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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Proposed Settlement for St. Louis River Superfund Site

River bank with plants. Image credit: NOAA.

As part of the proposed restoration non-native cattail, seen here, will be removed and replaced with native emergent wetland species such as the culturally important wild rice. Image credit: NOAA

A major Superfund site along the St. Louis River is getting $8.2 million to clean up and restore a portion of the river historically polluted by industrial waste.

The Superfund site is about 255 acres of land and river embayments located primarily in Duluth, Minnesota, and extending into the St. Louis River, including Stryker Bay. High levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other pollutants prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to place the area on the National Priorities List in 1983.

Since 1890, the St. Louis River/Interlake/Duluth Tar site has been an active industrial area and included coking plants, tar and chemical companies, pig iron production, meatpacking, and rail-to-truck transfer stations. High levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are the primary concern.

NOAA and other federal, state, and tribal partners worked with EPA to determine the nature, extent, and effects of the contamination under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund law. The natural resource trustees also have governmental authority to seek compensation under this law for natural resources harmed by decades of industrial wastes and by-products discharged into the St. Louis River.

The proposed settlement includes $6.5 million for restoration activities consistent with a proposed Restoration Plan / Environmental Assessment. Of the possible restoration alternatives, the draft Restoration Plan recommends:

  • Kingsbury Bay: Restoration of a 70-acre shallow, sheltered embayment habitat that will add recreational access areas for fishing and a boat launch, improve habitat, and reduce invasive vegetation.
  • Kingsbury Creek Watershed: Activities to reduce sediment accumulation, improve water quality, and support the shallow sheltered bay habitat of the restored Kingsbury Bay.
  • Wild Rice Restoration: Enhancement of wild rice stands within the estuary.
  • Cultural Education Opportunities: Development of informational displays to communicate importance of the St. Louis River estuary’s cultural and natural resources.

The three polluting companies previously paid approximately $80 million to clean up the Superfund site.

 You can read more about the cleanup and restoration plans, and how to comment on the plans, at our Damage, Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program website.


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Microplastics on National Park Beaches

Two men picking up objects from beach. Image credit NPS.

National Park Service staff collect sand for microplastic and microfiber sampling at Cabrillo National Monument, California. Image credit: NPS, Cabrillo National Monument.

Guest post By:  Stefanie Whitmire, Ph.D., Research Scientist at the Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology & Forest Science, Clemson University

Microplastics are plastic pieces measuring less than five millimeters in size and in recent decades, there have been many studies that indicate a strong presence of this type of debris in marine and coastal environments.

Microplastics can come from a variety of sources. Some microplastics are manufactured at that small size as microbeads, found in products like toothpaste and facial scrubs, or pellets, which are used to make larger plastic items. Microfibers, another type of microplastic debris, come from synthetic items such as rope or clothing (like fleece).

Microplastics also come from the breakdown of larger plastic pieces, such as water bottles and fishing line. Unfortunately, the presence of microplastics in the marine environment poses risks to wildlife. Microplastics ingested by animals can physically damage the digestive tract and potentially expose the animal to chemicals and contaminants associated with the microplastic particle.

To investigate the number and distribution of microplastics on National Park beaches across the United States, researchers at Clemson University collaborated with the National Park Service to collect and analyze sand from 37 coastal National Parks. The study area included parks from the Northeast, Midwest (Great Lakes), West Coast, Alaska, and Pacific Islands. This collaborative effort, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, provided a unique opportunity to quantify microplastic loads from a wide geographic distribution of coastal beaches, capturing a snapshot of microplastics around the country at one moment in time.

Most of the microplastics that were found in this study were in the form of fibers, but beads and plastic fragments were also observed (see microscope images below). The presence of microplastic debris was widespread and found at even the most remote areas, such as secluded parts of Alaska, but the highest recorded amounts of microplastics were at individual parks in the Great Lakes and the Pacific Islands. Interestingly, many sampled sites were far from urban centers but still had over 100 pieces of microplastics per kilogram of sand. This was observed in Alaska, along the northwest Pacific coastline, and the islands in the Pacific.

Man kneeling on beach. Image credit: NPS, Acadia National Park.

National Park Service staff collect sand for microplastic and microfiber sampling at Acadia National Park, Maine. Image credit: NPS, Acadia National Park

However, no clear patterns between quantity of microplastics and geographic features like urban centers or rivers were apparent. This was not completely unexpected given the wide geographic sampling and the numerous local factors that could influence microplastic abundance along these shorelines. For instance, beaches can capture microplastics from both open water bodies (the ocean or lakes) and riverine systems.

Additionally, beaches are dynamic systems, with constant movement of sand and other particles like shells, glass, and plastic. Understanding the movement and turnover of microplastics in beach environments will help us clarify the exposure and risk to wildlife in the future. Overall, this project provided a snapshot of microplastics around the United States and emphasized the pervasive nature of this type of marine debris.

Check out the final report, Quantification of Microplastics on National Park Beaches, for more information on this project. This guest post first appeared on the Marine Debris Program’s blog, visit that blog to read the complete post.


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Science of Oil Spills Training: Apply for Fall 2017

Two people closely examining rocks and seaweed on a shoreline. Image credit: NOAA.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills, and also include a field trip to a local beach to apply newly learned skills. Image credit: NOAA

We are now accepting applications for our next Science of Oil Spills class. The class will run the week of Nov. 13 in Anchorage, Alaska.

The Office of Response and Restoration is a leader in providing scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard in spill response and in training emergency responders.

Our Emergency Response Division created the Science of Oil Spills class –called SOS– for the new and mid-level spill responder to educate them on the fundamentals of spill response. We offer several classes a year and train about 160 students annually.

Science of Oil Spills class topics include:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

Throughout the training, an overarching theme will be answering the five key questions that help guide spill response:

  • What was spilled?
  • Where could it go?
  • What will it affect?
  • What harm could it cause?
  • What can be done to help?

To reinforce the classroom lectures and exercise, the students will also participate in field activities.

We will accept applications for the Anchorage class until Friday, Sept. 8. Applicants will be notified of their acceptance status by Friday, Sept. 29, via email.

To view the topics for the next class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB]. Please understand that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. We try to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences, to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


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Portland Harbor Superfund Site Restoration Plan Announced

The St. Johns Bridge spans the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. Image credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The St. Johns Bridge spans the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. Image credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

NOAA announced a plan to restore natural resources in the Portland Harbor Superfund site, an 11-mile stretch of the Willamette River with several areas of contaminated sediments from more than 100 years of industrial and urban uses.

The river has been a hub of the Oregon city’s maritime commerce since the 1900s, and is still at the center of Portland’s commercial and recreational activities. Pollution from industrial and urban uses prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to declare it a Superfund site in 2000.

NOAA and the other members of the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council recently released the Portland Harbor Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and Restoration Plan. The plan evaluates several alternatives and outlines the council’s chosen approach: Integrated Habitat Restoration. Officials believe the integrated plan will result in habitat restoration projects that benefit a wide variety of fish and wildlife that may have been harmed by contamination.

This integrated approach focuses on the habitat needs shared by many species, with a particular focus on juvenile Chinook salmon. It also establishes a geographic boundary to guide the location of restoration projects.

The Trustee Council seeks projects that will achieve the following:

  • Restore natural hydrology and floodplain function
  • Reestablish floodplain and riparian plant communities
  • Improve aquatic and riparian habitat
  • Increase habitat complexity
  • Provide connectivity to other habitats in the area
  • Restore recreation along the river while avoiding negative impacts to habitat

To read details of the plan, visit the Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program website.


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Working to Help Save Sea Turtles

Leatherback sea turtle swimming. Image credit: NOAA.

The leatherback is the largest turtle–and one of the largest living reptiles–in the world. Leatherbacks are commonly known as pelagic (open ocean) animals, but they also forage in coastal waters, including the Gulf. Image credit: NOAA.

Sea turtles are among the most popular marine reptiles and have been in Earth’s ocean for more than 100 million years. Unfortunately, today sea turtles struggle to survive. Of the seven species of sea turtles, six are found in United States waters and all of those species are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

One of the most devastating incidents to the survival of sea turtles was the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Both during the spill and in the aftermath, we worked with the Office of Protected Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners, to understand the extent of harm to sea turtles from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

For instance, it’s estimated that between 56,000 to 166,000 sea turtles were killed because of the spill. A special issue of Endangered Species Research features 20 scientific articles summarizing the impacts of the oil spill on protected species such as sea turtles and marine mammals.

The scientific studies, conducted by NOAA and partners, document the unprecedented mortality rate and long-term environmental impacts of the oil’s exposure to sea turtles. Findings from these research studies, in addition to other studies on other parts of the ecosystem, formed the basis of the natural resources damage assessment settlement with BP for up to $8.8 billion.

Additionally, our environmental response management software allows anyone to download the data from a scientific study, and then see that data on a map.

Our studies not only documented the injuries to sea turtles and other Gulf of Mexico plant and animal species, but also helped the entire scientific community understand the effects of oil spills on nature and our coastal communities.

You can learn more about our work with sea turtles and our studies from Deepwater Horizon in the flowing articles:

How Do Oil Spills Affect Sea Turtles?

What’s It Like Saving Endangered Baby Sea Turtles in Costa Rica?

Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Sea Turtles and Marine Mammals

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

Oil and Sea Turtles: Biology, Planning, and Response

ERMA map of sea turtles in the Gulf. Image credit: NOAA.

This view of ERMA® Deepwater Gulf Response, our online mapping tool, displays sea turtle data from response efforts and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. This site served a critical role in the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and remains a valuable reference. Image credit: NOAA


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Celebrating and Protecting the Ocean all Year

Ocean sunset. Image credit: NOAA

Ocean sunset. Image credit: NOAA

 

At NOAA’s National Ocean Service, which includes the Office of Response and Restoration, we are honoring all things ocean the entire month of June. As we commemorate this interconnected body of water that sustains our planet, consider how each of us can be involved in both celebrating and protecting the ocean.

Act to Protect the Ocean

Feeling inspired by our amazing ocean? Here are actions you can take to protect it from its many threats:

You can learn even more about protecting the ocean from our Marine Debris Program. To learn more about the ocean and coastal areas consider visiting a National Marine Sanctuary or National Estuarine Research Reserve  and getting a hands-on education.

The more we all know and care about the ocean, the more we will do to take care of it. Together, we can protect the ocean.


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Incident Responses for May 2017

Gray whale rising from the ocean. Image credit: NOAA.

Gray whales are found mainly in shallow coastal waters in the North Pacific Ocean. Image credit: NOAA

Every month our Emergency Response Division provides scientific expertise and services to the U.S. Coast Guard on everything from running oil spill trajectories to model where the spill may spread, to possible effects on wildlife and fisheries, and estimates on how long the oil may stay in the environment.

In May, there were two incidents of dead gray whales in Washington state, one floating offshore near Long Beach, and another washed ashore in Bellingham Bay. In both cases, we were asked for trajectories.

In the case of a whale found floating at sea, we use our GNOME trajectory modeling software to map the possible drift route of the carcass. When a whale washes ashore, one of the things that officials need to know is how far they have to tow the carcass back out to sea to ensure it will not wash back to shore.

Our Incident News website has information on oil spills and other incidents where we provided scientific support.

Here are some of this month’s responses: