

A NOAA scientist takes stock of a male Chinook salmon during their fall run along the Hanford Reach in 2013. (NOAA)

Fast-forward to 2013. NOAA and its partners are participating in a natural resource damage assessment, a process determining whether negative environmental impacts resulted from the Department of Energy’s activities at Hanford. As part of that, NOAA is helping look at the places where water leaked or was discharged back into the Columbia River after passing through the reactors.

One goal is to establish at what levels of contamination injury occurs for species of concern at Hanford. Salmon and freshwater mussels living in the Columbia River represent the types of species they are studying. Yet these species may face impacts from more than 30 different contaminants at Hanford, some of which are toxic metals such as chromium while others are radioactive isotopes such as strontium-90.

Many of the Columbia River’s Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout spawn in or migrate through the Hanford Reach. Currently, NOAA and the other trustees are pursuing studies examining the extent of their spawning in this part of the river and determining the intensity of underground chromium contamination welling up through the riverbed. This information is particularly important because salmon build rocky nests and lay their eggs in the gravel on the bottom of the river.

You can learn more about the history of the Hanford Reach and the chromium and other contamination that threatens the river (around minute 8:50-9:03)  in this video from the Department of Energy:

The trustees have many other studies planned, all trying to uncover more information about the natural resources and what they have been experiencing in the context of Hanford’s history. Yet, for the natural resource damage assessment, even if the trustees find salmon experiencing negative impacts, the evidence found needs to be tied directly to exposure to Hanford’s pollution (rather than, for example, the influence of dams or pollution from nearby farms). It is a complicated process of information gathering and sleuthing, but eventually it will culminate in a determination of the restoration required for this critical stretch of habitat on the Columbia River.

For more information, see:

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