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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Four Years and $44 Million Later: Restoring San Francisco Bay After the Cosco Busan Oil Spill

This is a post by Greg Baker, a scientist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Cosco Busan ship with Bay Bridge.

The M/V Cosco Busan leaves the San Francisco Bay on Dec. 20, 2007, after hitting the Bay Bridge on Nov. 7. Credit: Jonathan R. Cilley, U.S. Coast Guard.

The infamous fog of San Francisco was thick and gray the morning the Cosco Busan cargo ship crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It was November 7, 2007, and within seconds of the crash, 53,000 gallons of fuel oil were released into the surrounding waters. One of the largest oil spills in the history of San Francisco Bay, it set into motion a series of events that ultimately led to this week’s historic $44.4 million settlement [PDF] with the companies responsible for the spill (Regal Stone Limited and Fleet Management Limited).

To the public, this $44.4 million means there will be money for bird, fish, and habitat restoration in the bay. It will enhance shoreline parks and outdoor recreation throughout the Bay Area, helping compensate the public for the lost visits to the beach when oil washed up on the shores. This settlement will resolve all outstanding legal claims for natural resource damages, paying for the damage assessment, remaining cleanup costs, and for restoration of natural resources from the spill.

That first morning, we didn’t really know how much oil had been spilled—initial reports indicated it was only a small amount. But as the fog lifted, it quickly became apparent that oil was spreading over a large expanse of the bay. When I got the initial call about the spill, I had just landed in southern California to work on my major project at the time, which would soon be pushed aside. My coworker on the phone suggested I get back to the Bay Area as soon as possible. For the next several weeks I worked long hours alongside fellow scientists to quickly organize and conduct the field work to evaluate natural resource damages from the Cosco Busan oil spill.

Cosco Busan with Coast Guard boat.

A U.S. Coast Guard boat approaches the gash in the side of the Cosco Busan, which released 53,000 gallons of bunker oil into San Francisco Bay. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

The type of oil that gushed into San Francisco Bay was bunker oil, which is commonly used to propel large ships and is different from crude oil or refined fuels. Bunker fuels are so viscous (thick and slow-moving) that they actually have to be heated to over 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to flow to ship engines.

As the thick bunker oil spread on the waters surrounding San Francisco, it turned into tarry patches and balls that eventually stranded along hundreds of miles of shoreline. Much of our understanding about the toxic effects from oil spills comes from studies of crude oil, conducted after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. But as we studied the effects of bunker oil on fish and wildlife after the Cosco Busan spill, we discovered bunker oil not only behaves differently than crude oil in the environment, but it appears to have different toxicological effects.

Two to three months after the spill, when the huge annual schools of Pacific herring entered San Francisco Bay to find their shallow spawning grounds, most of the evidence of lingering bunker oil was already gone, either cleaned up or weathered away. But when we collected herring eggs from areas both affected and unaffected by the spill, we made a remarkable discovery: Almost all of the eggs collected from spill locations were dead or deformed. The eggs collected outside of the spill zone were largely normal. This was especially surprising given the lack of significant remaining evidence of bunker oil.

We conducted additional studies over two more seasons of herring spawning in the bay and eventually concluded that the toxic characteristics of the bunker oil from the Cosco Busan spill affected as much as a quarter of the herring spawning in 2008. We also concluded that the effects didn’t carry over past that first spawning season after the spill. Our studies, directed by scientists from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the Bodega Marine Laboratory in California, forged new scientific understandings on the effects of oil spills on aquatic resources and will guide further progress on our assessment of present and future spills.

This week at the announcement of the $44.4 million spill settlement, I had a moment to reflect on the countless hours of work that culminated in that press conference and the road to restoration of San Francisco Bay: from the emergency responders cleaning up the oiled waters (and the thank-you cards to them from local school kids left on the beach) to the attorneys poring over the maritime and clean water laws violated by the spill.

Just two short hours before the press conference we still hadn’t received word that the settlement was filed in court. But then the message came, the last piece of the puzzle finally fell into place, and we were ready to unveil the whole, hopeful picture to the public.

The draft Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan for the Cosco Busan oil spill provides details on the restoration projects being planned; you can review it here. The public may submit comments on the plan through October 31, 2011.

Greg BakerGreg Baker works as an Environmental Scientist in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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NOAA: Saving Lives and Creating Jobs through Science

The following post originally appeared on the blog [leaves this blog]. Fun fact: NOAA and OR&R are part of the Department of Commerce.

Science plays a pivotal role in our lives every day, stimulating the economy, creating new jobs, and improving the health and security of Americans.

And at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) all things start—and end—with science. It is the foundation of our work and of the value the agency brings to the American people.

What kind of value are we talking about, in real terms?

For less than 5 cents a day per person, NOAA puts science to work for all Americans by providing essential services such as …

  • Severe weather forecasting, warnings and research;
  • Disaster preparedness, oil spill response and habitat restoration;
  • Seafood safety testing and satellite-aided search and rescue; and
  • Ensuring sustainable fisheries, healthy oceans and resilient coastal communities.

When you consider the portfolio of services, stewardship and information NOAA provides people—decision-makers, emergency managers, fishermen, businesses, state/tribal/local governments, and the general public—5 cents a day has never gone further.

This is especially true in a struggling economy where you might get a nickel for your thoughts, but not much more. It’s a small price to pay toward innovative, science-based solutions for a sustainable future—one that will support our children, grandchildren and generations thereafter.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the products NOAA provided to Americans last year:

  • 40,465 warnings for severe weather issued by 122 weather forecast offices across the country
  • More than 70,000 acres of habitat restored
  • More than 2,500 sq. nautical miles of navigationally significant waterways were surveyed and 1,000+ nautical charts were updated to keep marine commerce moving
  • Responded to approximately 120 oil and chemical spills including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Americans rely on NOAA science, services and stewardship to keep their families safe, their communities thriving, and their businesses strong.

NOAA’s work is everyone’s business.

Learn more about how NOAA is putting your 5 cents to work [leaves this blog] for you.

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Remembering and Responding to September 11

This is a post by Ed Levine, NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator based in New York.

As the stars begin to align on the upcoming 10-year commemoration of the 9/11 attacks, I find myself mentally and physically revisiting the event. By coincidence, this week I’ll be at Ohmsett (an oil spill response research facility near Sandy Hook, N.J.). That was where I was when the planes hit the Twin Towers. Although it is located 19 miles from “Ground Zero,” due to the beautifully clear, blue skies that day, my colleagues and I were able to see the smoke from the burning towers and actually hear the collapse, a sound like rolling thunder.

The drive home that day was one I never will forget. From the highway you could see lower Manhattan being enveloped in a cloud of smoke. Roadways were being closed, traffic diverted, people pulling over to gawk, and the car radio was full of reports rolling in with bits and pieces of news. It took me three times the normal travel time to get home to Teaneck, N.J.

Once home, we had no television reception—every channel showed nothing but snow—because the broadcast channel transmission antennae were on (used to be on) top of the World Trade Center. We were able to receive radio transmissions though.


Harbor cruise on a U.S. Coast Guard vessel in New York shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

Due to the strain on cell tower capacity and the loss of Verizon’s major switching center at the World Trade Center, communications with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) were curtailed. On September 13, I reported to the USCG base on Staten Island and was immediately put to work, taking a cruise of New York Harbor to identify pollution run-off and other potential water-borne hazards. We witnessed up-close the still-smoldering site.

For several weeks, I worked at the Staten Island base, as my office in lower Manhattan was still in the restricted zone. NOAA provided information management for the Coast Guard, as well as other technical advisory roles. For example, I helped pull together a website for the World Trade Center area, which provided critical information to the general public, the Coast Guard, and other government agencies on waterway closures, security zones, maps, photographs, weather, and tides.

Over the last decade, aside from the obvious, major changes since then, there are numerous little things that pop up as reminders that the Towers are gone and the world is a slightly different place. There are both positive and not-so-positive reminders: the kinder, gentler New Yorkers; the increased use of water taxis and ferries; the new construction at the site of Ground Zero; the heightened security in the subways and office buildings; the large teams of SWAT officers that patrol the Wall Street area; the closing and subsequent re-opening of the Statue of Liberty; and armed Coast Guard and New York Police Department vessels in the harbor.

For me, each year at this time I do remember what it was like and how I felt back then. It was a truly emotional event. With my office less than one-half mile from the site and the World Trade Center Memorial Flame a block away, I often have reminders of that day’s events. This year on September 11, I plan to attend a memorial service in my town where four members of our community perished (one of them my younger son’s Little League baseball coach who worked for World Trade Center-based firm Cantor Fitzgerald). This has been an annual event for the town and for me as well. After that, life will continue as usual, but a little piece of me will “Always Remember.”

Ed Levine.

Ed Levine works as Scientific Support Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration, where he provides scientific and technical support in the New York area. 


At the End of the Trans Alaska Pipeline

Southern end of Trans Alaska Pipeline.

The southern terminus of the Trans Alaska Pipeline ends somewhat anticlimactically here at mile 800. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

The southern end of the 800 mile-long Trans Alaska Pipeline sits in the stunning natural background of Valdez, Alaska. The Valdez Marine Terminal is where crude oil from the North Slope is loaded on tankers destined for refineries on the west coast of the U.S.

Last week I arrived in Valdez for a meeting with the Alaska Regional Response Team. Working for NOAA, I represent the Department of Commerce in the multi-agency team that coordinates planning and preparedness activities for oil spills in Alaskan waters. The flight here from Anchorage crosses the heavily glaciated Chugach Mountains before descending into Prince William Sound. Icebergs from the calving glaciers dot the waters of the sound, and dozens of small fishing boats were chasing the late salmon runs into Port Valdez.

Glacier in Chugach Mountains, Alaska.

Chunks of ice fall off of a glacier in the Chugach Mountains en route to Valdez, Alaska. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

I had a chance to tour the pipeline terminal during my visit to Valdez, and the first thing I noticed was the smell — not the smell of oil, but the smell of spawned-out salmon that cover the tide flats near the terminal. And the sounds of thousands of gulls feeding on the dead salmon. Two black bears chased a few late spawners in the creek near the terminal.

Black bear and gulls feed on salmon.

A black bear and gulls feed on recently spawned salmon near Valdez, Alaska. Credit: Doug Helton, NOAA.

But the natural beauty of Valdez is often overshadowed in the public’s mind because of the town’s most famous namesake. The tanker Exxon Valdez left the marine terminal on the evening of March 23, 1989, and a few minutes after midnight on March 24, it ran aground and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the clear, cold waters of Prince William Sound.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill [leaves this blog] became a poster child for technological disasters and set in motion laws and regulations that fundamentally changed how we handle oil pollution in the United States. Valdez (or Prince William Sound) is really the cradle of modern spill response in the U.S., and  22 years later, my visit to Valdez helped continue that effort to improve how we respond to spills.

While the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline has diminished over the years, and tanker calls are less frequent, the pipeline still transports about 500,000 barrels (21 million gallons) a day into the big storage tanks that overlook the harbor. The Valdez Marine Terminal is still very much on the front lines in both oil spill prevention and response.