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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Taking a Closer Look at Marine Debris in Your Backyard

Here's hoping your backyard doesn't look like this: debris scattered on the ocean floor near the Pacific Islands. (NOAA)

Here’s hoping your backyard doesn’t look like this: debris scattered on the ocean floor near the Pacific Islands. (NOAA)

Check out NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog for their ongoing series, Marine Debris in Your Backyard, which examines the unique challenges of marine debris and its impacts on various parts of the United States.

Join them as they “journey across the nation, looking at the nine different regions the NOAA Marine Debris Program spans and the most common types of debris found in them, and how it may have ended up there.”

So far, they have visited the following places:

  • Alaska, where remote beaches, rough seas, and limited fair weather mean volunteers have only a few months each year to remove anywhere from one to 25 tons of debris per mile of shoreline.
  • Great Lakes, where 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water resides, discarded fishing lines often entangle wildlife, and rumors of a plastic-filled “garbage patch” are beginning to appear.
  • Pacific Islands, where Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and a whole lot of open ocean make up the largest region NOAA supports, but where there is so little space for landfills that NOAA helped establish a public-private partnership in Hawaii to turn abandoned fishing gear into a local electricity source.
  • California, where its 1,100 miles of shoreline vary from coastal mountains in the north to well-populated, sandy beaches in the south, and where the nation’s first “Trash Policy” will attempt to control the flow of garbage in California’s waterways.

Stay tuned as they continue working their way around the shores of the United States, and ask yourself, what does marine debris look like where you live? How do you help keep it out of the ocean?

And remember, even if you live hundreds of miles from a beach, a piece of litter such as a cigarette butt (which actually contains plastic) or a plastic bag can still make its way through storm drains and rivers to the ocean. This makes marine debris, no matter where you live, truly everyone’s problem.


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Renewal Ahead for Delaware River, Newest Site of Urban Waters Federal Partnership Program

George Washington crosses the Delaware River, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. (Public Domain, Emanuel Leutze)

George Washington crosses the Delaware River, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. (Public Domain, Emanuel Leutze)

You may know the Delaware River only as the partially frozen river George Washington and his troops crossed to victory late at night during the American Revolution, surprising enemy forces based in New Jersey. But many other people—approximately 15 million—know it as their source of water for drinking supplies, industrial uses, irrigation, commerce, and recreation.

The Delaware is one of our nation’s most important rivers. As the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi, it extends from upstate New York to Delaware Bay, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. And historically, transportation on the Delaware River was critical to the early development of Philadelphia, Penn.; Wilmington, Del.; and Trenton and Camden, N.J.

However, population and industrial growth took their toll on urban areas along the Delaware. Until the mid-20th century, human and industrial waste received inadequate treatment before flowing into the river, contributing to extensive water pollution problems. This pollution had the effect of draining the river’s waters of the oxygen needed for fish and other aquatic life to survive. Following the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, conditions have improved, but water quality remains a problem along this river, especially in urban areas.

Over the years, the land around the river has increasingly changed from a natural to an urban setting, losing many of the benefits of nature that the river can offer and at times replacing them with pollutants and failing sewers. Urban infrastructure and abandoned and polluted sites began to claim the riverbanks, severely restricting access to the river.

A Partnership to Reclaim the River

Yet, the outlook for this river appears hopeful. The Delaware River and the land around it, which includes the greater Philadelphia area, is one of 11 places across the U.S. recently welcomed into the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. In order to restore degraded waterfronts and to revitalize economically depressed areas along the river, this partnership will join forces with state, regional, and local organizations to address economic and environmental problems along the river through Philadelphia. NOAA is one of the federal partners coordinating this effort and Office of Response and Restoration staff in the area will be working to ensure the program’s success.

A train crossing over the Delaware River on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia, Penn., to Camden, N.J.  (Creative Commons, Bob Snyder, Rights reserved)

A train crossing over the Delaware River on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia, Penn., to Camden, N.J. (Creative Commons, Bob Snyder, Rights reserved)

The Urban Waters Federal Partnership furthers the work of other national efforts, such as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities and America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. This partnership focuses on a broad range of projects that will protect community investments while also improving erosion and flood control, water quality, economic and environmental health, and access to waterways.

One of the specific ways the partnership and NOAA will benefit the region is by supporting the Camden County Municipal Authority’s development of Phoenix Park, a community park along the Delaware. This project will involve waterfront and shoreline restoration and will be the centerpiece of a larger project to restore the Camden waterfront. Meanwhile, in Wilmington, the partnership will be able to offer additional support for Fox Point State Park, a relatively new public area created on a former Brownfield property.

On another front, NOAA, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service will lead an Urban Waters Federal Partnership effort to address remaining water quality issues in the river. These problems stem from a history of habitat loss from past dredging and filling on the shoreline, underutilized and contaminated waterfront property, failing infrastructure (including sewers), and threats from climate change. A compelling reason for dealing with these issues is that several species of fish that were caught commercially and recreationally in the urban part of the Delaware River are threatened, such as Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, shad and river herring, and eel. Furthermore, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership projects will focus on reconnecting underserved communities to their waterfronts.

A History of Restoration

These efforts will complement NOAA’s longstanding efforts to clean up and restore the Delaware River from the impacts of oil spills and hazardous waste sites. You can view a map (click to zoom to Delaware) depicting the more than a dozen sites that NOAA is actively working on along the Delaware River and its tributaries. The NOAA Restoration Atlas has additional information about restoration projects in the region that NOAA has helped to support.

Once a bustling ferry terminal on the Delaware River during the industrial revolution, Lardner's Point had fallen into disrepair over the years. Then, in 2004, a tanker released more than 265,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware, exposing this area and hundreds of other miles of shoreline to spilled crude oil. Today, Lardner’s Point features a clean and welcoming waterfront public park, with newly restored shorelines. (NOAA)

Once a bustling ferry terminal on the Delaware River during the industrial revolution, Lardner’s Point had fallen into disrepair over the years. Then, in 2004, a tanker released more than 265,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware, exposing this area and hundreds of other miles of shoreline to spilled crude oil. Today, Lardner’s Point features a clean and welcoming waterfront public park, with newly restored shorelines. (NOAA)

One notable example, among many, is Lardner’s Point, a newly established waterfront park in Philadelphia, which NOAA, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, and the Delaware River City Corporation have helped transform from a disused, concrete blight to a vibrant, natural gem. The restored shoreline there is the foundation for continuing revitalization along the central and northern Philadelphia waterfront, as well as community renewal efforts in Chester, Penn., around the Commodore Barry Bridge.

Washington Crossing State Park, north of Philadelphia. (Creative Commons, Nancy Dowd, Rights reserved)

Washington Crossing State Park, north of Philadelphia. (Creative Commons, Nancy Dowd, Rights reserved)

Diverse activities and communities along the Delaware River make clear its importance and value to the people who live near it. Visible from Philadelphia’s major bridges to New Jersey, the Port of Philadelphia is one of the largest freshwater ports in the world, and it shares the urban riverfront with parks and recreational areas.

To the north, along the banks of historic towns such as New Hope, Penn., and Lambertville and Stockton, N.J., favorite river activities include fishing, rafting, tubing, and canoeing. Even further north, the Delaware is classified as a National Wild and Scenic River. While to the south, the Delaware Bayshore is home to swimming, boating, and commercial fishing.

But for too long, the urban populations along the Delaware River have had limited opportunities to enjoy the river right where they live and work. Fortunately, that is changing. NOAA and the Urban Waters Federal Partnership are building on that momentum, aiming to return to the area and its people the renewed benefits of a healthy, accessible river—one that they can be proud to claim again as their own.


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NOAA Report Identifies Shipwrecks with the Potential to Pollute

On May 14, 1942, the U.S. Army Air Corps photographed the location of the burning tanker Potrero del Llano. (National Archives)

On May 14, 1942, the U.S. Army Air Corps photographed the location of the burning tanker Potrero del Llano. (National Archives)

Over the past couple years I’ve talked about the threat of oil spills from historic shipwrecks, including the S/S Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes and the S/S Montebello off southern California. But we know that these wrecks are just the tip of the iceberg.

The past century of commerce and warfare has dotted our waters with shipwrecks, many of which have never been surveyed. Since 2010, my office, working with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the U.S. Coast Guard, has been systematically looking at which of these wrecks might pose a substantial threat of leaking oil still on board. This work is part of NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project.

We used a tiered approach to develop an initial priority list of vessels for risk assessment. This process narrowed down the estimated 20,000 vessels in U.S. waters to 573 that met the initial criteria. The ships had to be over 1,000 gross tons (making them about 200 feet or longer), built to carry or use oil as fuel, and made of a durable material such as steel.

Understanding how a shipwreck site formed helps explain why vessels, like the Dixie Arrow which initially carried approximately 86,136 barrels of crude oil, but was demolished during World War II, no longer remain intact and are no longer potentially polluting shipwrecks. (NOAA)

Understanding how a shipwreck site formed helps explain why vessels, like the Dixie Arrow which initially carried approximately 86,136 barrels of crude oil, but was demolished during World War II, no longer remain intact and are no longer potentially polluting shipwrecks. (NOAA)

Additional research revealed the actual number posing a substantial pollution threat was lower because of the violent nature in which some ships sank (many were lost in World War II). This is because, for example, a ship hit and sunk by torpedoes would be less likely to still have intact tanks of oil. And other vessels were taken off our radar because they have fallen apart or were demolished because they were navigational hazards.

We also used computer models to predict the environmental and economic consequences of oil spills from these vessels. Those results then helped us sort out which wrecks might pose the biggest risks.

A map showing the name, location, and priority level of shipwrecks recommended to the U.S. Coast Guard for further pollution assessment. (NOAA)

A map showing the name, location, and priority level of shipwrecks recommended to the U.S. Coast Guard for further pollution assessment. (NOAA)

On May 20, we released both an overall report describing this work and our recommendations and 87 individual wreck assessments. The individual risk assessments highlight not only concerns about potential ecological and socio-economic impacts, but they also characterize most of the vessels as being historically significant. In addition, many of them are grave sites, both civilian and military.

The national report and the 87 risk assessments are available at http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/protect/ppw/.


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Over a Century after Texas Strikes Oil, Marsh Restoration Completed for an Old Refinery’s Pollution

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

On January 10, 1910, the famous Lucas gusher, named after the persistent oil explorer who drilled the well, struck oil at Spindletop Hill in a geyser that launched more than 100 feet in the air for nine days. This kicked off the Texas oil boom and was the impetus for opening the nearby Gulf Oil Company refinery. (John Trost)

On January 10, 1910, the famous Lucas gusher, named after the persistent oil explorer who drilled the well, struck oil at Spindletop Hill in a geyser that launched more than 100 feet in the air for nine days. This kicked off the Texas oil boom and was the impetus for opening the nearby Gulf Oil Company refinery. (John Trost)

About five miles from the Texas-Louisiana border sits what was once the Gulf Oil Company’s refinery. It’s now owned by Valero, by way of Chevron. But this century-old refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, has been operating since a year after the famous discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901, which came in the form of a more than 100-foot-high, nine-day-long oil gusher.

Spindletop is the salt dome oil field that sparked the oil boom in Texas, ushering in the exploration of oil in the region that has persisted to this day. It also paved the way for oil to become a significant energy source.

Oil Boom not Necessarily a Boon

With the oil boom came a number of hazardous substances to the former Gulf Oil refinery site and its surrounding areas. Historically, the refinery produced jet fuel, gasoline, petrochemicals, and a variety of other oil and chemical products. But this took a toll on the site’s soil, water, and aquatic habitats. Ecological risk assessment studies led by the state of Texas have revealed the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, a toxic component of oil), lead, zinc, nickel, cadmium, copper, and more in the water and sediment on the site.

In 2004, NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Texas natural resource trustees, working cooperatively with Chevron, determined that the public was owed ecological restoration for the contaminated surface water, soil, and sediments at the former Gulf Oil refinery [PDF]. Our assessment showed that we could accomplish this by constructing 83 acres of tidal wetland and 30 acres of coastal wet prairie and improving 1,332 acres of coastal wetlands via new water control structures in the Sabine Lake/Neches River basin.

A black-necked Stilt and Snowy Egrets in the restored wetland habitat. (Photo provided courtesy of Chevron.)

A black-necked Stilt and Snowy Egrets in the restored wetland habitat.
(Photo provided courtesy of Chevron.)

Based on this information, the natural resource trustees negotiated with Chevron (which assumed the legal responsibility of the former Gulf Oil site) a $4.4 million settlement of state and federal natural resource damage claims related to the site. This money would go toward implementing the environmental restoration.

The settlement included three projects meant to restore coastal habitat to compensate the public for natural resources lost or injured by historical contamination from the refinery. Two of the projects involved restoring a natural hydrology to coastal wetlands by installing water flow enhancement structures and berms. The third project aimed to create intertidal estuarine marsh and coastal wet prairie by using nearby dredge material.

These projects were a significant undertaking for Chevron and their contractors. They involved several different restoration techniques, some of which had to be modified in the middle of construction to adapt to changes in the field.

Clumps of planted marsh grass in restored estuarine marsh, looking towards Bridge City. February 1, 2013 (NOAA/ National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Clumps of planted marsh grass in restored estuarine marsh, looking towards Bridge City. February 1, 2013 (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Building Marsh out of Mud Pancakes

In 2002, Chevron set up a pilot project to determine the feasibility of constructing marsh habitat by placing local dredge material into open-water habitat. The resulting constructed marsh terrace was able to maintain the necessary elevation for native marsh vegetation to take root.

Based on the successful pilot, the full-scale project for building marsh planned to mix dredge material with water, forming slurry that could then be pumped into open water to form mounds and terraces. Once they reached the suitable elevation, the mounds and terraces would later be planted with native marsh grasses. On the other hand, the coastal wet prairie would be constructed by removing dredged sediment to lower the elevation and make it suitable for supporting vegetation found in that habitat type.

Established estuarine marsh in the Old River South marsh complex. Note the elevated mounds of mud beneath the marsh grass. (NOAA/ National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Established estuarine marsh in the Old River South marsh complex. Note the elevated mounds of mud beneath the marsh grass. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Full-scale construction for the projects kicked off in 2007. This timeline was pushed back a few years from the pilot project because in 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita increased demand for the heavy equipment used in the marsh environment and also damaged habitat and vegetation at the project site.

Another challenge came after Chevron pumped the dredged sediments into the open water to create marsh mounds. Unlike during the pilot project, when the pumped-in sediment stacked well, the sediment used in the marsh construction spread out and formed pancakes instead of the desired mounds. To prevent the sediment from spreading, the restoration team tried changing the pump’s spout, but spraying the dredge slurry into mounds was still a challenge. The mounds became mudflats.

Changing the construction technique again, they next pumped in dredged sediments and then excavated mounds and terraces. This technique had greater success, but in the end, it was still necessary to pump in additional sediment to some areas to achieve the necessary elevations. Because the team was using so much more dredge material than originally planned, they had to find an alternative sediment source from a nearby canal. If they continued taking sediment from the original source, they would have risked lowering the elevation of the area, which was adjacent to the coastal wet prairie and could affect its hydrology.

View of Rainbow Bridge from restored estuarine marsh. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

View of Rainbow Bridge from restored estuarine marsh. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Despite a number of setbacks, the restoration projects were finished in 2009 and after a monitoring period, the trustees certified them as successfully completed in February of 2013. These projects will improve the fish and shellfish abundance in this part of southeast Texas, provide habitat for wildlife and fish, increase recreational opportunities for bird watching and fishing, and improve the habitat for waterfowl (a benefit for hunters).

The area is also highly visible for anyone driving south through the Beaumont-Port Arthur area. Just look out your window as you cross the Neches River and you’ll see the marsh mounds, coastal wet prairie, and maybe even a few Snowy Egrets on display.

Jessica White.

Jessica White.

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 recently relocated to the Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. 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.


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Is There a Garbage Patch in the Great Lakes?

This is a post by Sarah Opfer, NOAA Marine Debris Program Great Lakes Regional Coordinator.

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“—a purported island of trash twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean—receives a lot of media attention. Recent reports suggest that a similar garbage patch may be developing in the Great Lakes as well.

However, based on research we know that the name “garbage patch” is misleading and that there is no island of trash forming in the middle of the ocean. We also know that there is no blanket of marine trash that is visible using current satellite or aerial photography.

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Yet, there are places in the ocean where currents bring together lots and lots of floatable materials, such as plastics and other trash. While the types of litter gathering in these areas can vary greatly, from derelict fishing nets to balloons, the kind that is capturing the most attention right now are microplastics. These are small bits of plastic often not immediately evident to the naked eye.

While we know about the so-called “garbage patches” in the Pacific Ocean, could there be a similar phenomenon in other parts of the world, including the Great Lakes? Recent research on the distribution of plastics in the Great Lakes has people now asking that very question.

The Great Lakes are no mere group of puddles. They contain nearly 20% of the world’s surface freshwater and have a coastline longer than the East Coast of the United States. Within the Great Lakes system, water flows from Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, the lakes furthest west and highest in elevation, east into Lake Huron. From there, it travels through Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River into Lake Erie. Then, some 6 million cubic feet of water pass over Niagara Falls each minute and into Lake Ontario before flowing through the St. Lawrence River and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

This water flow influences circulation patterns within and between each of the lakes. Currents within the Great Lakes also are powered by wind, waves, energy from the sun, water density differences, the shape of the lakebed, and the shoreline. These circulation currents have the tendency to create aggregations of garbage and debris in certain areas, just like in the oceans. But, just as in the Pacific Ocean, this doesn’t mean the Great Lakes have floating trash islands either.

In an effort to better identify and understand how plastic debris is spread throughout the Great Lakes, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have partnered with COM DEV on an exploratory research project. COM DEV is a designer and manufacturer of space and remote sensing technology. Researchers are working with this industry partner to develop and test the ability of different remote sensors to detect plastics in the Great Lakes.

If they find the task is feasible and the trial runs prove to be effective, this work could be applied beyond the Great Lakes and across the United States. The NOAA Marine Debris Program, part of the Office of Response and Restoration, is engaged with and following the project. We plan to participate in the next steps of this promising effort. You can learn more about the project and a related workshop on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Bowling Green State University and was a Knauss Sea Grant fellow with NOAA in 2009. She is based in Ohio and enjoys having Lake Erie in her back yard! While away from work she enjoys cooking, reading, kayaking, dreaming of places she wants to travel to, and spending time with her family.


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Behind the Budget: A Look Ahead for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration

Here, we take a peek into the world of science policy (and the budgets that make it possible) as we hear from Dave Westerholm, director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, about what we can expect as a starting point for this office in the next fiscal year.

Wetland grasses replanted in Texas after a successful damage assessment and restoration process. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Wetland grasses replanted in Texas after a successful damage assessment and restoration process. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

The White House recently released the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2014. This budget offers several exciting opportunities for research, development, and growth in response and restoration activities at NOAA. The budget contains close to $4 million in increases for the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R).

I am very proud of the work we do every day at OR&R and am very grateful for all the support that enables this work. In the last year we responded to 139 environmental incidents, including Hurricane Sandy, generated over $800,000 for restoration through the natural resource damage assessment process, opened NOAA’s new Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, and saw passage of the Marine Debris Act Amendments of 2012 (which expanded the scope of our office to deal specifically with large amounts of natural disaster debris).

While meeting the needs of those critical issues, we have continued to support the ongoing response and damage assessment for the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, looked forward to address emerging challenges in the U.S. Arctic by launching an Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) online mapping tool for the Arctic region and contributed our expertise to interagency planning and preparedness in support of ongoing energy exploration in the Arctic.

I am eager to show you what OR&R can do with the latest budget from the President that will build upon our recent achievements:

The fiscal year 2014 budget proposes a $2 million increase for Natural Resource Damage Assessment to increase technical, strategic, and legal support so we can more quickly move more oil spill and hazardous waste site cases toward settlement and support the restoration process. We anticipate that this increase will more than pay for itself in settlement funds recovered from responsible parties and deliver significant return on investment for the American public.

There is an increase of $1 million for the NOAA Marine Debris Program to fund a variety of programs and efforts to reduce and prevent the impacts of marine debris. This includes funding for:

  • research programs and academic institutions with demonstrated expertise in the economic impacts of marine debris.
  • alternatives to fishing gear that pose potential marine threats.
  • enhanced tracking, recovery, and identification of lost and discarded fishing gear.
  • efforts to reduce the amount of baseline debris from ocean and non-ocean based sources.

Additionally, the Marine Debris Program’s regional marine debris coordination program will receive a funding increase to enhance regional efforts and develop response plans for states in the Northeast, Southeast, and Gulf of Mexico as described under the Marine Debris Act. These plans will help federal, state, and local authorities plan and prepare for the next major marine debris cleanup event, for example, a hurricane.

This budget also proposes funding increases for emergency response preparedness in the Arctic and Gulf of Mexico and for our innovative ERMA tool to transition to a cloud computing platform.  These funds will allow OR&R to improve our services through participation in more regional response exercises with governmental and private partners and enhance scientific support for the Arctic through increased direct engagement with Arctic communities.

I invite you to review the NOAA Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Summary [PDF] for more detailed information on all of NOAA’s proposed activities in the President’s budget.

Each budgetary increase provides a significant opportunity to build NOAA’s capacity to assess future oil and chemical spill impacts, plan for increased maritime activity in the Arctic, and expand our scientific and tactical capabilities using state-of-the-art information management. The budget also will help NOAA to develop capabilities that will lead to more effective strategies to prevent and mitigate the effects of marine debris. I hope to work with our office’s many partners and supporters in the coming months to ensure OR&R’s capacity will continue to meet the rising tide of ocean and coastal challenges to protect lives, property, and the environment and to keep commerce moving.

Dave Westerholm

Dave Westerholm

Dave Westerholm currently serves as the Director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Prior to NOAA, he had several years of corporate experience as both Senior Operations Director and Vice President for Maritime Security, Policy and Communications for Anteon Corporation and then General Dynamics. He is a retired Coast Guard Captain with over 27 years of experience in a variety of fields including maritime safety, port security, and environmental protection.


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Back to the Shore after Hurricane Sandy

GIS specialist Jay Coady, Environmental Sensitivity Index map specialist Jill Petersen, John Tarpley of the OR&R Emergency Response Division, and Jason Rolfe of the NOAA Marine Debris Program also contributed to this post.

: Two boys take a break on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, during the summer of 2012, before Hurricane Sandy. (Glenda Powell/all rights reserved)

Two boys take a break on the beach in Ocean City, Md., during the summer of 2012, before Hurricane Sandy. (Glenda Powell/all rights reserved)

With Memorial Day approaching and summer weather returning, folks in the northeast will once again be flocking to the shore, as they have for generations.  This summer season is the first since Hurricane Sandy hit the region in late October of 2012, with devastating effects to beaches from Connecticut to Virginia. Much of the damage has been repaired and many visitors likely will find their favorite beaches as enjoyable as ever, but there is much work remaining to do.

Headed for Calmer Shores

A response team formed by the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response Unified Command prior to an overflight during which the U.S. Coast Guard worked with NOAA to map areas of possible pollution threats in New York and New Jersey. LTJG Alice Drury of OR&R is in the middle of the group. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A response team formed by the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response Unified Command prior to an overflight during which the U.S. Coast Guard worked with NOAA to map areas of possible pollution threats in New York and New Jersey. LTJG Alice Drury of OR&R is in the middle of the group. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) responded immediately in the wake of the massive storm. OR&R’s Emergency Response Division provided scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard to contain a major diesel spill at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, N.J., next to New York’s Staten Island and Raritan Bay. We also provided support for the many smaller petroleum product spills in northern New Jersey and southern New York.  Aerial and ground surveys helped identify and prioritize the cleanup of pollution sources from boats, displaced hazardous material containers, and other debris.

OR&R was on scene working with other state and federal agencies to lead a preliminary assessment of natural resource impacts from the oil spills for possible Natural Resource Damage Assessment claims and restoration. In addition, the Coast Guard and other responders used OR&R’s collaborative online mapping tool, Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) for the Atlantic Coast, as the “common operational picture,” that is, the official “big picture” tool for coordinating pollution response activities.

Atlantic ERMA, which is customized for New York and New Jersey waters, was involved in mapping the Hurricane Sandy response and recovery efforts since before the storm hit land. In the days leading up to landfall, OR&R started populating Atlantic ERMA with storm-specific data, such as predicted storm surge models, hurricane track and wind speeds, and NOAA facility locations.

A partially submerged vessel in Navesink River, N.J., Nov. 10, 2012. Boom was placed around the vessel to mitigate pollution during the response efforts. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A partially submerged vessel in Navesink River, N.J., Nov. 10, 2012. Boom was placed around the vessel to mitigate pollution during the response efforts. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Atlantic ERMA served as the common operational picture for the Hurricane Sandy pollution response. It aided the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinators (our pollution first responders), U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the removal and cleanup of identified pollution sources and threats.

Atlantic ERMA integrated these response efforts with environmental data (like locations of sensitive habitat) to give responders a better idea of how to deal with pollution threats while minimizing environmental damages.

As the common operational picture, ERMA provided a single platform for responders to view all of the storm-related data and imagery as well as various cleanup efforts by the states and other federal agencies. Our team of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists working on ERMA also helped provide data management support in tracking the progress made by the pollution response field teams.

Making it Safe to Get Back in the Water

In the Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill, Congress provided the NOAA Marine Debris Program with funds to address marine debris issues resulting from Sandy. In addition, funds were allocated to OR&R’s Emergency Response Division to update our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps on the east coast, with particular emphasis on areas affected by Hurricane Sandy and other coastal storms over the past several years. These maps identify coastal shorelines, wildlife, and habitat that may be especially vulnerable to an oil spill and also include the resources people use, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

Click on this map to view the complete Environmental Sensitivity Index map, created by OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. The map shows sensitive habitats and species that are typically present in the Staten Island area in November and December, the months following Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

Click on this map to view the complete Environmental Sensitivity Index map, created by OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. The map shows sensitive habitats and species that are typically present in the Staten Island area in November and December, the months following Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

Marine debris can be found in concentrations across the impacted region both on the shoreline and below the water surface.  These items pose potential hazards to navigation, commercial fishing grounds, and sensitive ecosystems.

We are using Atlantic ERMA to provide mapping support and tools to show aerial imagery, debris dispersion models, and identified marine debris locations supplied by stakeholders. Our mapping support also helps with the planning efforts for debris cleanup.

A combination of aerial, underwater, and shoreline surveys are necessary to assess the quantity and location of marine debris in the impacted coastal areas.  These assessments will allow NOAA to estimate the debris impacts to economies and ecosystems, identify priority items for removal, support limited removal efforts, and help bring our northeastern shores back to a sunnier state.

Read about more examples of our work protecting and restoring the shores the nation loves to visit.