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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A DDT Legacy and the Road to Recovery in California

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

Effects of DDT on bird eggs.

On display at the National Museum of American History, you can see the effects of DDT on a bird egg (right). Credit: Kari Bluff, Creative Commons.

If you ask the earlier Baby Boomer generation about DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), they might recall images of this chemical being sprayed in their neighborhoods right where they were playing.

DDT was first considered a wonder chemical by many for its use against disease-carrying insects and agricultural pests, prompting a Nobel Prize for its discovery. DDT was widely used as a pesticide beginning in the 1940s, until concerned biologists led by Rachel Carson, documented its harmful effects on birds, other wildlife, and possibly human health.

Another trait of DDT is that once released, it stays in the environment for a very long time.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally banned its use in 1972. However, releases of this chemical were widespread by the time it was banned.

The story in southern California, however, is a little different.  A DDT manufacturing company called the Montrose Chemical Corporation, located in Torrance, Calif., had a permit to release their DDT waste through an outfall pipe that led to the ocean nearby. Other factories in the area were manufacturing PCBs, another harmful chemical, and releasing their waste through the same outfall pipe at White Point.

Millions of pounds* later, local and federal governments determined that the release of these chemicals was a violation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation Liability Act (CERCLA), which is also known as Superfund. After 10 years of litigation and data collection, a settlement agreement was reached, and funds were made available to clean up the contamination site at the bottom of the ocean along Palos Verdes Shelf and to restore resources harmed from the pollution within the Southern California Bight.

One year after a settlement was reached, in 2001, the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP) was formed to oversee restoration of resources harmed by DDT and PCBs including Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, seabirds, fishing, and fish habitat. This year marks the 10 year anniversary for the restoration program, and there is plenty to celebrate. At www.montroserestoration.noaa.gov, you can find the program’s restoration accomplishments, photos, wildlife webcams, and the latest updates from the program’s trustee council. Relive some highlights of successful restoration milestones of the program over the last decade, and see what projects MSRP is proposing in the Draft Phase 2 Restoration Plan released for public comment this month.

A larger symbol of the hope for recovery here manifests itself in the film Return Flight: Restoring the Bald Eagle to the Channel Islands, directed by the Filmmakers Collaborative SF. This film captures the spirit of biologists, partners, volunteers, and concerned citizens working to secure a biological legacy for the Bald Eagle in southern California despite the chemical legacy of DDT.

You can watch the short film here:

*Correction: Previously, this incorrectly stated “hundreds of millions of tons,” not pounds, of PCBs and DDT waste.

Above photo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives license.

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr.

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.


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Science at Sea and on Land: My Adventures with NOAA Corps

This is a post by NOAA Corps member ENS Alice Drury.

At a college job fair a few years ago, I initially breezed by an officer standing in uniform next to a NOAA Corps booth. I was close to graduating from the University of Washington, and as I walked around the campus job fair, I was looking for any position in the environmental field. However, I had not considered a uniformed service in any way.

Once I reached the other side of the room, I noticed that the officer in uniform was with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which both surprised me and sparked my interest—I didn’t realize NOAA had a uniformed service. I went back and chatted with the officer, beginning my journey with the NOAA Corps.

ENS Alice Drury.

ENS Alice Drury.

The more I found out about the NOAA Corps, the more excited I became about the organization. The NOAA Corps has an interesting history [leaves this blog]: It starts with Thomas Jefferson, who in 1807 signed a bill for the “Survey of the Coast,” spurring the creation of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.  Civilians, Coast and Geodetic Survey–commissioned officers, and military–commissioned officers worked together surveying and charting the nation’s waterways and shorelines. They also served the United States in several wars, both nationally and internationally, in a variety of positions that put to use their unique surveying skills.

NOAA Corps as it is today was established in 1970, when NOAA was formed. While many NOAA Corps officers serve with what is now the NOAA Office of Coast Survey, officers also operate the agency’s research and survey ships, pilot specialized aircraft, coordinate research projects, carry out diving operations, and serve in a number of other roles within NOAA. Officers start training at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York before being assigned to a NOAA research vessel for two to three years.

These days not all NOAA ships are hydrographic ships; the missions can range from oceanographic and marine mammal to fisheries and work on buoys or remotely operated vehicles (ROV). After an officer completes a sea assignment, officers rotate into land assignments, which are staff positions located within NOAA offices, such as the Office of Response and Restoration. After that, an officer is again assigned to a ship, rotating between sea and land assignments and assuming more responsibility with each assignment.

NOAA Ship McArthur II.

NOAA Ship McArthur II, where ENS Drury spent her first NOAA Corps assignment at sea. Credit: NOAA Marine Operations Center - Pacific.

After months of the NOAA Corps application process, I was thrilled to find out I had been accepted. When I explained why I was going to training, a lot of people I know asked me why I would ever want to go out to sea. Considering my background, that wasn’t such an unexpected question. Prior to the NOAA Corps, I had very little experience in the mariner’s world, but the prospect sounded exciting and rewarding: to drive a research vessel out to sea. What a wonderful combination of science, adventure, and hands-on operations!

I spent two years aboard NOAA Ship McArthur II and sailed to the tip of Baja Mexico, up to the Bering Sea, out to Hawaii, and through the Panama Canal to the Gulf of Mexico. I saw a lot during those two years that many people never get the chance to see, I met amazing people, and, perhaps most importantly, I learned how to operate a scientific ship.

Starting my first land assignment, I am now with the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) under the Emergency Response Division as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators. I sought out this assignment because I like the idea of assisting in emergency spill response and helping to mitigate damage in such situations. The results of decisions made during emergency response have great impact, and making sure the right scientific information gets to the people making these decisions seems like an interesting and important job.

I am still learning exactly what my new job entails and how OR&R is run. I will help the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinators (SSC) provide scientific and technical expertise on scene during spill response while also assisting with other emergency response projects here in Seattle.  I have already had the opportunity to attend a week-long National Preparedness Response Exercise Program in Ventura, Calif., with SSC Jordan Stout. That week helped me understand how everything fits together when dealing with an oil spill and what sort of information really becomes important during spill response. While it’s a big change from my time at sea, I am looking forward to my three years with OR&R and everything I will learn here.

ENS Alice Drury graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 and shortly thereafter joined the NOAA Corps. After Basic Officer Training Class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., ENS Drury was assigned to NOAA Ship McArthur II for two years. ENS Drury is now assigned as the Regional Response Officer in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. In that assignment she acts as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators.