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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Tips for Preventing Small-Vessel Oil Spills

Oily sheen on water in a marsh.

Oily sheen in a marsh. (NOAA)

Though each one is small in volume, oil spills from small vessels add up. In Washington State, when you multiply this volume by the thousands of fishing and recreational boats on the water, they compose the largest source of oil pollution in Puget Sound. How do small oil spills happen? The two most common causes are spillage during refueling and bilge discharge, when oil accumulates along with water in the bottommost compartment of a boat and then gets pumped out..

I sat down with Aaron Barnett, Washington Sea Grant’s Boating Specialist and the coordinator of Washington’s Small Oil Spills Prevention Program, to find out what boaters can do to prevent small spills. He offered this handy checklist of measures for keeping your vessel in ship-shape and stopping spills before they become a problem.

Small Spills Prevention Checklist

Vessel maintenance

  • Tighten bolts on your engine to prevent oil leaks. Bolts can shake loose with engine use.
  • Replace cracked or worn hydraulic lines and fittings before they fail. Lines can wear out from sun and heat exposure or abrasion.
  • Outfit your engine with an oil tray or drip pan. You don’t need anything fancy or expensive; a cookie sheet or paint tray will do the trick.
  • Create your own bilge sock out of oil absorbent pads to prevent oily water discharge. Here’s a helpful how-to guide from Cap’n Mike (Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor Mike Brough).

At the pump

  • Avoid overflows while refueling by knowing the capacity of your tank and leaving some room for fuel expansion.
  • Shut off your bilge pump while refueling – don’t forget to turn it back on when done.
  • Use an absorbent pad or a fuel collar to catch drips. Always keep a stash handy.

If spills do happen, it’s important that boaters manage them effectively. Spills should immediately be contained and cleaned up with absorbent pads or boomed to prevent their spread. Notify the Coast Guard and your state spill response office, per federal law, and let the marina or fuel dock staff know about the incident, so they can assist.

Man with spill prevention kit.

Seattle recreational boater Greg Mueller placing an absorbent oil spill prevention kit pillow in the engine bilge. (Lauren Drakopulos, Washington Sea Grant)

Lauren Drakopulos is a Science Communications Fellow with Washington Sea Grant and is pursuing her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Washington. Lauren has worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and her current research looks at community engagement in fisheries science. Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, provides statewide marine research, outreach and education services. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) U.S. Department of Commerce. Visit www.wsg.washington.edu for more information or join the conversation @WASeaGrant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This story was written by Lauren Drakopulos of Washington Sea Grant.


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How Do You Begin to Clean up a Century of Pollution on New Jersey’s Passaic River?

A mechanical dredge pulls contaminated sediment from the bottom of the Passaic River.

A mechanical dredge removes sediment from an area with high dioxin concentrations on the Passaic River, adjacent to the former Diamond Alkali facility in Newark, New Jersey. (NOAA)

Dozens of companies share responsibility for the industrial pollution on New Jersey’s Passaic River, and several Superfund sites dot the lower portion of the river. But one of the perhaps best-known of these companies (and Superfund sites) is Diamond Alkali.

In the mid-20th century, Diamond Alkali (later Diamond Shamrock Chemicals Company) and others manufactured pesticides and herbicides, including those constituting “Agent Orange,” along the Passaic. The toxic waste from these activities left an undeniable mark on the river, which winds about 80 miles through northern New Jersey until it meets the Hackensack River and forms Newark Bay.

Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with support from the natural resource trustees, including NOAA, U.S. Department of Interior, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the New York State Department of Environmental Protection, has released a plan to clean up the lower eight miles of the Passaic River, which passes through Newark.

Those lower eight miles are where 90 percent of the river’s contaminated sediments are located [PDF] and addressing contamination in this section of the river is an important first step.

A History of War

Ruins of an old railroad bridge end part way over the Passaic River.

Ruins of an old Central Railroad of New Jersey bridge along the Passaic River hint at a bustling era of industrialization gone by. (Credit: Joseph, Creative Commons)

A major contributor to that contamination came from what is known as Agent Orange, a mix of “tactical herbicides,” which the U.S. military sprayed from 1962 to 1971 during the Vietnam War. These herbicides removed tropical foliage hiding enemy soldiers.

However, an unwanted byproduct of manufacturing Agent Orange was the extremely toxic dioxin known as TCDD. Dioxins are commonly released into the environment from burning waste, diesel exhaust, chemical manufacturing, and other processes. The EPA classifies TCDD as a human carcinogen (cause of cancer).

Pollution on the Passaic River stretches back more than two centuries, but its 20th century industrial history has left traces of dioxins, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds in sediments of the Passaic River and surrounding the Diamond Alkali site. Testing in the early 1980s confirmed this contamination, and the area was added to the National Priorities List, becoming a Superfund site in 1984.

Many of these contaminants persist for a long time in the environment, meaning concentrations of them have declined very little in the last 20 years. As a result of this pollution, no one should eat fish or crab caught from the Lower Passaic River, a 17 mile stretch of river leading to Newark Bay.

Finding a Solution

But how do you clean up such a complex and toxic history? The federal and state trustees for the Lower Passaic River provided technical support as EPA grappled with this question, debating two possible cleanup options, or “remedies,” for the river. The cleanup option EPA ultimately settled on involves dredging 3.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments from the river bottom and removing those sediments from the site. Then, a two-foot-deep “cap” made of sand and stone will be placed over contaminated sediments remaining at the bottom of the river.

This will be an enormous effort—one cubic yard is roughly the size of a standard dishwasher. According to NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator Reyhan Mehran, it will be one of the largest dredging projects in Superfund history. While the entire project could take more than ten years, Judith Enck, EPA Regional Administrator for New York, has pointed out that the process involves “cleaning up over a century of toxic pollution.”

A Tale of Two Remedies

Aerial view of New York City skyline, Newark, and industrial river landscape.

Manhattan skyline from over Newark, New Jersey. The view is across the confluence of the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers and shows the industrial buildup in the area. (Credit: Doc Searls, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Mehran describes the alternatives analysis as a complicated one—choosing between two cleanup remedies, the one described above and an “in-water” disposal solution. This second approach called for removing the contaminated sediments from the riverbed and burying them in Newark Bay, in what is known as a “confined aquatic disposal cell.” That essentially involves digging a big hole in the bottom of the bay, removing the clean sediments for use elsewhere, filling it with the contaminated sediments, and capping it to keep everything in place.

While the less expensive of the two options, serious concerns were raised about the potential effect this in-water solution would have on the long-term ecosystem health of Newark Bay.

The chosen remedy, which calls for removing the contaminated sediment from the riverbed and transporting it away by rail to a remote site on land, was selected as the better solution for the long-term health of the ecosystem. Finding the best option incorporated the scientific support and analysis of NOAA and the trustees.

As NOAA’s Mehran explains, “The site, with some of the highest concentrations of dioxins in sediment, is in the middle of one of the most densely populated parts of our nation, which makes the threat to public resources tremendous.”

While the upper and middle segments of the Passaic River flow through forests and natural marshes, areas bordering the lower river are densely populated and industrial. Because of industrialization, habitat for wildlife within Newark Bay has already been severely altered, yet the bay’s shallow waters continue to provide critically needed habitat for fish such as winter flounder, migratory birds including herons and egrets, and numerous other species.

“The watershed of the Lower Passaic River and Newark Bay is highly developed,” emphasizes Mehran, “and the resulting scarcity of ecological habitat makes it all the more valuable and important to protect and restore.”

Learn more about the cleanup plan for the Lower Passaic River [PDF].

Photo of Jersey Central Ruins used courtesy of Joseph, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Photo of Manhattan skyline with Passaic and Hackensack Rivers used courtesy of Doc Searls, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


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Restoration on the Way for New Jersey’s Raritan River, Long Polluted by Industrial Waste

The Raritan River as it runs through a wooded area.

A draft restoration plan and environmental assessment is now available for the American Cyanamid Superfund Site which affected the Raritan River in northern New Jersey. Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Update: Oct, 20, 2016—Restoration for the Raritan River moved one step closer with the U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement of a settlement for the American Cyanamid Superfund Site. Details can be found here.

Following years of intensive cleanup and assessment at the American Cyanamid Superfund Site, NOAA and our partners are now accepting public comment on a draft restoration plan and environmental assessment [PDF] for this northern New Jersey site.

For many years, the 575 acre site located along the Raritan River in Bridgewater Township was used by the American Cyanamid Company for chemical manufacturing and coal tar distillation.

However, chemical wastes released during manufacturing at the facility harmed natural resources in the sediments and surface waters of the Raritan River and its tributaries. The facility was designated a Superfund site in 1983 due to contamination by a variety of toxic substances including mercury, chromium, arsenic, lead, and PCBs.

The area affected by the contamination provides habitat for a variety of migratory fish, such as alewife, blueback herring, striped bass, rainbow smelt, American shad, American eel, and other aquatic life. In addition, large numbers of birds nest, forage, and migrate along the Raritan River, from raptors and songbirds to waterfowl and shorebirds.

Over the years, NOAA has worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ensure a thorough cleanup to protect natural resources in the Raritan River watershed. NOAA and our co-trustees, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, evaluated the extent of injury in the river and determined the best path toward restoration.

An Industrial History

Factories and trains at the American Cyanamid chemical manufacturing site, 1940.

The American Cyanamid Company, shown here circa 1940, produced fertilizers, cyanide, and other chemical products whose wastes were released directly into the Raritan River for decades. (Photographer unknown)

The American Cyanamid Company got its start in the early 1900s by developing an effective fertilizer ingredient, a compound of nitrogen, lime, and carbide called cyanamid. By the early 1920s, the company, whose focus had been primarily agricultural products, began producing cyanide for use in gold and silver extraction and hydrocyanic acid, important to rubber production.

Over the next several decades, the American Cyanamid Company diversified, adding chemicals, plastics, dyes, and resins to their growing line of products. Further expanding into pharmaceuticals, the company provided valuable medical products to the World War II effort.

Starting in the 1920s and continuing up to the 1980s, chemical waste associated with the company’s manufacturing practices became an issue. For decades, chemical waste was released directly into the Raritan River.

Waste treatment began in 1940, which meant it was buried at the site or stored in unlined “impoundments,” or reservoirs. That practice stopped in 1979 and dye manufacturing ended three years later. By 1985 there was no more direct discharge into the Raritan River and manufacturing at the site ceased in 1999. It is estimated that over time, 800,000 tons of chemical wastes were buried at the site.

A New Chapter for the Raritan River

The American Cyanamid site on the Raritan River in New Jersey.

The draft restoration plan for the Raritan River aims to restore passage for migratory fish while improving water quality and habitat due to years of industrial pollution at the American Cyanamid manufacturing site. (NOAA)

The restoration plan and environmental assessment were created by NOAA in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The plan proposes restoration actions that will compensate for any injuries to the river and related natural resources.

A major component of the restoration would be the removal of the Weston Mill Dam, near the confluence of the Millstone and Raritan Rivers. The original dam, a barrier to migratory fish, is thought to have been built around 1700 to power a mill. Removal of the current dam, a 1930s-era concrete replacement of the original, will help to achieve the restoration goals of restoring passage for migratory fish while improving water quality and habitat.

As explained in the plan, removing this dam will return the flow of the Raritan River and the streams it feeds closer to their natural states and do so without negative impacts to endangered species or cultural, sociological, or archaeological resources.

Long situated in an area of industrial activity, the American Cyanamid Superfund Site is only one of several contaminated sites along the Raritan River and its tributaries. Many of these sites are now being remediated, and the watershed is being restored.

According to NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator, Reyhan Mehran, “While it’s likely that this site is among those that contributed to the general degradation of the Raritan River over the last century, the site’s cleanup and compensatory projects will be important parts of the story of restoring the Raritan.”

Learn how to comment on the draft restoration plan and environmental assessment.


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Working to Reverse the Legacy of Lead in New Jersey’s Raritan Bay

Person standing at a fenced-off beach closed to the public.

Some of the beach front at Old Bridge Waterfront Park in New Jersey’s Raritan Bay Slag Superfund site is closed to fishing, swimming, and sunbathing due to lead contamination leaching from metal slag used in the construction of a seawall and to fortify a jetty. (NOAA)

Once lined with reeds, oysters, and resort towns, New Jersey’s Raritan Bay, like many other bodies of water, today is feeling the effects of industrial transformation begun decades ago.

Around 1925, the National Lead Company became the largest lead company in the United States. The company is perhaps best known for their white-lead paints, sold under the Dutch Boy label. One of its many facilities was located in Perth Amboy, a town on the western edge of Raritan Bay, where it operated a lead smelter that generated wastes containing lead and other hazardous substances.

A Toxic Toll

Illustration of a little boy painting used in Dutch Boy paints logo.

This image was adopted by the National Lead Company in 1913 for its Dutch Boy paints. A version of it still is in use today. (New York Public Library Digital Collections/Public domain)

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, slag from National Lead’s lead smelter in Perth Amboy was used as building material to construct a seawall along the southern shoreline of Raritan Bay, several miles to the south of the facility.

Slag is a stony waste by-product of smelting or refining processes containing various metals. Slag, battery casings, and demolition debris were used to fill in some areas of a nearby marsh and littered the marsh and beaches along the bay.

In September 1972, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection received a tip that the slag being placed along Raritan Bay at the Laurence Harbor beachfront contained lead.

Over time, contamination from the slag and other wastes began leaching into the water, soil, and sediments of Raritan Bay, which is home to a variety of aquatic life, including flounder, clams, and horseshoe crabs, but evidence of the pollution only became available decades later.

Cleaner Futures

By 2007 the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had confirmed high levels of lead and other metals in soils of Old Bridge Waterfront Park on Raritan Bay’s south shore. State and local officials put up temporary fencing and warning signs and notified the public about health concerns stemming from the lead in the seawall.

The following year, New Jersey asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider cleaning up contaminated areas along the seawall because of the elevated levels of metals. By November 2009, the EPA confirmed the contamination and declared this polluted area in and near Old Bridge Waterfront Park a Superfund site (called Raritan Bay Slag Superfund site). They installed signs and fencing at a creek, marsh, and some beaches to restrict access and protect public health.

In May 2013 EPA selected a cleanup strategy, known as a “remedy,” to address risks to the public and environment from the pollution, and in January 2014 they ordered NL Industries, which in 1971 had changed its name from the National Lead Company, to conduct a $79 million cleanup along Raritan Bay.

Cleanup will involve digging up and dredging the slag, battery casings, associated waste, and sediment and soils where lead exceeds 400 parts per million. An EPA news release from January 2014 emphasizes the concern over lead:

“Lead is a toxic metal that is especially dangerous to children because their growing bodies can absorb more of it than adults. Lead in children can result in I.Q. deficiencies, reading and learning disabilities, reduced attention spans, hyperactivity and other behavioral disorders. The order requires the removal of lead-contaminated material and its replacement with clean material in order to reduce the risk to those who use the beach, particularly children.”

Identifying Impacts

Public health hazard sign about lead contamination on a beach and jetty.

A jetty and surrounding coastal area on Raritan Bay is contaminated with lead and other hazardous materials from slag originating at the National Lead Company’s Perth Amboy, New Jersey, facility. (NOAA)

After the Raritan Bay Slag site became a Superfund site in late 2009, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration worked with the EPA to determine the nature, extent, and effects of the contamination. Under a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program and our co-trustees, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, have been assessing and quantifying the likely impacts to the natural resources and the public’s use of those resources that may have occurred due to the contamination along Raritan Bay.

As part of this work, we are identifying opportunities for restoration projects that will compensate for the environmental harm as well as for people’s inability to use the affected natural resources, for example, due to beach closures and restricted access to fishing.

“The south shore of Raritan Bay is an important ecological, recreational, and economic resource for the New York-New Jersey Harbor metropolitan area,” said NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator Lisa Rosman. “Cleanup and restoration are key to improving conditions and allowing public access to this valuable resource.”

Watch for future updates on progress toward restoration on Raritan Bay.


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Using NOAA Tools to Help Deal with the Sinking Problem of Wrecked and Abandoned Ships

Workers direct the lifting of a rusted boat from a waterway onto a barge.

Clearing a derelict vessel from the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma, Washington. NOAA has created several tools and resources for mapping, tracking, and dealing with shipwrecks and abandoned vessels. (Washington Department of Natural Resources/ Tammy Robbins) Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Walk along a waterfront in the United States and wherever you find boats moored, you won’t be hard pressed to find one that has been neglected or abandoned to the point of rusting, leaking, or even sinking. It’s a sprawling and messy issue, one that is hard to fix. When you consider the thousands of shipwrecks strewn about U.S. waters, the problem grows even larger.

How do these vessels end up like this in the first place? Old ships, barges, and recreational vessels end up along coastal waters for a number of reasons: they were destroyed in wartime, grounded or sunk by accident or storm, or just worn out and left to decay. By many estimates shipping vessels have a (very approximate) thirty-year lifetime with normal wear and tear. Vessels, both large and small, may be too expensive for the owner to repair, salvage, or even scrap.

So, wrecked, abandoned, and derelict ships can be found, both invisible and in plain sight, in most of our marine environments, from sandy beaches and busy harbors to the deep ocean floor.

As we’ve discussed before, these vessels can be a serious problem for both the marine environment and economy. While no single comprehensive database exists for all wrecked, abandoned, and derelict vessels (and if it did, it would be very difficult to keep up-to-date), efforts are underway to consolidate existing information in various databases to get a larger view of the problem.

NOAA has created several of these databases and resources, each created for specific needs, which are used to map and track shipwrecks and abandoned vessels. These efforts won’t solve the whole issue, but they are an important step along that path.

Solution to Pollution

Black and white photo of a steam ship half sinking in the Great Lakes.

The S/S America sank after hitting rocks in Lake Superior in 1928, but the wreck was found close to the water surface in 1970. This ship has become the most visited wreck in the Great Lakes, where divers can still see a Model-T Ford on board. (Public domain)

NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project identifies the location and nature of potential sources of oil pollution from sunken vessels. These include vessels sunk during past wars, many of which are also grave sites and now designated as national historic sites. The focus of RULET sites are wrecks with continued potential to leak pollutants.

Many of these wrecks begin to leak years, even decades, after they have sunk. An example of such a wreck is Barge Argo, recently rediscovered and found to be leaking as it lay 40 feet under the surface of Lake Erie. The barge was carrying over 4,500 barrels of crude oil and the chemical benzol when it sank in 1937. It had been listed in the NOAA RULET database since 2013. U.S. Coast Guard crews, with support from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, are currently working on a way to safely remove the leaking fuel and cargo.

As in the Barge Argo case, the RULET database is especially useful for identifying the sources of “mystery sheens” —slicks of oil or chemicals that are spotted on the surface of the water and don’t have a clear origin. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Office of Response and Restoration jointly manage the RULET database.

Information in RULET is culled from a larger, internal NOAA Sanctuaries database called Resources and Undersea Threats (RUST). RUST lists about 30,000 sites of sunken objects, of which about 20,000 are shipwrecks. Other sites represent munitions dumpsites, navigational obstructions, underwater archaeological sites, and other underwater resources.

Avoiding Future Wrecks

The NOAA Office of Coast Survey’s Wrecks and Obstructions Database contains information on submerged wrecks and obstructions identified within U.S. maritime boundaries, with a focus on hazards to navigation. Information for the database is sourced from the NOAA Electronic Navigational Charts (ENC®) and Automated Wrecks and Obstructions Information System (AWOIS).

The database contains information on identified submerged wrecks and obstructions within the U.S. maritime boundaries, including position (latitude and longitude), and, where available, a brief description and attribution.

Head to the Hub

Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program developed and launched the Abandoned and Derelict Vessels (ADV) InfoHub to provide a centralized source of information on cast-off vessels that contribute to the national problem of marine debris. Hosted on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website, the ADV InfoHub will allow users to find abandoned and derelict vessel publications, information on funding to remove them, case studies, current projects, related stories, and FAQs.

Each coastal state (including states bordering the Great Lakes) will have a dedicated page where users can find information on state-specific abandoned and derelict vessel programs, legislation, and funding as well as links to case studies from that particular state and relevant publications and legal reviews. Each state page will also provide the name of the department within that state government that handles abandoned and derelict vessel issues along with contact information.

Power Display

In select parts of the country, the Office of Response and Restoration is now using its Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) to map the locations of and key information for abandoned and derelict vessels. ERMA is our online mapping tool that integrates data, such as ship locations, shoreline types, and environmental sensitivity, in a centralized format. Here, we use it to show abandoned and derelict vessels within the context of related environmental information displayed on a Geographic Information System (GIS) map. In Washington’s Puget Sound, for example, the U.S. Coast Guard and Washington Department of Natural Resources can use this information in ERMA to help prioritize removing the worst offenders and raise awareness about the issue.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington's Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline's characteristics and vulnerability to oil.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington’s Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline’s characteristics and vulnerability to oil. (NOAA)

Now part of both Pacific Northwest ERMA and Southwest ERMA (coastal California), our office highlighted ERMA at a May 2015 NOAA Marine Debris Program workshop for data managers. This meeting of representatives from 15 states, four federal agencies, and Canada showcased ERMA as an efficient digital platform for displaying abandoned vessel information in a more comprehensive picture at a regional level.

Once again, removing abandoned vessels or reducing their impacts can be very difficult and costly. But we have been seeing more and more signs of progress in recent years, which requires an increasing amount of collaboration among local, state, and federal agencies and education among the public. By providing more detailed and comprehensive information, NOAA is hoping to help resource managers prioritize and make more informed decisions on how to address the various threats these vessels pose to our coasts.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Doug Helton also contributed to this post.

Photo of derelict vessel used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.


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How Does Oil Get into the Ocean?

Oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Port Fourchon, Louisiana. A 2003 report from the National Academy of Sciences estimates 3% of the oil entering the ocean each year comes from oil and gas exploration and extraction activities. (NOAA)

When many of us think of oil spills, we might think of an oil tanker running aground and spilling its contents into the ocean, as in the case of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez when the ship ran aground near the coast of Alaska in 1989.

In fact, there are actually several ways crude or refined oil may reach the marine environment. All of those spills add up too. In a 2003 publication, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences reported that roughly 343,200,000 gallons of oil were released into the sea annually, worldwide. Of this amount, the report estimates the origin of that oil as follows:

  • Use or consumption of oil (which includes operational discharges from ships and discharges from land-based sources): 37%
  • Transportation (accidental spills from ships): 12%
  • Extraction: 3%
  • Natural seeps: 46%

Wherever oil is consumed, such as in manufacturing or when loading a ship with fuel, there are opportunities for oil spills. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology [PDF], most spills that occur during ship fueling happen because of inattention, inadequate procedure, procedural error, or poor judgment—in other words, human error.

The typically small-in-size spills that come from consuming oil originate from a variety of activities and actually account for most of the oil spilled by humans into the sea.

When the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred, on the other hand, crude oil was in transport. Since oil is an international commodity and in constant demand, there are always ships, pipelines, and (increasingly) trains moving it around the world. According to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, occurrences of large spills from tankers and barges (above approximately 2,000 gallons) have decreased dramatically since 1970. This can be attributed at least in part to advances in safety thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

While oil extraction is not considered a large source of the overall amount of oil released into the sea each year, spills from offshore oil exploration and drilling can be huge when they do happen. The well blowout that caused Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is a (very large) example of an oil spill occurring during extraction activities. This type of accident occurs only where oil exploration and drilling operations take place—in the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and waters off the southern California coast are the major areas.

Dark, thick oil seeps out of the ocean floor sediments.

A natural tar seep releases oil offshore from Gaviota, California. When an oil spill occurs in an area with many naturally occurring seeps, responders may have a difficult time telling spilled oil apart from seep oil. (Donna Schroeder/U.S. Geological Survey)

While not technically “oil spills,” oil seeps from the ocean floor naturally release oil from subterranean reservoirs and represent the largest source of oil entering seas both in the United States and around the world. Even though seeps are not without their own impacts on marine life, natural oil seeps release oil slowly over time, allowing ecosystems to adapt. During an oil spill, the amount of oil released in a short time can overwhelm an ecosystem.

Impact, then, is not only determined by how much oil is in the environment, but also the type of oil and how quickly it is released.

The May 2015 oil spill at Refugio State Beach was caused by a pipeline break near Santa Barbara, California, adjacent to Coal Oil Point, a region famous for its natural seeps. Oil from seeps there release an estimated 6,500-7,000 gallons of oil per day (Lorenson et al., 2011) and are among the most active in the world. One of the response challenges during that spill was distinguishing between the oil that flowed directly into the ocean from the pipeline break and that from the ongoing seeps.

For a quick glance at the major causes of oil spills in the ocean, check out our infographic:

Graphic showing buildings and cars using oil, a tanker transporting oil, and a rig drilling for oil in the ocean, with a natural seep leaking oil out of the seafloor. Use of oil: Anywhere crude or refined oil is stored or used, such as for fuel or in manufacturing, there is risk of a spill. Transportation of oil: Crude oil is an international commodity, and as it is moved around the world, it may be spilled from storage tanks, barges, pipelines, and other bulk transport. Extraction of oil: Oil exploration and extraction from the ground or below the ocean surface potentially could release oil into the environment. Natural seeps of oil: Oil seeps are natural leaks of crude oil and gas from subterranean reservoirs through the ocean floor. While not caused by humans, oil from seeps can be confused with oil spills.

There are four primary ways oil can end up in the ocean: natural seeps, consumption, extraction, and transportation of oil. (NOAA)


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10 Years after Being Hit by Hurricane Katrina, Seeing an Oiled Marsh at the Center of an Experiment in Oil Cleanup

This is a post by Vicki Loe and Amy Merten of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Oil tank damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the Chevron oil terminal’s storage tanks was severely damaged on top, possibly after being hit by something extremely large carried by the storm waters. (NOAA)

On August 29, 2005, not far from Chevron Pipe Line Company’s oil terminal in Buras, Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Knowing the storm was approaching, residents left the area, and Chevron shut down the crude oil terminal, evacuating all personnel.

The massive storm’s 144 mile per hour winds, 18 foot storm tide, and waves likely twice the height of the surge put the terminal under water. At some point during the storm, one of the terminal’s storage tanks was severely damaged on top, possibly after being hit by something extremely large carried by the storm waters. The tank released crude oil into an adjacent retention pond designed to catch leaking oil, which it did successfully.

However, just a few short weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit the same part of the Gulf and the same oil terminal. Much of the spilled oil was still being contained on the retention pond’s surface, and this second hurricane washed the oil into a nearby marsh.

A Double Impact

Built in 1963, Chevron’s facility in Buras is one of the largest crude oil distribution centers in the world and is located on a natural levee on the east bank of the Mississippi River. These back-to-back hurricanes destroyed infrastructure at the terminal as well as in the communities surrounding it. Helicopter was the only way to access the area in the weeks that followed.

Chevron wildlife biologist and environmental engineer Jim Myers witnessed the storms’ aftermath at the terminal. He described trees stripped of leaves, and mud and debris strewn everywhere, including power lines. Dead livestock were found lying on the terminal’s dock. And black oil was trapped in the marsh’s thick mesh of sedge and grass. This particular marsh is part of a large and valuable ecosystem where saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico and freshwater from the Mississippi River come together.

Even after using boom and skimmers to remove some oil, an estimated 4,000 gallons of oil remained in the 50 acre marsh on the back side of the terminal. Delicate and unstable, marshes are notoriously difficult places to deal with oil. The chaos of two hurricanes only complicated the situation.

Decision Time

Once the terminal’s substantial cleanup and repair activities began, an environmental team was assembled to consider options for dealing with the oiled marsh. Dr. Amy Merten and others from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Jim Myers and others from Chevron, and personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rounded out this team.

The team considered several options for treating the marsh, but one leapt to the top of the list: burning off the oil, a procedure known as in situ burn. In situ burning was the best option for several reasons: the density and amount of remaining oil, remote location, weather conditions, absence of normal wildlife populations after the storms, and the fact that the marsh was bound on three sides by canals, creating barriers for the fire. Also, for hundreds of years, the area had seen both natural burns (due to lightning strikes) and prescribed burns, with good results.

Yet this recommendation met some initial resistance. In situ burning was a more familiar practice for removing oil from the open ocean than from marshes, though its use in marshes had been well-reviewed in scientific studies. Still, in the midst of a hectic and widespread response following two hurricanes, burning oil out of marshes seemed like a potentially risky move at the time.

Furthermore, some responders working elsewhere followed conventional wisdom that the oil had been exposed to weathering processes for too long to burn successfully. However, the oil was so thick on the water’s surface and so protected from the elements by vegetation that the month-old oil behaved like freshly spilled oil, meaning it still contained enough of the right compounds to burn. The environmental team tested the oil to demonstrate it would burn before bringing the idea to those in charge of the post-hurricane pollution cleanup, the Unified Command.

Burn Notice

Left: Burning marsh. Right: Same view of green marsh 10 years later.

Similar views of the same marsh where the 2005 oil spill and subsequent burn occurred after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The view on the right is from August of 2015. (NOAA)

Fortunately, the leader of the Unified Command approved the carefully crafted plan to burn the oiled marsh. The burns took place on October 12 and 13, 2005, a month and a half after the spill. After dividing and cutting the affected marsh into a grid of six plots, responders burned two areas each day, leaving two plots unburned since they were negligibly oiled and did not have the right conditions to burn.

Lit with propane torches, the fire on the first day was dramatic, generating dense black smoke and burning for three hours, the result of burning the part of the marsh closest to the terminal, where the oil was thickest. The second fire generated less smoke but burned longer, for about four and half hours. Afterward, you could see how the burn’s footprint matched where different levels of oil had been.

Observations after the fact assured the environmental team that most (more than 90 percent) of the oil had been burned in the four treated areas. Small pockets of unburned oil were collected with sorbent pads, and any residual oil was left to degrade naturally. Within 24 hours of burning, traces of regrowth were visible in the marsh, and in less than a month, sedge grasses had grown to a height of one to two feet, according to Myers.

A Marsh Reborn

Healthy lush marsh vegetation at water's edge.

The marsh that was oiled after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and subsequently burned to remove the oil. This is how it looked in August of 2015, showing an abundance of diverse vegetation. (NOAA)

Ten years later, in August of 2015, I was curious to see how the marsh had come back. I had seen many photos of during and after the burn, and subsequent reports were that the endeavor had been a great success.

Knowing I would be in the New Orleans area on vacation, I was pleased to learn that Jim Myers would be willing to give me a tour of this marsh. I met him at the ferry dock to cross to the east side of the Mississippi River and the Chevron terminal.

We looked out over the marsh from an elevated platform behind the giant oil storage tanks. All you could see were lush grasses, clumps of low trees, and birds, birds, birds. Their calls were nonstop. We saw cattails uprooted next to flattened paths leading to the water’s edge, evidence of alligators creating trails from the water to areas for basking in the sun and of cows, muskrats, and feral hogs feeding on the cattails’ roots.

The water level was high, so rather than hike through the marsh, we traveled the circumference in a flat-bottomed boat. We saw many species of birds, as well as dragonflies, freely roaming cows, fish, and an alligator.

Today, the marsh is flourishing. I could see no difference between the areas that were oiled and burned 10 years ago and nearby areas that were untouched. In fact, monitoring following the burn [PDF] found that the marsh showed recovery across a number of measures within nine months.

This marsh represents one small part of a system of wetlands that has historically provided a buffer against the high waters of past storms. Since the 1840s, when it was settled, Buras, Louisiana, has survived being hit by at least five major hurricanes. But Hurricane Katrina was different.

Gradually, marshes across the northern Gulf of Mexico have been disappearing, enabling Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters to overwhelm areas that have weathered previous storms. Ensuring existing marshes remain healthy will be one part of a good defense strategy against the next big hurricane. Given the successful recovery of this marsh after both an oil spill and in situ burn, we know that this technique will help prevent the further degradation of marshes in the Gulf.

See more photos of the damaged tank, the controlled burn to remove the oil, and the recovered marsh 10 years later.

Find more information about the involvement of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Amy Merten with kids from Kivalina, Alaska.Amy Merten is the Spatial Data Branch Chief in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Amy developed the concept for the online mapping tool ERMA (Environmental Response Mapping Application). ERMA was developed in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire. She expanded the ERMA team at NOAA to fill response and natural resource trustee responsibilities during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Amy oversees data management of the resulting oil spill damage assessment. She received her doctorate and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland.