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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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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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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What Restoration Is in Store for Massachusetts and Rhode Island after 2003 Bouchard Barge 120 Oil Spill?

A large barge is being offloaded next to a tugboat in the ocean.

On April 27, 2003, Bouchard Barge 120 was being offloaded after initial impact with a submerged object, causing 98,000 gallons of oil to spill into Massachusett’s Buzzards Bay. (NOAA)

The Natural Resource Damages Trustee Council for the Bouchard Barge 120 oil spill have released a draft restoration plan (RP) and environmental assessment (EA) [PDF] for shoreline, aquatic, and recreational use resources impacted by the 2003 spill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

It is the second of three anticipated plans to restore natural resources injured and uses affected by the 98,000-gallon spill that oiled roughly 100 miles of shoreline in Buzzards Bay. A $6 million natural resource damages settlement with the Bouchard Transportation Co., Inc. is funding development and implementation of restoration, with $4,827,393 awarded to restore shoreline and aquatic resources and lost recreational uses.

The draft plan evaluates alternatives to restore resources in the following categories of injuries resulting from the spill:

  • Shoreline resources, including tidal marshes, sand beaches, rocky coast, and gravel and boulder shorelines;
  • Aquatic resources, including benthic organisms such as American lobster, bivalves, and their habitats, and finfish such as river herring and their habitats; and
  • Lost uses, including public coastal access, recreational shell-fishing, and recreational boating.

The plan considers various alternatives to restore these resources and recommends funding for more than 20 projects throughout Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Shoreline and aquatic habitats are proposed to be restored at Round Hill Marsh and Allens Pond Marsh in Dartmouth, as well as in the Weweantic River in Wareham. Populations of shellfish, including quahog, bay scallop, and oyster will be enhanced through transplanting and seeding programs in numerous towns in both states. These shellfish restoration areas will be managed to improve recreational shell-fishing opportunities.

Public access opportunities will be created through a variety of projects, including trail improvements at several coastal parks, amenities for universal access, a handicapped accessible fishing platform in Fairhaven, Mass., and acquisition of additional land to increase the Nasketucket Bay State Reservation in Fairhaven and Mattapoisett. New and improved public boat ramps are proposed for Clarks Cove in Dartmouth and for Onset Harbor in Wareham.

A map of the preferred restoration projects for the Bouchard Barge 120 spill, as identified in the second draft restoration plan.

A map of the preferred restoration projects for the Bouchard Barge 120 spill, as identified in the second draft restoration plan. (NOAA)

The draft plan also identifies Tier 2 preferred projects; these are projects that may be funded, if settlement funds remain following the selection and implementation of Tier 1 and/or other restoration projects that will be identified in the Final RP/EA to be prepared and released by the Trustee Council following receipt and consideration of input from the public.

“We continue to make progress, together with our federal and state partners, in restoring this bay and estuary where I have spent so much of my life,” said John Bullard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Northeast Regional administrator. “And, we’re eager to hear what members of the public think of the ideas in this plan, which are intended to further this work. We hope to improve habitats like salt marshes and eelgrass beds in the bay. These will benefit river herring, shellfish and other species and support recreational activities for the thousands of people who use the bay.”

The public is invited to review the Draft RP/EA and submit comments during a 45-day period, extending through Sunday, March 23, 2014. The electronic version of this Draft RP/EA document is available for public review at the following website:

http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/northeast/buzzard/index.html

Comments on the Draft RP/EA should be submitted in writing to:

NOAA Restoration Center
Attention: Buzzards Bay RP/EA Review Coordinator
28 Tarzwell Drive
Narragansett, R.I. 02882
BuzzardsBay.RP.EA.Review@noaa.gov


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PCBs: Why Are Banned Chemicals Still Hurting the Environment Today?

Heavy machinery removes soil and rocks in a polluted stream.

PCB contamination is high in the Housatonic River and New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts. How high? The “highest concentrations of PCBs ever documented in a marine environment.” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

For the United States, the 20th century was an exciting time of innovation in industry and advances in technology. We were manufacturing items such as cars, refrigerators, and televisions, along with the many oils, dyes, and widgets that went with them. Sometimes, however, technology races ahead of responsibility, and human health and the environment can suffer as a result.

This is certainly the case for the toxic compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. From the 1920s until they were banned in 1979, the U.S. produced an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of these industrial chemicals. They were used in a variety of manufacturing processes, particularly for electrical parts, across the country. Wastes containing PCBs were often improperly stored or disposed of or even directly discharged into soils, rivers, wetlands, and the ocean.

Unfortunately, the legacy of PCBs for humans, birds, fish, wildlife, and habitat has been a lasting one. As NOAA’s National Ocean Service notes:

Even with discontinued use, PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are still present in the environment today because they do not breakdown quickly. The amount of time that it takes chemicals such as PCBs to breakdown naturally depends on their size, structure, and chemical composition. It can take years to remove these chemicals from the environment and that is why they are still present decades after they have been banned.

Sign by Hudson River warning against eating contaminated fish.

According to a NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and State of New York report on the Hudson River, “Fish not only absorb PCBs directly from the river water but are also exposed through the ingestion of contaminated prey, such as insects, crayfish, and smaller fish…New York State’s “eat none” advisory and the restriction on taking fish for this section of the Upper Hudson has been in place for 36 years.” (NOAA)

PCBs are hazardous even at very low levels. When fish and wildlife are exposed to them, this group of highly toxic compounds can travel up the food chain, eventually accumulating in their tissues, becoming a threat to human health if eaten. What happens after animals are exposed to PCBs? According to a NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and State of New York report [PDF], PCBs are known to cause:

  • Cancer
  • Birth defects
  • Reproductive dysfunction
  • Growth impairment
  • Behavioral changes
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Damage to the developing brain
  • Increased susceptibility to disease

Because of these impacts, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) works on a number of damage assessment cases to restore the environmental injuries of PCBs. Some notable examples include:

Yet the list could go on—fish and birds off the southern California coast, fish and waterfowl in Wisconsin’s Sheboygan River, a harbor in Massachusetts with the “highest concentrations of PCBs ever documented in a marine environment.”

These and other chemical pollutants remain a challenge but also a lesson for taking care of the resources we have now. While PCBs will continue to be a threat to human and environmental health, NOAA and our partners are working hard to restore the damage done and protect people and nature from future impacts.


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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does it Take to Fix a Marsh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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