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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Restoration: The Other Part of Spill Response

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Grass and water at sunset with bridge in background.

From landfill to vibrant tidal marsh, the wetland restoration at Lincoln Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, was funded from multiple oil spill settlements and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This project restored a significant area of coastal wetlands in New York-New Jersey harbor’s Arthur Kill ecosystem. (NOAA)

Typically, during an oil spill or chemical release, media images show emergency responders dressed in protective gear, skimming oil off the ocean’s surface or combing coastal beaches for oiled animals.

As dramatic as they are, those images can leave the impression that cleaning up after a spill is the end of the story. Often the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues working on spills years after response efforts have ended, determining how to restore the environment.

OK, it’s not really a myth we’re busting here, maybe a misconception. Let’s chat about the less visible task of long term restoration after an oil spill.

When a spill happens, there are two tasks for those who caused the spill, clean up the spilled oil or chemical released, and restore the environment.

That first responsibility, cleaning up the mess, is the subject of those media photos. It’s the immediate actions taken to scoop up the oil, clear the beaches, and rescue wildlife. It was not long after the Exxon Valdez spill that a television commercial appeared featuring a liquid dish soap used to wash birds covered in oil. That commercial has become so identified with oil spills, it’s practically the first thing that comes to mind when people start talking about oil spills.

Now, what happens when I ask you to picture long-term restoration after an oil spill? What do you see? Having a hard time picturing it? That’s because restoring the environment takes time, often years. Restoration doesn’t lend itself to immediate imagery.

It may not be the subject of a soap commercial, or be very visible to the public, but it’s the second half of the story after the emergency crews are gone.

So what does restoring the environment after a spill look like? Well it can start with scientists taking samples of an oiled fish and conclude with the construction of new wetlands. The Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program restores natural resources injured during an oil spill, release of hazardous materials, or vessel grounding to fully compensate the public for losses.

To ensure that fish, wildlife, and critical habitats like beaches, wetlands and corals impacted by a spill are restored a specific process is followed that includes:

  • Assess the Injury: Quantify injuries to the environment, including lost recreational uses, by conducting scientific and economic studies
  • Plan the Restoration: Develop a restoration plan that identifies projects and outlines the best methods to restore the impacted environment
  • Hold Polluters Accountable: Ensure that responsible parties pay the costs of assessing injuries and restoring the environment
  • Restore the Environment: Implement projects to restore habitats and resources to the condition they would have been in had the pollution not occurred

NOAA’s job is to not only to restore the environment, but to also evaluate and restore the experience the public lost during an oil spill, like fishing or swimming at the beach. For example, after spilled oil washes on shore, people often can no longer swim, picnic, or play at that beach. Or, there may be fewer or no recreational fishers on a nearby pier. In order to compensate the public for these lost days of enjoying the outdoors NOAA and partners may build restoration projects that improve recreational access to waterways, install boat launches, fishing piers, and hiking trails.

During all this work, it’s important to keep the public informed and to ask for comments and ideas on how an injured area should be restored. Several restoration projects are currently open for public review and comment, read more here.


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Remediation vs. Restoration: A Tale of Two Terms

Tall grass growing in muddy marsh water.

Hazardous substances released over time from a Gulf of Mexico oil refinery required NOAA and its partners to restore intertidal marsh at the Lower Neches Water Management Area in Port Arthur, Texas. Photographed here in 2006. (NOAA)

When rivers, coastal waters or the ocean are polluted, regardless of the source, government agencies begin using terms that may be unfamiliar to the general public. Two common terms used are remediation and restoration.

Remediation and restoration describe actions that return natural areas to healthy communities for fish, wildlife, and people. So what is the difference between remediation and restoration?

What is Remediation?

Remediation is the process of stopping or reducing pollution that is threatening the health of people or wildlife. For example, cleaning up sediments – the bottoms of rivers, lakes, marshes, and the ocean – often involves having to physically remove those sediments. One successful method of removing polluted sediments is dredging. Large buckets scoop up contaminated sediment which is then transported by barge to designated areas for safe disposal.

Mechanical shovel scooping rover water.

Excavator dredging soft sediment from Menominee River near former 8th Street slip. NOAA

The Environmental Protection Agency, along with state agencies, often lead these cleanup efforts. The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) scientists advise agencies on the most effective methods to minimize remaining contamination and how to avoid harm to plants and animals during the cleanup.

The input of these NOAA scientists helps guide cleanup decisions and promotes faster recovery of wildlife and fish using the area, ultimately benefiting not just the environment but the local economies and communities of these formerly contaminated areas.

What is Restoration?

So if remediation is removal and cleanup of pollution, what is left to do? Plenty.

Once the harmful contamination causing pollutants are removed or contained, the next step is to restore the habitat. Restoration is the enhancement, creation, or re-creation of habitats, those places where fish and wildlife live. During this phase, construction projects are often undertaken to return the environment to a healthy functioning ecosystem.

Volunteers planting grass.

Volunteers plant Switch Grass during the 2010 NOAA Restoration Day event at the NOAA Cooperative Oxford Lab in Oxford, Maryland

Remediation controls the pollution, while restoration efforts, like the construction of wetlands and the planting of trees and vegetation, complete the process of providing healthy habitat for fish and wildlife, and ensuring safe environments for people to live and work in.

Remediation and restoration are most effective when they are done together in a coordinated effort. OR&R partners with other federal and state agencies and nonprofit organizations to not only cleanup pollution and restore habitats, but to hold polluters accountable to fund restoration efforts across America.

Some of the many contaminated sites where OR&R’s remediation and restoration work is ongoing include:


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Point vs. Non-Point Water Pollution: What’s the Difference?

Ocean with black smoke from burning oil.

In July 2010, responders used in situ burns to remove oil in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

Water pollution comes in many forms, from toxic chemicals to trash. The sources of water pollution are also varied, from factories to drain pipes. In general, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) classifies water pollution into two categories; point source and non-point source pollution.

Point Source Pollution

Point source pollution is defined as coming from a single point, such as a factory or sewage treatment plant. Here are a few examples of point source pollution OR&R worked on.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Gulf of Mexico — Releasing about 134 million gallons of oil the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the largest point source of oil pollution in United States history.

Mosaic Acidic Water Release, Florida — On Sept. 5, 2004, acidic water was released during Hurricane Frances from Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC’s storage containment system. The spill polluted nearly 10 acres of seagrass beds and more than 135 acres of wetland habitats, including almost 80 acres of mangroves.

Montrose Hazardous Releases, California — From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, millions of pounds of DDT and polychlorinated biphenyl were discharged into ocean waters off the southern California coast. Most of the DDT originated from the Montrose Chemical Corporation manufacturing plant located in Torrance, California. In 2001, NOAA and other federal and state agencies reached a settlement with the polluters, establishing the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP).

Non-Point Solution Pollution

Runoff from urban and suburban areas is a major origin of non-point source pollution. Discarded trash can become a component of non-point source pollution runoff. For the last 10 years, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program has been tackling non-point pollution of marine debris by leading research, prevention, and removal projects. Here are a few examples of non-point source pollution the Marine Debris Program worked on.

Tijuana River, California — The large amounts of trash and larger debris that wash downstream threaten and degrade the Tijuana River Valley’s valuable ecological, cultural, recreational, and economic resources. A grant from NOAA funds work that includes the removal and disposal of debris that accumulates behind large trash booms designed to block debris from flowing into the ocean.

Netting across river with trash on one side.

As the water flows in the Tijuana River, debris accumulates behind large trash booms that block the debris from flowing into the ocean. (Photo Credit: CA State Parks)

Shuyak Island, Alaska — With the support of a Marine Debris Program grant, the Island Trails Network (ITN) is leading an innovative two-year effort to remove marine debris from a remote island in Alaska. Working with 100 volunteers and trained crew, ITN created a kayak-based cleanup operation to remove about 40,000 pounds of marine debris from Shuyak Island. The island — a remote location with critical habitat for numerous species of birds, fish, and marine mammals — accumulates large amounts of marine debris because of ocean currents and winds.

 


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An Estuary in the Shadow of Seattle

People working at marsh's edge.

Volunteers help restore the Duwamish River by planting native vegetation at an Earth Day event hosted at Codiga Park, April 2008. (NOAA)

Update: It’s been announced that a proposed settlement was reached with Seattle to resolve its liability for injured natural resources. Seattle has purchased restoration credits from Bluefield Holdings Inc., a company that develops restoration projects. The city’s credit purchase totals approximately $3.5 million worth of restoration. This is the first natural resource damages settlement to fund restoration through the purchase of credits by a restoration development company. For more details: https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/city-seattle-agrees-natural-resource-damages-settlement-using-new-market-based-approach

What makes river water flow in one direction in the morning and change direction in the afternoon? Tides.

Where the Duwamish River meets Puget Sound in Washington state this shift of water flow happens daily. The Duwamish pours into the salty waters of Puget Sound, making it Seattle’s downtown estuary. The powerful tides that fill and drain the sound push and pull on the Duwamish causing a shift in directions at the river’s estuary.

This estuary does not look like the estuaries from high school text books. It no longer has a wide delta where the freshwater river fans out to meet the salty ocean. Instead, it looks like a channelized waterway. Almost all of the Duwamish estuarine wetlands and mudflats have been lost to dredging or filling for industrial purposes. Restoring the Duwamish‘s estuary is a massive challenge—requiring government agencies, industry, and the public to work together.

Aerial view of city with river.

Aerial photograph of the Lower Duwamish River. Harbor Island and Elliott Bay are shown in the top left and downtown Seattle in the top center of the photograph. (NOAA)

I am happy to report a significant step forward in this collaboration. NOAA recently produced key answers to some tough questions, based on lessons we learned as we worked on this restoration effort: What works the best to restore this highly urban and developed river and estuary? What are some of the key obstacles we encountered?

Main challenges for restoring the Duwamish:

  • Dealing with costs and challenges of existing contamination
  • Preventing erosion of new restoration
  • Keeping newly-planted vegetation alive—geese and other wildlife love to eat newly planted restoration sites

Key lessons learned for successful restoration:

  • Plan for uncertainty: the most common issue for restoration in urban areas is discovering unexpected challenges, such as sediment contamination during construction.
  • Allow for ongoing maintenance: Restoration isn’t over just because a project is complete. To ensure the long-term success of restoration efforts, continued stewardship of the site is necessary and should be included in project planning.
  • Get the biggest bang for your buck: When companies conduct cleanups of their sites, it is most cost effective to conduct restoration at the same time.
River with grid strung above it.

Geese inside goose exclusion fencing at Boeing Project. (Credit: Boeing)

The challenges and recommendations are only a snapshot of what can be found in the NOAA report, Habitat Restoration in an Urban Waterway: Lessons Learned from the Lower Duwamish River. While the Duwamish estuary may look nothing like it did historically, it is important to always be reminded that it is still full of life. From salmon to kayakers to industry, the estuary serves a key role in the Seattle community. Learn more about what we are doing to restore the Duwamish River.


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After Pollution Strikes, Restoring the Lost Cultural Bond Between Tribes and the Environment

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the range of values and benefits that coastal areas offer people—including what we stand to lose when oil spills and chemical pollution harm nature and how we work to restore our lost uses of nature afterward. Read all the stories.

A young boy hangs humpback whitefish on a drying rack next to a river.

Restoring the deep cultural ties between native communities and the environment is an important and challenging part of restoration after oil spills and chemical releases. Here, a boy from the Alaska Native village of Shungnak learns to hang dry humpback whitefish. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

When I’ve heard residents of the Alaskan Arctic speak about the potential impacts of an oil spill, I don’t hear any lines of separation between the oil spill causing injury to the environment and injury to the community.

Their discussions about the potential harm to walrus or seals inevitably include how this will impact the community’s ability to hunt for food, which affects both their food security and traditions. The cultures of these communities are inextricably tied to the land and sea.

So I ask myself, in the wake of an oil spill in the Arctic, how would we begin to restore that bond between the environment and the communities who live there? How can we even begin to make up for the lost hunting trips between grandparents and grandkids that don’t happen because of an oil spill? Furthermore, how could we help restore the lost knowledge that gets passed down between generations during such activities?

We know nothing can truly replace those vital cultural exchanges and activities that don’t occur because of pollution, but we have to try. Thanks to our federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment laws, polluters are made accountable for these lost cultural uses of natural resources, as well as for the harm to affected lands, waters, plants, and animals.

An Alaska Native expert teaches two boys how to cut and prepare pike for drying.

Many ideas for cultural restoration after pollution center around the concept of teaching youth the traditional ways of using natural resources. Here, students from the Alaska Native village of Selawik learn to cut a pike for drying from a local expert. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Here are a few examples of our efforts to restore these cultural uses of coastal resources after they’ve been harmed by oil and chemical spills, as well as some ideas for the future.

Community Camps in Alaska

When the M/V Kuroshima ran around on Unalaska Island, Alaska, in November 1997, approximately 39,000 gallons of heavy oil spilled into Summer Bay, Unalaska’s prime recreational beach. As a result of the spill, access to the bay and its beach was closed off or restricted for several months.

In an effort to restore the lost use of their beach, the local Qawalangin Tribe received funding for an outdoor summer recreational camp, which focuses on tribal and cultural projects such as traditional subsistence harvesting techniques for shellfish and activities with Unangan elders in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. To ensure the safety of local seafoods eaten by the tribe, NOAA also arranged for further chemical analysis of shellfish tissues and educated the community about the results.

Cultural Apprenticeships in New York

Years of aluminum and hydraulic fluid manufacturing released toxic substances such as PCBs into New York’s St. Lawrence River, near the Canadian border. This history of pollution robbed the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, whose Mohawk name is Akwesasne, of the full ability to practice numerous culturally important activities, such as fishing. Legal settlements with those responsible for the pollution have provided funding for the tribe to implement cultural programs to help make up for those losses.

But first, representatives from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe conducted oral history research, hosted community outreach meetings, and solicited restoration project ideas from the community. As a result of these efforts, they determined that two main components of restoration [PDF] were necessary: an apprenticeship program and funding for cultural institutions and programs.

The long-term, master-apprentice relationship program focuses on the four areas of traditional cultural practices that were harmed by the release of hazardous contaminants into the St. Lawrence River and surrounding area. This program also promotes and supports the regeneration of practices associated with traditions in these four areas:

  • Water, fishing, and use of the river.
  • „Horticulture and basketmaking.
  • „Medicinal plants and healing.
  • Hunting and trapping.

Hands-on experience and Mohawk language training are also integral parts of the apprenticeship program.

In addition to this program, resources have been provided to a number of existing Akwesasne-based programs that have already begun the work of responding to the cultural harm caused by this contamination. One example is providing opportunities for Akwesasne youth and surrounding communities to receive outdoor educational experience in a natural and safe location for traditional teachings, such as respect for the land and survival skills.

Planning for the Worst and Hoping for the Best in the Arctic

Whales, polar bears, and walrus carved into a bowhead whale jawbone.

We need to work closely with each tribe affected by an oil spill or chemical release to help them achieve the cultural connection with nature affected by pollution. You can see this connection in action at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska, where local artists carve traditional icons into the jawbone of a bowhead whale. (NOAA)

Discussions with Alaskan Arctic communities have yielded similar suggestions of potential forms of cultural restoration after pollution. A 2012 multi-day workshop with communities in Kotzebue, Alaska, generated an initial list of ideas, including:

  • Teaching traditional celebrations (e.g., foot races and dances).
  • Teaching subsistence practices and survival techniques.
  • Supporting science fairs with an environmental restoration focus.
  • Maintaining and transferring hunting knowledge by educating youth on proper whale, seal, and walrus hunting methods.

This last idea is particularly intriguing and would involve preparing a “virtual hunt” curriculum on how to shoot whales so they can be recovered, how to butcher an animal, and sharing the results of the hunt with others.

After working here at NOAA since 2008, I can rattle off plenty of restoration ideas for an oiled beach, or oiled birds. But when it comes to restoring lost cultural uses of the environment, there are no off-the-shelf project ideas.

Each tribe is unique and how one tribe’s members interact with their natural environment may not be the same as another tribe’s. While there may be similar themes we can build upon, such as teaching language and harvesting skills, we need to work closely with each tribe affected by an oil or chemical spill to help them achieve once again what pollution has taken away.


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Expanding a Washington River’s Floodplain to Protect Northwest Salmon and Communities

Bridge over industrial waterway in Tacoma and view of Mt. Rainier.

Mt. Rainier looms over the Thea Foss Waterway as it leads out to Commencement Bay, the industrial heart of Tacoma, Washington. Two new restoration projects will make up for the natural resource damages caused by organizations releasing hazardous substances into this and a neighboring waterway. (Photo: Kendrick Hang, Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

From the edge of the Emmons Glacier on Washington’s tallest peak, the scenic White River winds down the mountain, through forest, and joins the Puyallup River before finally reaching the sea at an industrial port in the city of Tacoma.

Here, in the salty waters of Puget Sound’s Commencement Bay, iconic Northwest salmon start their own journey in reverse. These fish head up waterways toward Mt. Rainier, where they were born, where they will spawn, and where they will die.

Recently NOAA and our partners announced a restoration project that will improve the floodplain of the White River for migrating fish. One of Mt. Rainier’s largest rivers and one of Puget Sound’s most important areas for imperiled salmon and steelhead, the White River has been re-routed and re-engineered for longer than a century.

This restoration was made possible by the U.S. Department of Justice’s August 6, 2015 announcement that more than 56 parties have agreed to restore key salmon habitat on the White River. The settlement will also permanently preserve intertidal habitat in Wheeler Osgood Waterway in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay. Fulfilling these restoration projects will resolve their liability for natural resource damages caused by releasing hazardous substances into the bay’s Thea Foss and Wheeler-Osgood Waterways.

Person along the wooded edge of a river in Washington.

One restoration project will set back levees on the White River and widen its previously re-engineered floodplain. This will create better habitat for migrating fish to feed, rest, and spawn, as well as offer improved flood protection for nearby homes and businesses. (NOAA)

The White River project will not only help protect the region’s salmon but also its communities as it sets back levees and widens the floodplain. By restoring fish habitat and providing slower-moving side channels on the river, the proposed project will reopen 121 acres of historic floodplain around the river. Allowing floodwaters more room to flow, this project will also help reduce the risk of flood damage for more than 200 nearby homes and businesses.

The latest project will continue a long legacy of ensuring those responsible for releasing hazardous materials—from industrial chemicals such as PCBs to heavy metals including lead and zinc—into Commencement Bay are held accountable for restoring public natural resources. This is the 20th natural resources settlement related to pollution in Commencement Bay, which is the industrial heart of Tacoma. Through these settlements, more than 350 acres of Puget Sound habitat will have been restored, offsetting impacts to salmon, other fish, and wildlife harmed by pollution in the bay.

Those responsible for the pollution will monitor and adaptively manage the project under a 10-year plan that ensures at least 32.5 acres of the restoration site are inundated by the river and thus accessible to fish. They also will pay more than $1 million toward the natural resource trustees’—including NOAA’s—assessment, oversight and the long-term stewardship costs of maintaining the project over the next 100 years and beyond.


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

Last summer NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) traveled to the remote Adak Island in Alaska to help salmon return to their historical home by removing barriers from Helmet Creek. We headed back out this September to see how things were going. As you can see from our photos, the salmon seem to be big fans of our 2013 restoration work.

Our mission this September was to monitor the success of these habitat restoration efforts and make sure no new problems have occurred since then. A survey of the creek quickly showed that salmon are now pushing as far upstream as naturally possibly, allowing them to enter formerly impassable areas with ease. Now the only thing preventing salmon from continuing further upstream is a natural waterfall.

During this visit, Helmet Creek was teaming with Pink and Chum salmon. One walk of the roughly two kilometer (one and a quarter mile) portion of stream resulted in our counting more than 600 adult salmon, over half of which were beyond the areas where we had removed fish passage barriers.

Salmon swimming underwater in a creek.

Salmon make their way upstream in Helmet Creek, further than they have been able to access in years thanks to our restoration work. (NOAA)

Before we stepped in to restore Helmet Creek, salmon were hitting a number of man-made obstacles preventing them from getting to the natural areas where they reproduce, known as their spawning grounds. In 2013 we removed these fish barriers, pulling out a number of 55-gallon drums and grates, all of which were impeding the salmon’s ability to swim upstream and covering their spawning grounds.

While seeing all these active fish is exciting, we are also looking forward to the ways these fish will continue helping the environment after they die. As salmon are now able to travel further upstream, they will take valuable nutrients with them too. After spawning, these pink and chum salmon will die and their decaying carcasses will return extremely valuable nutrients to the stream habitat and surrounding area. These nutrients will provide benefits to resident trout, vegetation, and birds nearby.

Restoration of Helmet Creek resulted from our work to restore the environment after a 2010 oil spill on the remote Adak Island, part of Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain. Through DARRP, we worked with our partners to determine how the environment was injured and how best to restore habitat. You can read more about our efforts in—and the unusual challenges of—assessing these environmental impacts to salmon and Helmet Creek.