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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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Texas City “Y” Incident: Aftermath of the Oil Spill in Galveston Bay, Texas

photo of people cleaning up contaminated sand.

Task force members remove oil-contaminated sand from the beach on Matagorda Island, Texas, March 30, 2014. Cleanup operations are being directed by a unified command comprised of personnel from the Texas General Land Office, U.S. Coast Guard and Kirby Inland marine. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The March 22, 2014 vessel collision in Galveston Bay (see Kirby Barge Oil Spill, Houston/Texas City Ship Channel) resulted in an oil spill of approximately 168,000 gallons.

Although scattered and trace amounts of oil were found as far west as Mustang and Padre Islands, almost all of the oil is still thought to be stranded on shorelines between Galveston and Matagorda.  Some widely scattered floating tarballs and sheens may be possible, but no floating oil was observed on overflights today.

As of Monday, March 31, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service teams report 21 dolphins and 4 turtles stranded. Most of these are in the Galveston area but reports from Matagorda Island are increasing.  All of the dolphins were dead, two turtles were captured alive and are being rehabilitated.  Most of the animals were not visibly oiled but necropsies are still underway.  Approximately 150 dead birds have been reported in the Galveston area and 30 in the Matagorda area.

Cleanup activities in the Galveston area are proceeding and the U.S. Coast Guard is beginning the process to downsize staffing and phase out response efforts.

Photo of two people locating oil on beach.

Two members of the Shoreline Assessment Team locate oiled impact points on Matagorda Island, March 29, 2014. The Unified Command in Port O’Connor is overcoming logistical challenges posed by the remote island in order to clean up the migrating oil from the Texas City collision. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Surveying Oiled Shorelines

After an oil spill like this one happens along the coast, spill responders need to figure out and document where oil has come ashore, what habitats have been affected, and how to clean up the shoreline.

NOAA helped develop a systematic method for surveying an affected shoreline after an oil spill. This method, known as Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT), is designed to support decision-making for shoreline cleanup. We have SCAT experts helping coordinate these shoreline surveying efforts for the oiled beaches in Texas.

In general, SCAT surveys begin early in the response to assess initial shoreline conditions (including even before oil comes ashore, as a reference) and ideally continue to work in advance of cleanup.

Surveys continue during the response to verify shoreline oiling, cleanup effectiveness, and eventually, to conduct final evaluations of shorelines to ensure they meet standards for ending cleanup.

SCAT teams include people trained in the techniques, procedures, and terminology of shoreline assessment. Members of a SCAT team may come from federal agencies (usually from the NOAA Scientific Support Team or U.S. Coast Guard), state agencies, a representative of the organization responsible for the spill, and possibly the landowner or other local stakeholders.

While out walking the shoreline, SCAT team members prepare field maps and forms detailing the area surveyed and make specific cleanup recommendations. Later, they go back to the areas surveyed to verify cleanup effectiveness, modifying guidelines as needed if conditions change.

The data they collect informs a shoreline cleanup plan that maximizes the recovery of oiled habitats and resources, while minimizing the risk of injury from cleanup efforts. This means, for example, determining whether active cleanup is necessary or whether certain limitations on cleanup are needed to protect ecological, economic, or cultural concerns.


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What Are Kids Reading About Oil Spills?

This is a post by Dr. Alan Mearns, NOAA Senior Staff Scientist.

Kids reading books in a book store.

Credit: Carolien Dekeersmaeker/Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License

What are your children and their teachers reading? We might want to pay closer attention. The stories we tell our children are a reflection of how we see the world, and we want to make sure these stories have good information about our world.

I occasionally accompany my wife, a preschool teacher, to local children’s bookstores, and more often than not, find books about oil spills and other disasters.  Recently, I took a closer look at the quality of the information found in a sampling of children’s books on oil spills.

An Oil Spill Ecologist Dives into Kids’ Books

So far, the eight or so books I’ve looked at focus on one of the two major oil spills in the American mind: the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska or the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A number are heart-warming stories about wildlife speaking about their experience in oil and the nice people who captured, cleaned, and released them. Birds, especially pelicans, and sea otters often play a starring role in telling these stories. Several present case histories of the oil spills, their causes, and cleanup. Some books place oil spills in the context of our heavy reliance on oil, but many ignore why there’s so much oil being transported in the first place.

One book’s color drawings show oil spill cleanup methods so well you can actually see how they work—and which I think could even be used in trainings on oil spill science.

Something that may not be top-of-mind for many parents but which I appreciate is the presence of glossaries, indices, and citations for further reading. These resources can help adults and kids evaluate whether statements about these oil spills are supported by reliable information or not.

Reading Recommendations

When reading a book—whether it is about oil spills or not—with kids you know, keep the following recommendations in mind:

  • Make sure the story informs, as well as entertains.
  • Ask where the “facts” in the story came from.
  • Look for reputable, original sources of information.
  • Ask why different sources might be motivated to show information the way they do.
  • Talk to kids about thinking critically about where information comes from.

Learn more about the ocean, pollution, and creatures that live there from our list of resources for teachers and students.

Dr. Alan Mearns.Dr. Alan Mearns is Ecologist and Senior Staff Scientist with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division in Seattle. He has over 40 years of experience in ecology and pollution assessment and response, with a focus on wastewater discharges and oil spills along the Pacific Coast and Alaska. He has worked in locations as varied as the Arctic Ocean, southern California, Israel, and Australia, and has participated in spill responses around the U.S. and abroad.


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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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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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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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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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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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Above, Under, and Through the Ice: Demonstrating Technologies for Oil Spill Response in the Arctic

This is the third in a series of posts about Arctic Shield 2013 by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zach Winters-Staszak. Read his first post, “Arctic-bound” and his second post, “Breaking Ice.”

76° N, 158° W marks the spot. The wind chill has dropped the mercury below zero as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, an icebreaker, sits idly, anchored by the sea ice that dominates the landscape. All eyes are fixed on the brilliant orange of the Coast Guard zodiac, the small boat’s color contrasted against the cobalt blue water off the icebreaker’s port side. A faint hum of a motor gets louder and louder overhead as the “Puma” comes into view. Then, just as the miniature, remote-controlled aircraft is positioned exactly over a nearby patch of open water, the operator kills the motor and the Puma splashes down safely.

The Puma operator  aboard the Coast Guard zodiak recovers the small unmanned aircraft after demonstrating its capabilities for detecting oil from the air. (NOAA)

The Puma operator aboard the U.S. Coast Guard zodiak recovers the small unmanned aircraft after demonstrating its capabilities for detecting oil from the air during Arctic Shield 2013. (NOAA)

During the exercise Arctic Shield 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) brought a group of scientists and specialists together to demonstrate technologies that potentially could be used for oil spill response in the Arctic Ocean’s severe conditions. This is my third and final post detailing my experiences and involvement in the mission aboard the Healy; you can read the previous posts, “Arctic-bound” and “Breaking Ice.”

Existing Technology, New Applications

The Arctic Ocean remains a difficult to access and often dangerous environment.

The Arctic Ocean remains a difficult to access and often dangerous environment. (NOAA)

Increased marine transportation and oil exploration in the Arctic increases the likelihood of, along with the responsibility to be prepared for, potential oil spills. Operating in an area as remote and ice-filled as the Arctic poses new logistical and tactical challenges for safe ship transit, search and rescue efforts, resource extraction, and oil spill response. For those of us working in oil spill response, this means developing new methods and technologies for surveying, assessing, and responding in these settings.

The RDC, coordinating efforts by the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, demonstrated the Puma as one method to survey, identify, and monitor oil on and around the ice floes from above. The Puma is a battery-powered, aerial survey technology with military roots that is now being used for a variety of environmental applications.

The Puma’s advantages for oil spill response in the Arctic are many. With its capacity for high resolution and infrared imagery, the Puma could help identify and monitor oiled environments and wildlife during response efforts, while simultaneously creating a visual record of environmental injury that could be used during a Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division has a long history of recording aerial imagery of oil spills by using trained observers aboard helicopters or airplanes to find and photograph oil on the water’s surface. Using a UAS like the Puma removes the risk to human safety, requires batteries and not fuel, and has been shown to have little-to-no influence on the behavior of wildlife. In fact, NOAA has already used Pumas to great effect during marine mammal and sea bird surveys.

This last point is especially important when you consider an animal like the Pacific walrus. With recent, dramatic summer losses in sea ice, Pacific walruses have been seen congregating en masse on the shoreline of Alaska, a behavior happening earlier and earlier in the year. Disturbance of these large groups of walruses, which could be caused by noisy surveying techniques, creates panic in the animals, causing a stampede that could end up trampling and killing young walruses.

Pumas Fly but Jaguars Swim

While the Pumas were busy scanning the ice and sea from the sky, scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute were fast at work deploying their “Jaguar” beneath the water. The Jaguar is an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) designed to map the Arctic sea floor, but during Arctic Shield 2013, the science team instead used it to map the curves and channels on the underside of the sea ice.

For example, if an oil spill occurred near an ice floe, responders would need to know where oil could pool up or be funneled in the curves or channels beneath the sea ice. The Jaguar uses acoustic technology to map the differences in sea ice thickness or “draft” as it travels along its programmed path under the ice. A suite of oceanographic sensors are also installed that measure water temperature, conductivity, pressure, and salinity along the way. In addition, scientists can install an optical back-scatter sensor that can detect oil in the water column.

To top things off, the Jaguar’s footprint is relatively low. The entire system is easily shipped, only requires a three-person team to operate, and doesn’t need a large vessel like the Healy to be deployed. Having a highly functional, low-impact tool is a major advantage out on the Arctic Ocean.

A Mapping Tool Made for the Arctic

It was with remote environments like the Arctic in mind that the Office of Response and Restoration developed Stand-alone ERMA, an internet-independent version of our Arctic ERMA online mapping tool used in response efforts for oil spills, hazardous waste spills, and ship groundings. My role in Arctic Shield was to integrate and display the data collected by the technologies I just described into Stand-alone ERMA. ERMA integrates multiple data sources and displays them in a single interactive map. With the resulting data-rich map, I could demonstrate the advantage of establishing a common operational picture during an oil spill response scenario—all without an internet connection.

A view from Arctic ERMA, NOAA's online mapping tool for environmental disasters. You can see the path of the icebreaker Healy, the Puma's flight, and the photos and their location taken by the Puma.

A view from Arctic ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental disasters. You can see the path of the icebreaker Healy, the Puma’s flight, and the photos and their location taken by the Puma. (NOAA)

During Arctic Shield 2013, Stand-alone ERMA was integrated into the ship’s local network, and as new data were recorded and displayed, everyone on the ship, from the bridge to the science decks, could view the same results on their computer screens.

In a typical oil spill response, you can have decision makers from federal, state, and local governments; private industry; and a multitude of scientists and technicians all working together. Everyone needs access to the same information, especially when it is constantly changing, in order to make the most informed decisions. But if internet availability is sporadic or nonexistent (not unusual in the Alaskan Arctic), most common operational pictures are rendered inoperable. Stand-alone ERMA bridges that gap, while providing the same experience and tools found with the online version. Demonstrating the utility of Stand-alone ERMA aboard the Healy made the advantages of a flexible common operational picture very clear.

Mind the Gaps (and Bridge Them)

The purpose of these demonstrations during Arctic Shield 2013 was to identify technologies that could improve oil spill response capabilities in the Arctic environment. Not all of the technologies being demonstrated were recently developed or even developed specifically for oil spill response. The Coast Guard Research and Development Center, which organized the demonstration, has taken a critical look at the difficulties and challenges associated with operating in an icy ocean environment. As a result they have identified a wide variety of technologies—some of which we demonstrated on this trip—that could potentially improve response during an actual oil spill. Still, a great deal of work remains as we work to better understand Arctic ecosystems and overcome the challenges of stewardship in a new and uncertain period in our history.

The only trace of a polar bear were these tracks in the snow and ice as the Healy plowed past.

The only trace of a polar bear were these tracks in the snow and ice as the Healy plowed past. (NOAA)

Looking over the bow of the Healy as the ship fractured the ice beneath, I caught a brief glimpse of polar bear tracks in the snow. The animal itself was nowhere to be seen, but as I watched the tracks fade into the distance, I was reminded of why I was there. When you’re out on the ice, breathing in the frigid air, knowing that polar bears are out there hunting and raising cubs, you realize what is right in front of you is the only place like it in the world. Being a part of Arctic Shield 2013 was an incredibly rewarding and humbling experience, one that is helping me figure out what data we still need and develop the tools to strengthen our ability to respond to an oil spill.

Zach Winters-StaszakZach Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with OR&R’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.

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