NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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

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Preparing for the Worst at the International Maritime Organization

Next week I’ll be traveling to London to participate in a meeting at the International Maritime Organization. The IMO is a specialized agency of the United Nations and is responsible for improving maritime safety and security and for preventing pollution from ships.

Doug Helton testifying at a past IMO meeting.

Doug Helton testifying at a past IMO meeting. Credit: NOAA

I am one of the U.S. delegates to the Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation/Hazardous and Noxious Substances technical work group (this is where preparing for the worst comes in). Basically, this group develops tools and protocols for oil and chemical spill prevention and response, with a special focus on supporting less developed countries.

In previous sessions we have discussed best practices on how to deploy booms and other equipment to collect oil and analyzed lessons learned from recent incidents from around the world.

Typically 30-40 countries and 10-15 maritime organizations attend the meetings. That makes for a wide perspective on issues and a chance to meet colleagues from around the world. We have a chance to improve response efforts in other countries, which benefits everyone since ships that transit our waters also call on ports around the world.

And you never know when those international contacts may come in handy: I’ve run into international colleagues in places like Dutch Harbor, Alaska, when a foreign ship ran aground in that port.

And it is always interesting to be in London.  The IMO headquarters are just across the River Thames from the Parliament and Big Ben.

I will try to post something next week about some of the issues before the work group. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about how we’re trying to prevent oil spills around the world.

IMO Headquarters.

My destination, the International Maritime Organization. Credit: Doug Helton/NOAA.

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CSI: Hanford, Complete with Nuclear Superheroes

Like a character out of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, I investigate legal cases—but mine are cases of pollution, oiling, and chemical mayhem, which are a little less grisly than those featured on CSI. When polluters contaminate our nation’s wildlife, rivers, and ocean, my colleagues and I are there on the scene.

As a scientist with NOAA’s Assessment and Restoration Division in Seattle, Wash., I work alongside teams of scientists to piece together the story of what happened, determining the short- and long-term damage from releases of pollution, and then developing plans to restore what was lost. Sometimes I feel my job is part crime scene investigator, part restoration specialist, and part negotiator. And I love it—it’s always a challenge.

Nuclear explosion

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office.

For example, my current case is located at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington. Yes, I said it: nuclear. You may know of Hanford as part of the site of the “Manhattan Project,” where America manufactured the plutonium for the first nuclear bomb, as well as for the one detonated over Nagasaki, Japan during World War II. After decades of plutonium and uranium processing, tons of chemicals and radiation have spilled onto the land and into the nearby Columbia River. Some of this has even traveled about 300 miles downstream to the Pacific Ocean.

Can you imagine what decades of pollution have done to the fish, wildlife, and habitat of the Columbia River? Many people have imagined the worst, and there are lots of urban legends, movies, and comic book heroes related to all things Hanford. That includes far-fetched ideas of glowing fish, three-headed monsters, the superhero “Doctor Manhattan,” as well as alleged experiments on alligators and beagles, and even reports of jars of nuclear-laden jam from Hanford fruit trees being sent to Congressional representatives as “gifts” (the jam story is true).

The Columbia River as it travels along the Hanford Nuclear Site.

The Columbia River as it travels along the Hanford Nuclear Site in eastern Washington. Credit: Department of Energy.

But for all the contamination and controversy surrounding this nuclear site, the land and the river still support fish and wildlife. Fifty-one miles of the Columbia River flow along the site, and each fall, Chinook salmon return to spawn in the waters adjacent to Hanford. Sturgeon, too, can still be found in the deep pools of the river.

Despite all the hype and, at times, high levels of contamination, we seek out “just the facts,” hoping to sort out the real story of what happened at Hanford.

We’ll use the best possible science to accomplish that: studying genetics, looking at fish tissue health, comparing fish growth and reproduction, and even using the latest technology to discover if contamination is leaking into the river near salmon eggs or into the deep pools where sturgeon hang out.

As part of NOAA’s team of investigators, we have just begun trying to piece together exactly what contamination entered the river over the past several decades and then figure out what the fish do each year because of that pollution.

It will be difficult to sort out what has happened over so much time: How do we determine if animals are surviving just fine there, or if they are being replaced with new wildlife that move in each year? Our biggest challenge will be to reach into the past to figure out what was polluted and affected each year, and then pull it all together into a complete story, a scientific case.

Ultimately, we will go before the public—and sometimes a judge—with our cases and present that story, complete with evidence and “Exhibit A.” Our story must be logical, reasonable, and as complete as possible.

I’ll let you know how it goes. In future posts I hope to discuss how we search for clues, I’ll ponder what it means to present and future fish generations and habitat, and we’ll even dare to explore restoration options for Hanford.