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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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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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Our Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

In 2013, a NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Hawaii's Midway Atoll. We're looking forward to keeping our coasts clean in 2014 too! (NOAA)

In 2013, a NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Hawaii’s Midway Atoll. We’re looking forward to keeping our coasts clean in 2014 too! (NOAA)

With the end of 2013, many are reflecting on how the past year went. For NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, we think we handled things pretty well, despite seeing some unusual challenges come our way (e.g., grounded drilling rig, molasses spill, 70 foot stranded dock). After all, being prepared—and preparing others—for the worst is a major focus in our work.

Despite our many accomplishments of the last year, however, we know that we should always be striving to improve how we respond to oil and chemical spills, assess and restore damaged ecosystems, and reduce the threat of marine debris.

So, without further ado, here are our top 10 resolutions for 2014:

  1. Lose “wait.” That is, we’re increasing our capacity to process damage assessment cases and get dollars for restoration out the door more quickly.
  2. Get more mobile. We’re making several of our websites friendlier for mobile devices. In particular, stay tuned to response.restoration.noaa.gov and incidentnews.noaa.gov.
  3. Make more friends. We’re now on Facebook and Twitter, so don’t be shy about following us for the latest news and updates.
  4. Stay trendy. As trends change in what petroleum products America is importing and exporting, we’re working with the University of Washington to explore how this will affect our readiness to respond to the oil spills of tomorrow.
  5. Quit littering. Or rather, get others to quit littering. We’re always dreaming up better ways to change people’s behavior so that everyone’s trash, including plastics, stays out of our oceans.
  6. Get our ducks in a row. When Hurricane Sandy came racing toward the East Coast, it was bringing wind and waves that would literally reshape the shoreline. As a result, we’re updating our northeast Environmental Sensitivity Maps to reflect changes caused by the storm and to add information that would enhance the value of these geographic summaries of vulnerable coastal resources when another disaster strikes.
  7. Help others. We’re partnering with states impacted by Sandy to assess and remove marine debris from the storm, so that means getting funding out fast to those who need it.
  8. Update our look. This spring, we’ll be releasing a major update to our mapping program MARPLOT, which allows emergency responders such as firefighters to create, customize, and download maps for offline use. Users will see very high-quality base (background) maps, including the familiar sight of Google maps.
  9. Listen more. We’ll be looking forward to hearing your thoughts on restoration plans and projects around the country, starting with Deepwater Horizon public meetings across the Gulf of Mexico in January.
  10. Release a new GNOME. In 2014, we’ll be releasing GNOME 2, our next generation oil spill modeling system. GNOME 2 will offer a Web-based system for forecasting the path of spilled oil in pre-designated locations in the U.S., include better 3-D modeling support, and integrate our oil weathering model, ADIOS.

Thanks for helping us make 2013 a great year. We look forward to even more in 2014!


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How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

Coral habitat in the Hawaiian Islands.

Coral habitat in the Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Emergency Restoration Is in a Basketful of Coral

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Matthew Parry also contributed to this post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ernie Oros speaking next to Woodbridge marsh.

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

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

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

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

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

A Vision to Restore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Day to Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Role for NOAA

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

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

Carl Alderson.

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

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


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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.

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$3.7 Million to go toward Restoring Contaminated Natural Resources in Alabama

Part of a $5 million settlement with BASF following pesticide releases

Tombigbee River.

Beginning in the 1950s, hazardous wastes from producing the pesticide DDT were released into unlined pits at the McIntosh, Ala., plant and discharged into the Tombigbee River and its adjacent floodplain. (Credit: Jeffrey Reed, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Four federal and state trustee agencies have announced $3.7 million in funds following a natural resource damages settlement to restore natural resources and habitats harmed by hazardous substances released from a manufacturing site in McIntosh, Ala.

The funds are part of a $5 million settlement with BASF Corporation, the company that acquired the Ciba-Geigy Corporation’s McIntosh facility. Beginning in the 1950s, the facility manufactured DDT, a pesticide used to combat disease-carrying insects, as well as other pesticides, herbicides, and various agricultural and industrial chemicals. During those years, hazardous wastes from the facility were released into unlined pits on the property and discharged into the Tombigbee River and its adjacent floodplain.

The settlement was negotiated by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division on behalf of the trustees.

The natural resource trustees—NOAA, Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Geological Survey of Alabama— began a cooperative natural resource damage assessment with the responsible party in 2005 to identify resource injuries and the amount of restoration needed. The trustees act on behalf of the public to protect and restore natural resources.

Nearly $3.2 million of the $5 million BASF settlement will be used to plan, implement, and oversee restoration projects and/or acquire lands within the Mobile Bay watershed to compensate for resources injured as a result of exposure to contaminants from the facility.

The state of Alabama will receive $500,000 to fund additional ecosystem restoration efforts through support of the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center. The remaining funds will reimburse the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA for their past assessment costs.

BASF chemical plant in McIntosh, Ala.

A view of the former Ciba chemical plant, now owned by BASF, which has agreed to pay $3.7 million for restoration projects for historical pollution coming from this McIntosh, Ala. facility. (Credit: Alabama Media Group/All Rights Reserved)

The use of DDT was banned in the United States in 1972 because of its harmful effects on the environment, wildlife and the public. Once released, DDT persists in the environment for a long time and increases in concentrations up the food chain.

In 1984, EPA listed the McIntosh facility as a Superfund site. Early investigations on this site found elevated concentration levels of DDT in fish and sediments within the floodplain, bottomland hardwood forests, and areas of the Tombigbee River adjacent to the site.

The settlement agreement is available on NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program website at www.darrp.noaa.gov/southeast/ciba/index.html. The trustees will develop a draft restoration plan with proposed projects, which will be released for public review and comment.

Photos:

Top photo: Jeffrey Reed, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Bottom photo: Used with permission from Alabama Media Group.


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Celebrate Where Rivers Meet the Sea during National Estuaries Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrate at a National Estuarine Research Reserve

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

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

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

How Estuaries Affect You

Aerial view of estuary.

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

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

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

How We Affect Estuaries

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

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

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

Don’t Forget to Get Involved

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

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


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NOAA Data on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Plume Now Available Online

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Ben Shorr and Mark Miller.

Fighting the flames on the Deepwater Horizon drill platform in 2010.

Fighting the flames on the Deepwater Horizon drill platform in 2010. (NOAA)

NOAA Physical Scientist Ben Shorr: It was late April 2010, in the first few days of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill response. It was clear that, in addition to a tragic loss of life, this oil spill was going to be a major event. As I was heading down to the Gulf of Mexico to join my colleagues who were beginning to assess environmental injuries from the spill, I got a call from my supervisor Amy. A research vessel was heading out to collect samples near the leaking wellhead—could I hop on the boat the next day?

That’s how my journey into this oil spill response began and I ended up on the first federal scientific vessel collecting oceanographic and environmental samples, including those from the underwater oil plume. Now, the finalized and standardized analytical chemistry data have been released in NOAA’s online archive. Here’s more about it from the press release:

The dataset, collected to support oil removal activities and assess the presence of dispersants, wraps up a three year process that began with the gathering of water samples and measurements by ships in the Gulf of Mexico during and after the oil release in 2010. NOAA was one of the principal agencies responding to the Macondo well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and is the official ocean data archivist for the federal government. While earlier versions of the data were made available during and shortly after the response, it took three years for NOAA employees and contractors to painstakingly catalog each piece of data into this final form.

This Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill dataset, including more than two million chemical analyses of sediment, tissue, water, and oil, as well as toxicity testing results and related documentation, is available to the public online at: http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/deepwaterhorizon/specialcollections.html. A companion dataset, including ocean temperature and salinity data, currents, preliminary chemical results and other properties collected and made available during the response can be found at: http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/deepwaterhorizon/insitu.html.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill response involved the collection of an enormous dataset. The underwater plume of hydrocarbon — a chemical compound that consists only of the elements carbon and hydrogen — was a unique feature of the spill, resulting from a combination of high-pressure discharge from the well near the seafloor and the underwater application of chemical dispersant to break up the oil. …

The effort to detect and track the plume was given to the Deepwater Horizon Response Subsurface Monitoring Unit (SMU), led by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, and included responders from many federal and state agencies and British Petroleum (BP). Between May and November 2010, the SMU coordinated data collection from 24 ships on 129 cruises.

While on this scientific sampling cruise, I found myself working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists, the ship’s captain and oceanographic technicians, BP’s scientific lead and contractors, and NOAA’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment representative. There were also experts from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans aboard. The work our team began quickly became the basis for the Subsurface Monitoring Unit within the spill response, which coordinated and provided scientific expertise for sampling, analysis, and mapping of the underwater hydrocarbon plume. Our team was made up of NOAA staff, in addition to others from the EPA, U.S. Geological Survey, and Gulf states.

During the first several months of the response, our team worked closely with EPA and other partners to establish common data management protocols that would allow us to coordinate and collect data including chemistry samples, acoustics, particle size, and oceanographic measurements from federal, BP, and academic scientific cruises in the Gulf of Mexico. These datasets were quickly analyzed and used by the scientific advisors and U.S. Coast Guard to make decisions about directing spill response clean-up operations. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and National Coastal Data Development Center (a division of the National Oceanographic Data Center) formed a close partnership, working with federal, state, and university scientists to gather, organize, process, and analyze oceanographic data—in addition to archiving and making these datasets publicly available.

NOAA Physical Scientist Mark Miller: In October of 2010, shortly after returning from Coast Guard headquarters where I worked during the oil spill, I was asked to help prepare for public release the data collected by the Subsurface Monitoring Unit on the research vessels such as the one my colleague Ben Shorr was on. A few months later in January of 2011, I picked up where Ben left off on coordinating this effort.

Now, I had been involved in database development and deployment for 20 years, so I felt prepared for this task. This was naïve. While at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, DC, I had been closely involved with the group that used some of the same Subsurface Monitoring Unit data to prepare operational reports for the National Incident Commander, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.

Yet, I did not realize the scope and depth of the data collected on these research cruises. When told later in the project that there were over 2 million records collected, I quickly gained a much greater appreciation of the long, rigorous process involved in preparing and making this information public. The National Oceanographic Data Center has been releasing and updating this response data on a dedicated public website since early in the spill, and this process is finally complete. Because these data will be archived for at least 75 years, they will be available to help researchers for decades to come.

Ben Shorr has been a Physical Scientist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration since he came to Seattle (mostly to ski and sail) in 2000. Ben works on a range of topics, from cleanup, damage assessment, and restoration to visualization and spatial analysis. In his spare time, he enjoys hanging out with his 5 and 3 year old kids, which means riding bikes, skiing, and sailing too.

Mark Miller has been with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration in the Emergency Response Division for 25 years, starting the year before the Exxon Valdez oil spill. When not wrestling with data from the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, he supervises the in-house programming staff and is the NOAA Program Manager for the CAMEO software suite used extensively by fire services across the country to respond to chemical release incidents.

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