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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High Water and Sunken Oil on the Great Mississippi

Man in orange uniform inspecting wrecked barge.

U.S. Coast Guard conducting initial damage survey of barge from the UTV Amy Frances. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

If you can’t see spilled oil, how do you find it and clean it up?

That’s the situation emergency responders faced in two oil spills on the Mississippi River that challenged their understanding of how to approach evaluating oil spill conditions.

The first incident was Sept. 3, 2015 when two tow barges collided on the Lower Mississippi River near Columbus, Kentucky. The second was Jan. 21, 2016 when a barge towed by the UTV Amy Frances struck the Natchez Bridge on the Lower Mississippi River. The Lower Mississippi is the most traveled and commercially important portion of the river’s system.

In both instances, the U.S. Coast Guard requested assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has scientific support coordinators stationed throughout the country to respond to spill emergencies.

The two incidents also spilled slurry oil—a byproduct of the oil refining process, which is denser than water and so, sinks instead of floating on the water’s surface. Despite understanding the scientific attributes of the oil, the responders needed to know where it was and how it would react to the river’s high water conditions.

“Just because you know the physical properties doesn’t tell you it will stay in one piece or get torn to bits and scattered all over the river bottom,” said Adam Davis, NOAA scientific support coordinator in the Gulf of Mexico who responded to both spills. “What we didn’t know was how it would interact with the river bottom and whether the best practice assessment tools would work given the river conditions at the time.”

In other words, would the oil sink and go straight to the bottom as one coherent mass or, would the currents tear it into pieces and take it downstream over a larger area? Or, would the oil be rapidly buried and evade the ability to locate and recover it?

Damaged barge.

A view of the damaged barge Apex 3508, whose tug boat collided with another on Sept. 2, 2015, causing an oil spill on the Mississippi River near Columbus, Kentucky. The rest of the oil on board the barge was removed. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Locating sunken oil in a large, dynamic river like the Lower Mississippi can be daunting. Fortunately, In the case of the Apex 3508 barge collision in Kentucky, the response team was able to use sophisticated side scan sonar and multibeam sonar to locate the oil and map the river bottom. Additionally, a novel dredging technique using an environmental clamshell-dredging device proved effective in recovery.

By the time of the Natchez Bridge incident, the river had moved from its low water condition typical of late summer to the extreme high water associated with seasonal spring flooding. Measurements showed the river raged from 8-13 knots (9-14 miles per hour) and was discharging about 1.8 million cubic feet of water per second. The response team again used side scan and multibeam sonar, but in this instance more to understand how the high flow conditions would affect what was going on along the river bottom. The multibeam imagery showed 30-50 foot tall sand waves were moving along the river bottom at a rate of about 30 feet in about two hours.

“Given the immense amount of sediment being transported rapidly downstream as evidenced by the multibeam imagery, we immediately knew that any oil that had found its way to the bottom near mid channel had been rapidly buried by the next massive sand wave and was unlikely to be recovered any time soon,” Davis said.

When the river is moving swiftly, the safest place for a damaged barge that can’t be transported to a fixed facility is often along the riverbank. The problem with a leaking barge pushed in along a flooded riverbank is that it is hard and often dangerous to assess the leakage. This was certainly the case in the Natchez incident.

“We knew the side scan and multibeam tools simply wouldn’t work well up close to the barge, Davis said. “There was just too much interference caused by the barge and the flooded trees along the bank to be able to see what was going on.”

The typical snare drag or probing for oil would not work in the high water conditions either. The equipment would snag on debris and vegetation below the water’s surface, and operating a vessel in a flooded tree line was unsafe.

“In order to probe we needed an object that could be easily and quickly fabricated from items on-hand,” Davis said. “The right tool didn’t exist, the solution called for a little ingenuity and quick action.”

Pole with oil dripping from the end onto a white pad.

The makeshift “cotton swab” tool created to collect oil samples from the submerged trees along the flooded riverbank during the response to the Amy Frances incident. Credit: NOAA

With the barge pushed in to the bank, securely tied off, and under the control of the tow, it offered a stable and safe enough platform for the response team to take a long pole with its ends wrapped in sorbent material and probe along the shore side. The new tool looked like a giant cotton swab and proved effective in quickly confirming the presence of sunken oil along the bank.

“Often I find that people are quite surprised that oil spill response strategies can be pretty low-tech sometimes and still be effective,” Davis said. “In the ‘NCIS’ age of ‘isn’t there a high tech gadget that can just easily fix your complex and dynamic problem’? Sometimes it is hard to convey that to people.”

Despite standards for evaluating oil spills, every spill has its unique challenges that require a deep understanding of science and an ability to think creatively.


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Derelict Fishing Gear and the Death of Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs

Infographic on the impacts of derelict crab pots in Chesapeake Bay

This infographic more plainly outlines the impacts of derelict crab pots in Chesapeake Bay from as study funded by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. Credit NOAA

 

With the start of the Chesapeake Bay crabbing season only a few days away, a recent study funded by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program shows how lost or abandoned (derelict) crab pots can cause big problems for wildlife and have serious economic impacts.

Derelict crab pots compete with active pots and can unintentionally kill 3.3 million blue crabs each year that are never harvested. Not only is this bad for crabbers, but it can also affect more than 40 fish species that are unintentionally caught (known as bycatch) in derelict traps.

Read more about how NOAA’s Marine Debris program is helping remove derelict pots from Chesapeake Bay and around the country.

 


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Showcasing Our Partnership with Coast Guard on Instagram

Ship's upper deck with rainbow.

A NOAA research team journeyed to the icy Arctic north of Alaska in 2014 on board the USCG Cutter Healy. A rain shower through Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands provided a rainbow, visible from an Arctic survey boat accompanying the Healy. (Credit NOAA)

This week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Response and Restoration will be taking over U.S. Coast Guard’s Instagram to showcase our long partnership.

Coming up at the end of this week, March 24, is the anniversary of Exxon Valdez – one of the largest oils spills in the nation’s history. However, our history actually goes back prior to Exxon Valdez to the grounding of the tanker Argo Merchant in 1976.

During the week, we’ll post photos of our work with the Coast Guard from our beginning to the present spotlighting our  work together in the Arctic, during hurricanes, Deepwater Horizon, and other incidents.

Head on over to USCG Instagram and view how we partner to keep the nation’s coasts and waterways safe for maritime commerce, recreational activities, and wildlife.

Read these recent articles about our partnership:

5 Ways the Coast Guard and NOAA Partner

Below Zero: Partnership between the Coast Guard and NOAA


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Restoring an Urban Dump Near Baltimore

Brown reeds with creek.

Reeds cover large portions of the wetlands. These areas will be restored through proposed methods such as changing the water flow and using chemical control. (Credit: NOAA)

Baltimore can be defined as much by its waterways as its skyscrapers. It’s connected to water through the Inner Harbor, its famous crab cakes, cargo and cruise ships, and its prominent location in the Chesapeake Bay.

West of the city, well-preserved Patapsco Valley State Park extends along 32 miles of the Patapsco River, encompassing 16,043 acres and eight developed recreational areas. Now, in nearby Rosedale, there is an exciting project to reclaim hundreds of acres of a special coastal area formerly used as an urban industrial wasteland.

The 68th Street Dump Site is a 239-acre swath of land, 118 acres of which was once the site of seven landfills, where industrial solvents, paints, and automobile tires were among the polluting substances left behind. The landfills operated from the 1950s to the early 1970s before closing and leaving behind toxic waste. The Environmental Protection Agency designated the area a Superfund site in 2000.

In the summer of 2008, EPA removed contaminated surface soils, containers, gas cylinders, empty drums, and batteries from the site. The actions immediately reduced the human health and ecological risks posed by surface contamination and debris to on-site workers, trespassers, and wildlife.

Despite the contamination and degraded state of the land, federal and state governments, as well as the local community recognized the value in restoring the 118-acres because of its proximity to important local waterways.

The 68th Street Dump site is adjacent to the Back River, with several tributaries, partially tidal, that traverse the site, including Herring Run, Redhouse Run, and Moores Run. The low salinity upper reaches of the Chesapeak Bay, like the Back River, are critical areas for a healthy bay, according to Simeon Hahn, regional resource coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration in the Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.

“Migratory fish like river herring, striped bass, and white and yellow perch require these habitats for spawning and juvenile development. As the name implies spawning still occurs in Herring Run,” Hahn said. “They also provide refuge for many other bay species like the important forage fish, killifish, and silversides that are eaten by striped bass, croaker, spot, weakfish and others. Even blue crabs and shrimp are there at times.”

Areas with large population centers, like Baltimore, present even bigger problems than just cleaning up and restoring contaminated sites. Blighted areas like the 68th Street Dump can lead to higher crime rates, lower property values, weakened local economies, and deny the public access to natural areas.

Aerial view of Baltimore with rivers.

68th Street Dump site was once the site of seven landfills. The blue outlined area shows the site. This aerial view was created using NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application® (Credit NOAA).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as its co-trustees—the Department of the Interior and the State of Maryland—have been involved in developing restoration projects to compensate for the natural resource injuries that occurred from hazardous substance releases at this site.

NOAA, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and EPA coordinated with the Urban Water Federal Partnership on site cleanup, restoration, and reuse of the 68th Street area. Reforestation, tidal wetland restoration, stream restoration, and potential public recreational access were incorporated into the cleanup plan for the site.

​That will provide direct benefits to local water quality and contribute regionally to Chesapeake Bay restoration objectives. The Urban Water Federal partners work together in the same way other local organizations have invested in the 68th Street restoration. The Back River Restoration Committee  has done a tremendous job of collecting the tons of trash that would enter the Bay from Herring Run, according to Hahn.

“Without this effort, the trash would move down the Chesapeake and into the oceans and cause the numerous negative impacts plastics and other debris cause to aquatic life and even to humans,” Hahn said.

NOAA worked with co-trustees and the responsible parties to include these activities in the cleanup and restoration plan.

 

ERMA® is an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as Environmental Sensitivity Index maps, ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers.

 


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Life at Sea or Scientist on Land: NOAA Corps Offers Both

Large white NOAA ship with mountains in background.

NOAA Ship Rainier is a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean to aid maritime commerce, improve coastal resilience, and understand the marine environment. Credit: NOAA

By Cmdr. Jesse Stark, NOAA Corps

A life at sea, or a career conserving natural resources?

That was the choice I was contemplating while walking along the docks in Port Angeles, Washington, back in 1998. A chance encounter that day with the chief quartermaster of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Ship Rainer showed me I could do both.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I spent my time exploring the woods, beaches, and tide pools. Every summer I reread Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf”, and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” My first job was a as a deck hand on charter fishing boats out of Port Angeles.

So, when Quartermaster Bernie Greene invited me aboard that day and told me stories with a sense of adventure, I signed onto the Rainer as an able-bodied seaman, and we headed to Alaska. That first voyage had me hooked and I joined NOAA Corps, leading to my current assignment as the Northwest scientific support coordinator.

NOAA has a long history of supplying scientific support to oil spills, starting with the Argo Merchant incident in 1976, and NOAA Corps history stretches back even farther to President Thomas Jefferson’s order for the first survey of the nation’s coast.

Today, the corps’ commissioned officers command NOAA’s fleet of research and survey vessels and aircraft, and also rotate to serve within each of NOAA’s other divisions. That combination of duties offers a breadth of experience that I draw upon in my current post in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration‘s Emergency Response Division.

Man in uniform holding little girl inside ship.

Commander Jesse Stark holding daughter Izzie on NOAA Ship Pisces after a ceremony in Pascagoula, Mississippi at a ceremony donating an anchor to the city for its “Anchor Village,” a retail park constructed near the ship’s homeport after Hurricane Katrina. Credit: NOAA

In the event of an oil spill or chemical release, the U.S. Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for managing clean-up activities; the scientific support coordinator’s role is to provide scientific expertise and to communicate with other affected agencies or organizations to reach a common consensus on response actions.

During my 18-year career as a corps officer, I’ve had eight permanent assignments, four on ships and four on land in three different NOAA divisions. Those different assignments allowed me to develop skills in bringing resources and differing perspectives together to work toward a common goal. Often, operating units get stagnant and stove-piped, and having new blood with new perspective and outlook rotating through alleviates some of that.

It’s also enabled me to build relationships across different divisions and tie together processes and practices among the different operating units, and sometimes, competing ideologies.

As an example, my first land assignment was with NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources Division in Portland, Oregon. While there, I produced a GIS-based distribution map of each recorded ocean catch of salmon and steelhead by watershed origin. While this project involved mainly technical aptitude and data mining, I was also involved with writing biological opinions on research authorizations of endangered salmon species.

This required coordination of many competing and differing viewpoints on management of these species. Consensus had to be reached and often an impasse had to be broken among people with deep passions on these issues.

One of my most challenging assignments was in 2010 when I was executive officer of NOAA Ship Pisces that responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

During the Deepwater Horizon response, the normal collecting of living marine resource data was replaced with a new process of collecting water and sediment samples better suited to the situation. The incident also showed how industry and government can, and must, work side by side for the good of the public and natural resources.

All of these skills together are proving to come in handy as a science coordinator, where in any given situation there can be as many as five different federal agencies, three state agencies, and several private companies with differing opinions. I’m happy to put my skills and experiences to good use in teamwork building and consensus for the greater good.

 

Commander Stark joined NOAA’s Emergency Response Division in August 2016. Stark’s last assignment was commanding officer of the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson in Alaska. Stark started in NOAA as a seaman on the NOAA Ship Rainier in 1998 and was commissioned into the NOAA Corps in 1999. 


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NOAA Scientist Supports Alaska Pipeline Leak Response

Beluga whale dorsal in ocean.

An endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale dorsal. National Marine Fisheries has more information on the whales. (Credit NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is assisting the U.S. Coast Guard in responding to a leaking natural gas pipeline in Cook Inlet, Alaska.

The leak was first reported to federal regulatory agencies on Feb. 7, by Hilcorp Alaska, LLC, which owns the pipeline located about 3.5 miles northeast of Nikiski, Alaska.

The 8-inch pipeline runs 4.6 miles from the shoreline to Hilcorp’s Platform A and then branches off to three other platforms in the inlet. The natural gas is used for fuel to support ongoing operations, as well as heating, and other life support functions.

The pipeline continues to leak between 200,000 and 300,000 cubic feet of processed natural gas a day into the inlet. This processed natural gas is 99% methane. The company said the presence of ice is preventing divers from conducting repairs, and the sea ice is not expected to melt until April.

Once notified of the leak, the U.S. Coast Guard contacted the scientific support coordinator in Alaska, Catherine Berg. She was asked for information on the expected area presenting flammability concerns in support of cautionary notices being broadcast to mariners. As scientific support coordinator, Berg routinely provides scientific and technical support during response for oil spills and hazardous materials releases in the coastal zone, helping to assess the risks to people and the environment.

Because of the nature of the release, in this case, Berg is providing technical support to the Coast Guard and the state as requested, drawing upon similar networks and expertise.

You can read more about NOAA’s work in response and restoration in Alaska in the following articles:

An Oiled River Restored: Salmon Return to Alaskan Stream to Spawn

At the Trans Alaska Pipeline’s Start, Where 200 Million Barrels of Oil Begin their Journey Each Year

Alaska ShoreZone: Mapping over 46,000 Miles of Coastal Habitat

See What Restoration Looks Like for an Oiled Stream on an Isolated Alaskan Island

Melting Permafrost and Camping with Muskoxen: Planning for Oil Spills on Arctic Coasts

National Marine Fisheries has more information on the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.

 


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Hold on to Those Balloons: They Could End Up in the Ocean

Sea turtle being held.

Balloon debris can be harmful for wildlife, which may ingest or get entangled in it. Here, a sea turtle was found after ingesting balloon debris, likely mistaking it for food. (Photo Credit: Blair Witherington, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

By NOAA Marine Debris Program

Balloons are a type of marine debris that many people don’t think about. Often used for celebrations or to commemorate special events, balloons are frequently intentionally or accidentally released into the environment. Unfortunately, once they go up, they must also come down; balloons released into the air don’t just go away, they either get snagged on something such as tree branches or electrical wires, deflate and make their way back down, or rise until they pop and fall back to Earth where they can create a lot of problems.

Balloon debris can be ingested by animals, many of which easily mistake it for real food, and can entangle wildlife, especially balloons with attached ribbons. Balloon debris can even have an economic impact on communities, contributing to dirty beaches which drive away tourists, or causing power outages from mylar balloons covered in metallic paint and their ribbons tangling in power lines.

Balloon debris is a national issue and unfortunately, the Mid-Atlantic is not immune. Over a period of five years (2010-2014), 4,916 pieces of balloon litter were found in Virginia by volunteers participating in the International Coastal Cleanup, with over 3,000 of those pieces found on ocean beaches. In 2014, 236 volunteers found over 900 balloons in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia in a three-hour period. Recent surveys of remote islands on Virginia’s Eastern Shore documented up to 40 balloons per mile of beach. These statistics suggest that this Mid-Atlantic area is appropriate to research the balloon debris issue and to create an education and outreach program that could then be used in other states. So the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, with funding support from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is doing just that. They’re exploring the issue of intentionally-released balloons and targeting that behavior through a social marketing campaign.

Blue and white balloon on beach.

Balloons that are intentionally or accidentally released have to come down somewhere! Unfortunately, they often find their way into our waterways or ocean. (Photo Credit: Russ Lewis)

So what can you do to help reduce balloon debris in the Mid-Atlantic and throughout the country? Consider using alternate decorations at your next celebration such as paper streamers or fabric flags. Rather than giving your child a helium balloon on a string, fill it with air and attach it to a stick—they still get the feeling of it floating above their heads without the risk of losing it into the environment. Most importantly, don’t intentionally release balloons into the air. With increased awareness about the issue, we can all work to reduce this very preventable form of marine debris in the Mid-Atlantic and beyond.