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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From Mess to Marsh: A Superfund Success for Restoration near Galveston Bay, Texas

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Jessica White.

Oil pit at Malone Service Company waste site.

Oil pits dominate the landscape at the Superfund site where the Malone Service Company processed waste chemicals and oils from 1964 to 1996. (NOAA)

In many ways, the Superfund site at the former home of the Malone Service Company in Texas City, Texas, is just like the hundreds of other waste sites scattered across this country.

It is located on what was once undeveloped land, bordered by productive wetland and marsh, a lake, and Galveston Bay, the nation’s seventh largest estuary.

The stream of pollution began back in the 1960s when the company set up shop as an industrial waste disposal facility. This was before a veritable flood of federal and state laws (like the Clean Water Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, a.k.a., CERCLA or the Superfund Law) began to regulate or prohibit dumping hazardous waste into the environment. (But mismanagement of the waste continued even after CERCLA was passed in 1980.)

The list of those potentially responsible for the pollution is long and ranges from large businesses to government entities to small private companies.

Here too, the contamination was varied (e.g., heavy metals, potentially toxic oil residues) and comprehensive, affecting the soil, water, and underwater sediments [PDF]. And, of course, it injured a number of natural resources, including birds, aquatic life, and their habitats.

The Malone Service Company Superfund site and surrounding area near Texas City, Texas.

The Malone Service Company Superfund site and surrounding area near Texas City, Texas. Click to enlarge.

What sets this case apart from most is that those potentially responsible for the pollution and the state and federal governments were able to work together to reach an agreement to clean up and restore the affected natural resources—no easy feat considering the long and complicated history.

I entered the scene in 2004, working as a scientist to investigate how bad the contamination was and which natural resources were impacted. I have continued working on the Malone site as it makes its way from remediation toward recovery and long-term monitoring.

By participating in the Superfund process, the trustees (charged with protecting public natural resources) and I were able to get the information we needed to conduct our damage assessment of those resources without having to perform independent studies. This saved both time and money.

Fortunately, we were also able to contribute to this restoration process everything we know about these animals, plants, and habitats, ensuring that the environmental impacts were adequately addressed and that further impacts from cleanup would be minimized. Collaborating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which leads Superfund cleanups, made this a win-win situation.

Our damage assessment showed the natural resources living in coastal prairie habitat, freshwater habitat, and saltwater marsh habitat suffered significantly. In particular, birds and invertebrates really felt the effects of the contaminated water and sediments.

Campbell's Bayou cemetery and restoration workers.

The cemetery for the 19th century settlement known as Campbell’s Bayou, a state historic site, is actually located on the Malone waste site. Restoration experts had to work around the cemetery. (NOAA/Jessica White)

(And in a highly unusual twist, we had to work around a cemetery for the old settlement of Campbell’s Bayou, which is a state historic site.)

So, how much would it cost to restore, replace, or acquire the equivalent of these injured habitats? After adding in the cost of a few other things, such as monitoring the environment’s future health? The number which the trustees and those paying finally settled on was $3 million.

Still ahead, however, is identifying the most appropriate restoration projects to make up for these losses. Likely restoration will take the form of preserving marsh habitat or acquiring marsh and oak motte (grove) habitat. It could even mean constructing new marsh nearby.

On top of the $3 million for restoration is another $56.4 million to clean up the remaining pollution. This remediation, which the EPA will oversee, will be the first step toward primary on-site restoration of the Malone Superfund site.

Unlike many other waste sites which sit lingering across the country, the trustees, EPA, and potentially responsible parties have overcome many obstacles to remove this source of contamination from the Texas City community and restore the habitat for the natural resources depending on it.

Migrating birds, drawn to the coast, will no longer die in the open oil pits, whose watery surfaces lured them in. In the future, this land may offer instead a safe source of freshwater for birds and enjoyment for the bird watchers who follow them.

Jessica White.

While you can see here the kind of wildlife Jessica is comfortable around (boats), she is fully dedicated to protecting the environment.

Jessica White is a Regional Resource Coordinator with the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has been working with NOAA in the Gulf since 2003 and will be relocating to the Disaster Response Center in October 2012. Jessica has assessed and restored Superfund sites in Texas and Louisiana and has supported oil spill and marine debris cleanup. She has a B.S. in Biology from Texas Tech University and a M.S. in Environmental Science from the University of North Texas.


How to Use Your Smartphone to Avoid a Chemical Disaster

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s David Wesley.

Picture this: a call comes in to a fire station—three train cars have derailed. As the responding firefighters race to the scene, news comes over the radio that several chemical containers on board were damaged, some may be leaking their hazardous contents, and somebody mentioned smelling smoke. What should the approaching firefighters do?

Screen shot of CAMEO Chemicals mobile website for the chemical toluene.

From your smartphone you can now view an optimized version of the CAMEO Chemicals website to look up information on chemicals such as toluene. (NOAA)

Fortunately, first responders now have a new place to find the critical information they need in this situation: their smartphone. My office just launched a mobile website version of CAMEO Chemicals, an essential resource for emergency responders.

Because no one could possibly memorize response recommendations for the thousands of hazardous materials shipped across the U.S. or stored in facilities, we developed CAMEO Chemicals as a searchable chemical response encyclopedia.

This kind of quick access to information about a chemical is critical. A hazardous material incident can escalate quickly and, in the case of some toxic gas clouds, can cause harm and then dissipate within minutes.

Because of these factors, responders need to be able to find specific information, for example, whether the spilled chemical will react violently with water. Will it spontaneously combust? What happens if it’s exposed to fire? And they need to know all of this at a moment’s notice.

When time is of the essence, having multiple avenues to this key information can be invaluable. Most hazmat (hazardous material) fire trucks carry print copies of response guides, such as the Emergency Response Guidebook, and many also roll with a laptop onboard with special software installed. One of those software products is our suite of programs called CAMEO (Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations), which includes CAMEO Chemicals and also the mapping application MARPLOT.

The cutting-edge Macintosh SE computer.

The cutting-edge Macintosh SE—on a fire truck near you! This successor to the Macintosh Plus loyally served us CAMEO programmers for years. (NOAA/David Wesley)

CAMEO Chemicals combines a number of data sources, including the Emergency Response Guidebook. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA have been partnering to keep this tool updated since the first version was installed on a Macintosh Plus computer and bolted to a table on a hazmat fire truck back in the 1980s.

(Actually, our office first created a Microsoft DOS version—but then switched to Macintosh, because Apple’s newfangled concept of using a mouse to navigate a computer seemed like the perfect, easy-to-use solution for firefighters.)

A view of the original CAMEO Chemicals, created using the Macintosh software program HyperCard and called "RIDS" (Response Information Data Sheet).

Before there was the World Wide Web, there was this. One of the earliest versions of CAMEO Chemicals was called “RIDS” (Response Information Data Sheet). (NOAA)

Having CAMEO Chemicals installed on a laptop computer can be crucial if, say, you are responding to an area hit by a tornado and there is no internet connection or cellular service available.

But getting software installed by information technology staff can be difficult for some organizations, as is keeping it up-to-date. As a result, we released an online version of CAMEO Chemicals in 2007. Having it available on the web means anyone—such as a police officer—who is suddenly responding to a chemical accident can get this information on the fly.

This year, with the rising ubiquity of smartphones, the time seemed right to release a version of the website customized for mobile devices. Now, as of August 2012, a first responder with nothing more than a phone (with access to the Internet) can navigate thousands of chemicals with just the swipe of a finger.

A student from the nearby University of Washington joined our team in Seattle, Wash., and developed this mobile version of the CAMEO Chemicals website over the course of the summer. Thanks to him (and the EPA and NOAA, of course), emergency responders now have one more tool to add to their toolbox.

Dave WesleyDavid Wesley is a software developer and project manager for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. He has worked on numerous versions of CAMEO—as well as other projects for chemical and oil spill response—over the years. He first started working on CAMEO back when it was developed in HyperCard on early Macintosh computers.

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Cyborg Sea-Kitty Found Prowling Waikiki During Beach Cleanup

Ocean acidification aside, the latest (and most adorable) tiny terror of the sea is this cyborg toy cat, which volunteers found during the 2012 International Coastal Cleanup on a beach in Waikiki, Hawaii.

NOAA staffer finds a heart-shaped piece of marine debris at the 2005 International Coastal Cleanup held in Seattle, Wash.

Nir Barnea, Marine Debris West Coast Regional Coordinator, finds a bit of marine debris “love” at the 2005 International Coastal Cleanup held in Seattle, Wash. (NOAA)

You never know what kind of odd treasures and trash you might find when cleaning up your local beach, river, or lake — from TVs and toilet seats to a rusted-out scooter and even a little ocean “love.”

We want to know: What weird items did you find during your International Coastal Cleanup event this year? Tell us in the comments here or over at the NOAA Marine Debris Blog.

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Weeks Later, Responders Still Dealing with Pollution Left in Hurricane Isaac’s Wake

Three cleaned brown pelicans prior to being released at the wildlife rehabilitation center.

Three cleaned brown pelicans prior to being released at the wildlife rehabilitation center. (NOAA/Ed Levine)

Even though Hurricane Isaac blew off the weather radar several weeks ago, the pollution and destruction it left behind in the Gulf of Mexico still remain. After the hurricane’s initial landfall the week of August 28, the U.S. Coast Guard received reports of 158 oil spills and 171 hazardous material targets in the affected areas in Louisiana. Some two weeks later, the numbers are down to 13 open oil discharges and 57 hazardous material targets remaining.

At this time, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has five support personnel, consisting of Scientific Support Coordinators and information management specialists, on scene in the New Orleans command post assisting response operations for these cleanups. The incidents ranged from very small (several gallons) to medium (60,000 gallons) sized releases of oil and a wide variety of chemicals.

Map of locations of oil and hazardous material spills in Louisiana resulting from Hurricane Isaac, as of Sept. 17, 2012.

Map of locations of oil and hazardous material spills in Louisiana resulting from Hurricane Isaac, as of Sept. 17, 2012. Click to enlarge. (NOAA)

NOAA has been involved in assessing shorelines possibly affected by these spills, conducting aerial surveys of coastal waters, making cleanup recommendations, and performing final assessments of oiled areas that have been cleaned up. In addition, our experts have been coordinating the federal and state agencies involved, mapping data, and managing response information in databases.

NOAA's Lieutenant (junior grade) Kyle Jellison describing the location of oil spill sites to the U.S. Coast Guard Situation Unit inside the Hurricane Isaac command post in New Orleans, La.

NOAA’s Lieutenant (junior grade) Kyle Jellison describing the location of oil spill sites to the U.S. Coast Guard Situation Unit inside the Hurricane Isaac command post in New Orleans, La. (NOAA/Ed Levine)

This work is in support of the unified command, which is made up of the U.S. Coast Guard and Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, along with several oil and chemical facilities identified as the originators of materials spilled during the hurricane.

Additionally, OR&R is collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA National Weather Service, Louisiana Office of Historic Preservation, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Scenic Rivers program to address impacts to natural resources and to determine when cleanups are complete. NOAA anticipates being on scene another week.

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Making the Best of a Catch in Whale-Friendly Lobster Fishing

This is a post by the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Anna Manyak.

Derelict fishing gear is a prevalent type of marine debris throughout the oceans, and like other forms of marine debris, it is a complicated issue without a clear solution. Recently, I participated in a coastal cleanup in New Hampshire with members of Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation and University of New Hampshire Sea Grant, where I got to see the issue firsthand. In New Hampshire and throughout New England states, regulations designed to protect important marine species and the personal property of lobstermen have unintentionally led to a significant marine debris issue.

To understand the issue, it’s important to understand how the lobster fishery works in New England. Lobsters are caught using metal or wooden lobster “pots,” which can be deployed in a number of configurations based off of the following general diagram (for many more configurations, check this out):

The basic configuration of lobster trap deployment.

The basic configuration of lobster trap deployment.

The diagram highlights two important gear modifications designed to prevent harmful interactions between local marine mammals and lobster gear that have also contributed to the marine debris issue: the weak link and sink line. The weak link is designed to allow the buoy to easily disconnect from the sink line if a marine mammal comes in contact with it. However, the buoy can also easily detach if a boat accidentally hits it, which can ultimately lead to lost gear.

Up until 2009, the loss of traps through these accidental encounters with boats was mitigated through float lines; if the buoy was disconnected, the line attached to all of the lobster pots would at least still float at the surface. However, these float lines also posed a threat to marine mammals, which could become entangled. Regulations now require that sink lines are used on lobster pots. While the weak link and the sink line are important for marine mammals, these modifications can cause lobster pots to become marine debris.

Once lost, the derelict lobster pots can negatively impact the marine environment and economy. Lost pots can continue to fish for target and non-target species, many times capturing and killing either protected or commercially important organisms. In addition, strong water currents can drag pots along the bottom, scouring and damaging sensitive marine habitats. Strong storms can even move lobster pots out of the water, impacting coastal habitats as well. The lost pots can also hinder the lobster fishery, by taking up prime real estate on the seafloor that could otherwise be used for fished pots.

Derelict lobster traps collected from White Island in the Isles of Shoals.

Derelict lobster traps collected from White Island in the Isles of Shoals, Gulf of Maine. (Gabriela Bradt, UNH Sea Grant and Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation)

While the derelict fishing gear issue poses a great problem, regulations in coastal New England states designed to protect the property of lobstermen unintentionally make cleanup of derelict pots difficult. In states such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine (among others), removing or even touching fishing gear belonging to someone else is prohibited, even if the gear is unfishable.

These laws were established when lobster pots were frequently being stolen to make lobster pot coffee tables. These regulations are important and remain to protect the catch and property of lobstermen; however, they hinder gear cleanups as a local regulatory official must be present at the cleanup to determine if gear can be removed.

A full 30 foot dumpster of derelict fishing gear collected from White Island in the Isles of Shoals, Gulf of Maine.

A full 30-foot-long dumpster of derelict fishing gear collected from White Island in the Isles of Shoals, Gulf of Maine. (Gabriela Bradt, UNH Sea Grant and Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation)

While the ultimate solution lies in finding a way to prevent gear from being lost in the first place, the Fishing for Energy program provides a solution to cleaning up the gear currently present. In addition to the general program that provides bins for derelict gear disposal, each year a Fishing for Energy grant program offers competitive funding for groups to conduct assessments and removal of derelict fishing gear throughout the United States.

Successful projects are required to engage fishermen and, in states where necessary, state marine regulatory officials. Engaging fishermen helps to increase awareness of the derelict fishing gear issue throughout the fishing community, and involving local regulatory officials alleviates legal hindrances to gear removal. As with the bin program, all collected gear is recycled or burned as a source of renewable energy with the help of Schnitzer Steel or Covanta Energy.

A version of this post originally appeared on the NOAA Marine Debris Blog.

Anna Manyak is Northeast Regional Coordinator and Knauss Fellow with the NOAA Marine Debris Program.


Healthy Habitat, Healthy Economy: Restoration Creates American Jobs

During high school and my first year of college, I landed a job working at a kayak tourism shop near Seattle, Wash. My job depended on having healthy beaches and parks we could take our customers to enjoy. Several of the areas we brought kayakers to were former industrial sites, which were now restored.

  Heavy equipment was used to remove dredge and landfill material from this site of marsh restoration.

Heavy equipment removes dredge and landfill material from this site of marsh restoration in Lincoln Park, N.J. According to a recent study, NOAA has created 33 jobs for every $1 million spent to restore habitat through “labor intensive” projects.

We often had lunch on a restored beach that had been damaged by an old wood-treatment facility. I got to see close up how those same heavy machines that injured habitat could also be used to reverse environmental damage, creating jobs both now and in the future. That beach restoration project ensured a job for workers who wore hardhats, and it also helped ensure jobs for those of us who wore life jackets to work.

Re-creating coastal habitats that were lost due to human impact doesn’t just benefit wildlife. It also supports fisheries, tourism, and coastal resiliency for years down the road. A recent study by the nonprofit Ecotrust [PDF, 1.6 MB] found that from 2001-2010 $411.4 million invested in restoration work in Oregon generated as much as $977.5 million in economic output.

And labor-intensive restoration—like building oyster reefs in coastal Alabama—creates more than 30 jobs per million dollars invested. (That’s more than twice as many jobs as the oil and gas and road construction industries combined.) Want to see more studies like this from around the nation? We’ve got you covered.

Restoration projects create jobs for construction workers, landscapers, heavy equipment operators, and technical experts such as engineers and wildlife biologists. These same restoration projects also create demand for local businesses, such as plant nurseries and rock quarries.

The Office of Response and Restoration is just one piston of the NOAA engine for coastal restoration. Restoration projects being led by NOAA are occurring all across this county. Visit NOAA’s Restoration Atlas to locate one near you.

Watch this video to learn even more about how the restoration economy is helping to keep people in jobs:

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NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Responds to Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf

Office of Response and Restoration staff continues to support the U.S. Coast Guard’s assessment and response efforts following the landfall of Hurricane Isaac last week. Our office has two Scientific Support Coordinators and two information management specialists on scene in Louisiana.

Flooding on the Mississippi River, just west of New Orleans, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac.

Flooding on the Mississippi River, just west of New Orleans, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac. (NOAA)

Additional support is being provided remotely for ERMA® (an online mapping tool for visualizing key environmental response data) and for response management. The Gulf of Mexico Regional ERMA site is being used as the U.S. Coast Guard Common Operational Picture and is providing operations, environmental, and situation unit support for the federal response efforts.

Our information management and ERMA team members are coordinating with the Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and state and local partners to provide real-time situational awareness for local and remote agency personnel. The primary focus is on oil and chemical pollution from sunken vessels, facility releases, toppled tanks and rail cars, and pipeline and rig spills. Pollution is to be expected following major storms like Isaac when flood waters carry all sorts of household and industrial debris.

So far, Coast Guard and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality assessment teams have investigated about 90 separate reports of pollution throughout the impacted areas. Facility owners are taking steps to clean up the majority of these incidents. Six sites require further assessment, and environmental response crews are taking steps to clean up or contain any oil releases.

The OR&R team is also tracking marine debris and evaluating the effect of the passing hurricane on shorelines affected by the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique teams are beginning operations along the Gulf Coast looking for new spills but also focusing on tarballs and oily residue discovered in the area oiled by the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill in 2010. Samples of tarballs are being collected and will be analyzed to determine the source.