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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From Natural Seeps to a Historic Legacy, What Sets Apart the Latest Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Cleanup worker and oiled boulders on Refugio State Beach where the oil from the pipeline entered the beach.

The pipeline release allowed an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil to reach the Pacific Ocean, shown here where the oil entered Refugio State Beach. (NOAA)

The response to the oil pipeline break on May 19, 2015 near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California, is winding down. Out of two* area beaches closed due to the oil spill, all but one, Refugio State Beach, have reopened.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided scientific support throughout the response, including aerial observations of the spill, information on fate and effects of the crude oil, oil detection and treatment, and potential environmental impacts both in the water and on the shore.

Now that the response to this oil spill is transitioning from cleanup to efforts to assess and quantify the environmental impacts, a look back shows that, while not a huge spill in terms of volume, the location and timing of the event make it stand out in several ways.

Seep or Spill: Where Did the Oil Come From?

This oil spill, which allowed an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil to reach the Pacific Ocean, occurred in an area known for its abundant natural oil seeps. The Coal Oil Point area is home to seeps that 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. Oil seeps are natural leaks of oil and gas from subterranean reservoirs through the ocean floor.

The pipeline spill released a much greater volume of oil than the daily output of the local seeps. Furthermore, because it was from a single source, the spill resulted in much heavier oiling along the coast than you would find from the seeps alone.

A primary challenge, for purposes of spill response and damage assessment, was to determine whether oil on the shoreline and nearby waters was from the seeps or the pipeline. Since the oil from the local natural seeps and the leaking pipeline both originated from the same geologic formation, their chemical makeup is similar.

However, chemists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Louisiana State University, and the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Lab were able to distinguish the difference by examining special chemical markers through a process known as “fingerprinting.”

Respecting Native American Coastal Culture

The affected shorelines include some of the most important cultural resource areas for California Native Americans. Members of the Chumash Tribe populated many coastal villages in what is now Santa Barbara County prior to 1800. Many local residents of the area trace their ancestry to these communities.

To ensure that impacts to cultural resources were minimized, Tribal Cultural Resource Monitors were actively engaged in many of the upland and shoreline cleanup activities and decisions throughout the spill response.

Bringing Researchers into the Response

The massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 highlighted the need for further research on issues surrounding oil transport and spill response. As a result, there was a great deal of interest in this spill among members of the academic community, which is not always the case for oil spills. In addition, the spill occurred not far from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

From the perspective of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, this involvement with researchers was beneficial to the overall effort and will potentially serve to broaden our scientific resources and knowledge base for future spills.

The Legacy of 1969

Another unique aspect of the oil spill at Refugio State Beach was its proximity to the site of one of the most historically significant spills in U.S. history. Just over 46 years ago, off the coast of Santa Barbara, a well blowout occurred, spilling as much as 4.2 million gallons of oil into the ocean. The well was capped after 11 days.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which was covered widely in the media, oiled miles of southern California beaches as well. It had such a devastating impact on wildlife and habitat that it is credited with being the catalyst that started the modern-day environmental movement. Naturally, the 2015 oil spill near the same location serves as a reminder of that terrible event and the damage that spilled oil can do in a short period of time.

Moving Toward Restoration

In order to assess the environmental impacts from the spill and cleanup, scientists have collected several hundred samples of sediment, oil, water, fish, mussels, sand crabs, and other living things. In addition, they have conducted surveys of the marine life before and after the oil spill.

The assessment, which is being led by the state of California, involves marine ecology experts from several California universities as well as federal and state agencies.

After a thorough assessment of the spill’s harm, the focus will shift toward restoring the injured natural and cultural resources and compensating the public for the impacts to those resources and the loss of use and enjoyment of them as a result of the spill. This process, known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, is undertaken by a group of trustees, made up of federal and state agencies, in cooperation with the owner of the pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline. This group of trustees will seek public input to help guide the development of a restoration plan.

*UPDATED 7/10/2015: This was corrected to reflect the fact that only two area beaches were closed due to the spill while 20 remained open in Santa Barbara.


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NOAA and Partners Work Quickly to Save Corals Hit by Catamaran in Puerto Rico

Experts estimate that thousands of corals were broken, dislodged, buried, or destroyed when the 49-foot-long catamaran M/V Aubi ran aground along the north coast of Puerto Rico the night of May 14, 2015.

Traveling from the Dominican Republic to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the recreational boat became grounded on a coral reef, causing significant damage to the reef. As the vessel was being moved, the vessel’s two hulls slowly ground further into the reef, forming mounds of coral and leaving rubble on the ocean bottom. UPDATED 5/27/2015: The area of the vessel’s direct impact is 366 square meters (not quite 4,000 square feet), while partial impact covers more than 1,000 square meters (roughly 10,764 square feet).

On the night of the grounding, responders were immediately concerned about preventing a spill of the fuel on board the Aubi. The fuel had to be removed from the fuel tanks in the aluminum hulls of the catamaran before it was moved off of the coral reefs. By the evening of May 15, approximately 1,500 gallons of fuel had been removed successfully, readying the vessel to be towed from the reef. It was pulled free during high tide the next morning.

The location of the grounding is in a Puerto Rico Marine Reserve, overseen by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources.

Crushing News and Rubble Rousers

The species of coral affected by the accident are mostly Diploria, or brain coral, and Acropora palmata, or elkhorn coral. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, elkhorn coral is one of the most important reef-building corals in the Caribbean. Brain coral, found in the West Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean, is also an important reef-building coral and is known for its stony, brain-like appearance.

Although there was significant damage to the coral, an oil spill fortunately was prevented. While exposure to oil may kill corals, it more frequently reduces their ability to perform photosynthesis and causes growth or reproductive problems.

A multi-organizational team, which included NOAA, was able to salvage over 800 coral colonies (or fragments of colonies), moving them into deeper water nearby for temporary holding.  About 75 very large colonies of brain coral were righted but unable to be moved because of their size.

Broken brain coral on seafloor.

Brain coral (Diploria) and elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) represent the majority of the coral species affected by this vessel grounding. (NOAA)

With buckets and by hand, the team filled 50 loads of rubble (approximately nine cubic yards) into open kayaks and small boats to transport them to a deeper underwater site that Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources had approved for dumping.  All that material, moved in one day, would otherwise likely have washed into the healthy reef adjacent to the damaged one and potentially caused even more harm.

While poor weather has been preventing further work at the grounding site this past week, the team expects to restart work soon. Once that happens, initial estimates are that it will take 10-15 days to reattach the salvaged corals and to secure the rubble most at risk of moving. Stabilizing or removing the remaining rubble and rebuilding the topographic complexity of the flattened seafloor, accomplished using large pieces of rubble, would likely take an additional 10 days.

Both the location and nature of the corals dominating the area make it a very viable location for complete restoration using nursery-grown corals, but the scope and scale would still need to be determined.

Small Boat, Big Impact?

Healthy brain coral on seafloor.

An area of healthy corals near the site of the grounded M/V Aubi. Divers acted quickly to protect these corals from being damaged by the large amounts of rubble loose on the seafloor after the accident. (NOAA)

Even though the vessel involved in this grounding was relatively small, an unofficial, anecdotal report from the team working on the site noted that the amount of damage appeared comparable to that caused by the groundings of much larger vessels, such as tankers.

If not for the quick work of the U.S. Coast Guard, Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources, NOAA, support contractors, volunteers from non-governmental organizations, and members of the local community, the damage could have been much worse.

Healthy coral reefs are among the most biologically and economically valuable ecosystems on earth.

According to NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, a little-known fact is that corals are in fact animals, even though they may exhibit some of the characteristics of plants and are often mistaken for rocks.

Learn more about how NOAA dives to the rescue of corals in the Caribbean when they become damaged by grounded ships.


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NOAA Continues to Support Response to Pipeline Break Spill near Santa Barbara, California

Two people shovel sand into a bag on a beach.

Beach cleanup crew members use a shovel to place gathered oil and affected sand into a bag as they clean up along a beach near Refugio State Beach, north of Santa Barbara. California on May 21, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

POSTED:  MAY 22, 2015|UPDATED: MAY 25, 2015–On May 19, 2015, NOAA was notified of a 24-inch pipeline rupture that occurred earlier in the day near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California. A reported 500 barrels (21,000 gallons) of crude oil flowed from the shore side of Highway 101 into the Pacific Ocean. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is continuing to respond to the oil spilled into the marine environment.

The source was secured. The remaining oil in the ocean consists of patches, streaks, and tarballs of various sizes and thicknesses, from both last week’s spill and natural oil seeps in the area.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Jordan Stout, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator has been on-scene throughout the response. OR&R has been providing overflight observation of the spill, information on fate and effects of the crude oil, potential environmental impacts both in the water and on the shore, and observation and data management for the Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Cleanup efforts continue along the beach, in the water, and inland. According to the Unified Command, “The responsible party, Plains All-American Pipeline, is working closely with the Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Santa Barbara Office of Emergency Management.

According to the Refugio Response Joint Information Center website on May 24, 2015:

  • Over 220 cubic yards of oily solids and 1,250 cubic yards of oily soil have been recovered by responders.
  • As of May 24, almost 10,000 gallons of oily water have been collected from the ocean. This is a mixture of ten to thirty percent oil mixed with seawater.
  • Over 3,700 feet of boom have been deployed.
  • Work continues to remove oil from the kelp beds by spraying water’s surface with a fire monitor (water cannon) to create artificial current and agitating oil from the kelp. The oil is then “herded” and collected.
  • There are over 650 people responding to the spill.
  • Five shoreline cleanup assessment technique (SCAT) teams continue to work along the shore from Gaviota Beach to the west side of Ellwood Beach.
  • There are three helicopters, one vacuum truck and six wildlife recovery teams in operation.

The spill has harmed some area wildlife. The Refugio Response Joint Information Center reported on May 24 that, “There are nine brown pelicans and one Western Grebe that have been recovered and are being treated by wildlife specialists. Five pelicans have died. One sea lion impacted by oil was recovered and one has died. A dolphin that was recovered dead on Friday has undergone a necropsy; no visible oil was found on the animal. A second dolphin was recovered Saturday and is undergoing a necropsy to determine the cause of death. Updates will be available when it has been completed. There have been a large number of invertebrates affected by the oil, though due to complexities in counting and staffing constraints, it is unknown how many have been impacted.”

The Refugio and El Capitan beaches will remain closed to the public until June 4, 2015.

For further information, see the Joint information Center website: Refugio Response Information.

 

Two people walking along the oiled beach.

Oil mixed with marine vegetation at Las Varas Ranch. (U.S. Coast Guard)


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NOAA Joins Response to Pipeline Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach Near Santa Barbara, California

POSTED May 20, 2015 | UPDATED May 21, 2015: On May 19, 2015, NOAA was notified of a 24-inch pipeline rupture that occurred earlier in the day near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California.

A reported 500 barrels (21,000 gallons) of crude oil flowed from the shore side of Highway 101 into the Pacific Ocean. The source has since been secured.

As of May 21, Office of Response and Restoration oceanographers estimate that forecasted winds and currents in the affected area of the oil spill will move the slick eastward parallel to the shore Thursday night and Friday. The oil consists of patches and streaks of various sizes and thicknesses, broken up and spread over approximately 20 miles of coast and up to 5 miles offshore. The percent of oil floating on the surface in the slicks is low, estimated to be less than 10 percent in the affected area.

Cleanup measures include skimmers, vacuum trucks, absorbent pads, and absorbent boomShoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT) teams are documenting the level of oil and impacts to the shoreline. 7,777 gallons of an oil and water mixture have been collected from the ocean. Several oiled birds, including pelicans, and an oiled California sea lion were found stranded and are being taken care of by official wildlife rehabilitation teams.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, a commercial oil spill response company is conducting cleanup operations. Boats are collecting oil offshore. California Department of Fish and Wildlife has ordered beach closures. The U.S. Coast Guard has organized the Incident Management Team and is conducting overflights. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also responding and is focusing on the site of the pipeline break and inland cleanup.

Spilled oIl flowing next to rocks

Overflight photo shows oil flowing towards the ocean following a pipeline break. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Jordan Stout is on-scene as the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator as well as an OR&R overflight observation specialist.  OR&R has been providing information on fate and effects of the crude oil and potential environmental impacts both in the water and on the shore.

In this preassessment phase scientists are researching what natural resources may have been exposed to the oil and whether to proceed with a Natural Resource Damage Assessment. Additional scientists will be deployed to the area in the coming days. Also from NOAA, the National Weather Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Restoration Center, and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries are providing support.

In 1969, a major oil spill occurred in the Santa Barbara area as a result of a well blowout. One of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. waters at that time, the legacy of that incident includes the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and National Marine Sanctuaries system (which soon encompassed California’s nearby Channel Islands, which were affected by the 1969 Santa Barbara spill).

For further information, see the Joint Information Center website: Refugio Response Information.


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Five Key Questions NOAA Scientists Ask During Oil Spills

Responders in a small boat pressure-wash rocky shore at the site of an oil spill.

Responders pressure wash the Texas shoreline after the tank ship Eagle Otome oil spill in January of 2010. (NOAA)

During an emergency situation such as an oil spill or ship grounding, scientists in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration are guided by five central questions as they develop scientifically based recommendations for the U.S. Coast Guard.

These recommendations help the Coast Guard respond to the incident while minimizing environmental impacts resulting from the spill and response.

Identified in the late 1980s by NOAA, these questions provide a sequential framework for identifying key information at each step that will then inform answers to subsequent questions raised during an oil spill. For example, in order to predict “where could it go?” (question two), you first need to know “what spilled?” (question one), and so on.

Questions guiding NOAA's oil spill response science, with a ship leaking oil, surrounded by boom, with flying birds and a benzene molecule.

Naturally, during a spill response, it may become necessary to revisit earlier questions or assumptions as conditions change and more—or better—information becomes available.

The Scene of the Spill

Establishing what happened is the first step. What is the scenario for this incident and where is it occurring? Gathering this information means figuring out facts such as:

  • the type of incident (e.g., pipeline rupture versus oil tanker collision).
  • the volume and types of oil involved.
  • the incident environment (e.g., stormy, calm).
  • the incident location (e.g., open ocean, near shore, water temperature).

Forecast: Cloudy with a Chance of Oil

Dr. Amy MacFadyen is a NOAA physical oceanographer who frequently works on the next step, which is predicting where the oil is going to go. In most of the spills we respond to, the oil is spilled at or near the water surface and is less dense than water. Initially, the oil will float and form a slick. Dr. MacFadyen looks at what is going on in the environment with wind and waves, which can break up the slick, causing some of the oil to mix into the water column in the form of small droplets.

An important point is that responders can potentially clean up what is on top of the water but recovering oil droplets from the water column is practically impossible. This is why it is so important to spill responders to receive accurate predictions of the movement of the surface slicks so they can quickly implement cleanup or prevention strategies.

In order to make predictions about oil movement, Dr. MacFadyen uses a computer model which includes ocean current and wind forecasts to generate an oil trajectory forecast map. Trajectory forecast models may be updated frequently, as conditions at the site of the spill change. Although the trajectory map shows the position of the oil, there is an element of uncertainty as the forecasts are based on other predictions, such as weather forecasts, which are not always perfect and are themselves subject to change.

To reduce uncertainty, trajectory forecasts incorporate information from trained observers flying over the slick who can confirm the actual location of the oil over the course of the spill response. MacFadyen can then incorporate that updated information as she runs the trajectory forecast model again.

A Sense of Sensitivity

In order to answer what the oil might affect, NOAA developed Environmental Sensitivity Index maps to identify what might be harmed by a spill in different habitat types. It is necessary for responders and decision makers to know what shoreline types exist in the path of the oil, as well as vulnerable species and habitats so that they can plan for the appropriate protection (such as booming) or cleanup method (such as skimming). Cleaning up oil off a sandy beach is very different than a salt marsh, mudflat, or rocky shore.

Animals, plants, and habitats at risk can include those on the water (e.g., seabirds), below the surface (e.g., fish), and on the bottom (e.g., mussels), as well as on the shoreline (e.g., marsh grasses).

Jill Petersen, manager of the Office of Response and Restoration Environmental Sensitivity Index map program, works to ensure that these maps of each U.S. coastal region are up-to-date so that this information is readily available should a spill occur.

Raise the Alarm for Harm

The next step is to look at what harm the oil could cause. When oil is released into the water, it can cause harm to marine animals and the environment. Oil contains thousands of chemical compounds. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PDF], or PAHs as they are commonly known, are a class of oil compounds that have been associated with toxic effects in exposed organisms. Because of this, scientists frequently study PAHs in spilled oil to gauge the oil’s potential environmental impact.

However, the complexity of each oil’s chemistry and the changes that occur once it is in the environment make the assessment of risk a challenging task. In order to do so, response biologists consider the type of oil, the sensitivity of potentially exposed organisms, and how the oil is expected to behave in the environment.

Oil spills can involve releases of large volumes of oil that overwhelm whatever natural capacity there might be to absorb impacts, which leads to the photographs we see of heavy oil covering plants and animals. But recent research studies have shown that even minute amounts of petroleum can harm marine eggs and larvae—which means the decisions we make during a response are even more critical to the long-term health of the affected habitats.

NOAA marine biologist Dr. Alan Mearns is an expert on how pollution from oil harms the environment. Each year, he reviews and summarizes recent research in this field to ensure oil spill response recommendations and decisions are based on the most current science that exists.

Sending Help

A skimmer picks up oil off the surface of the Delaware River.

A skimmer picks up oil off the surface of the Delaware River after the tanker Athos spilled oil in 2004. (NOAA)

Answering the previous questions allows us to determining what can be done to help. Doug Helton, the Office of Response and Restoration’s Incident Operations Coordinator, describes possible solutions as usually falling under three categories: containing the source, cleaning up, and protecting the shore.

To contain the source means to limit the further release of pollution by plugging the leak in the pipeline or containing the spill, for example, by keeping the ship from sinking and losing its entire cargo of oil.

Cleanup on the water could be conducted by mechanical means, such as booming and skimming, or through alternative technologies, such as burning the oil in open water or using chemicals to disperse the oil.

Cleanup along the shoreline can be done manually or mechanically using methods such as pressure washing. When considering cleanup options, sometimes monitoring the situation is the best option when a response method could actually cause more harm to the environment. One example is in an oiled marsh because these habitats are especially vulnerable to oil but also to being damaged by people walking through them trying to remove oil.

In addition to providing scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration develops oil spill response software and mapping tools. For responders, NOAA has published a series of job aids and manuals that provide established techniques and guidelines for observing oil, assessing shoreline impact, and evaluating accepted cleanup technologies for a variety of oil spill situations.


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NOAA Helps Reverse Pollution Woes for Two Florida Wetland Areas

marsh with vegetation around the edge.

Oligohaline or brackish tidal wetland, created at the Mosaic fertilizer site in Riverview, FL. (NOAA)

What do fertilizer wastewater, an illegal dump tucked into sinkholes, and Florida wetlands have in common? Until recently, a little too much. The first two resulted in serious pollution in wetlands and other habitat in the area of Tampa Bay, Florida.

Fortunately, however, NOAA and our co-trustees have helped pave the way for restoration at two important hazardous waste sites in the Tampa area. The Mosaic Fertilizer Riverview facility is located southeast of Tampa, bordering on Tampa Bay and the Alafia River.  Restoration sites are located both north and south of the Alafia River.  The Raleigh Street Dump Site is located in an industrial area of Tampa, east of McKay Bay.

The Tampa Bay estuary is home to diverse habitats including seagrasses, mangroves, salt marshes, mud flats, and oyster reefs. These habitats stabilize the shore and provide a buffer against damaging coastal storms.  They also provide shelter for marine life and nesting areas for birds. The growing Tampa Bay area is also home to more than 2.3 million people. Because the open-water estuary is so important to the development of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans, and the coastal communities that depend on vibrant fisheries, maintaining its health is a high priority in the region.

Big Worries from Fertilizer Slurries

On September 5, 2004, Hurricane Frances made landfall on the east coast of Florida and swept across the state, passing near Tampa Bay as a tropical storm. High winds and heavy rainfall associated with the storm damaged an outdoor storage system at the Mosaic Fertilizer plant in Riverview, releasing 65 million gallons of acidic, nutrient-rich process water into Archie Creek Canal, Hillsborough Bay, and surrounding wetlands.

Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC is the world’s largest producer of concentrated phosphate and potash, which are used to manufacture plant fertilizer. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plants. Yet its original form, calcium phosphate derived from phosphate rock, is not water-soluble and therefore cannot be absorbed by plants. Getting it into a water-soluble form is accomplished by treating it with sulfuric acid to create phosphoric acid. The by-product from that conversion is mostly calcium sulfate but goes by the name “phosphogypsum.”

Phosphogypsum starts out as slurry when it is first stored in outdoor containment units. Over time, as the slurry is piled higher and higher, immense stacks are created with sloped sides of phosphogypsum and open-air ponds at the top.  Acidic process water is stored and recycled from the top of the stack through the phosphate production facility. If the berms that contain the acidic, nutrient rich ponds at the top of the stack fail, as they did in the wake of Hurricane Frances, they pose a threat to human health and the environment.

The pollution released from the Mosaic Fertilizer plant in 2004 harmed nearly 10 acres of seagrass beds and more than 135 acres of wetland habitats, including nearly 80 acres of mangroves. The acidic water dramatically lowered pH, directly killing thousands of fish, crabs and bottom-dwelling organisms. The influx of nitrogen and phosphorous also disrupted the local ecosystem, potentially injuring fish and other aquatic wildlife.

NOAA and State trustees worked with Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC to assess these environmental injuries and restore the site. In 2013 and 2014, Mosaic implemented restoration projects to compensate for the environmental injuries that the process water spill caused.  Restoration included the removal of invasive exotic plants, widening and improving tidal creeks and increasing through 85 acres of mangrove forest, constructing a 3500‘ oyster reef, and creating an oligohaline or brackish  tidal wetland. Mosaic is now monitoring the health of the restored natural areas, with NOAA and our partners providing oversight.

From Illegal Dump to Wetland Bonus

Not far from the Mosaic Fertilizer plant, a five acre parcel of low-lying land pocked with sinkholes had produced its own pollution woes for wetlands. Located on Raleigh Street, battery casings, furnace slag, trash, and construction debris were dumped at this site from 1977 to 1991.

Pond with vegetation in the foreground.

Restored Raleigh Street Dump site. (NOAA)

By 2009, the level of pollution was deemed dire enough to land it on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List, slating it for cleanup under the Superfund law. Years of illegal dumping had left the area filled with contaminated soil, sediment, and groundwater.

EPA investigations at the site found a number of chemical contaminants posing an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment, including oil-related compounds and heavy metals such as antimony, arsenic, and lead.

Cleanup and restoration activities at the Raleigh Street Dump Site were comprehensive and involved replacing contaminated soils with clean soils, removing contaminated sediments, planting grass, restoring wetland areas, and reducing the concentration of contaminants in the groundwater. NOAA has worked closely with EPA over the years to ensure the cleanup at Raleigh Street Dump Site was protective of the environment. By the end, restoration actually resulted in an increase of wetland area at the site, more than doubling it to 2.6 acres.

The restoration work done at the Mosaic Fertilizer and Raleigh Street sites is just part of a larger overall conservation effort in a region that for decades had been experiencing environmental decline.  According to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, a regional alliance of local, state, and federal government partners dedicated to the area’s health, the Tampa Bay area has made “a remarkable comeback in recent years, with impressive gains in water quality, seagrass recovery, and fish and wildlife populations.” NOAA is happy to have a part in making this a reality.


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For Today’s Responders, 1937 Texas Tragedy Still Carries Lessons for Avoiding Disaster

Crowds of people and emergency vehicles surrounding damaged school.

Accident site at the school in New London, Texas, soon after the explosion that occurred at 3:05 in the afternoon on March 18, 1937. (Used with permission from the London Museum in New London/AP)

On March 18, 1937, a gas explosion occurred in a school in New London, Texas, killing almost 300 of the 500 students and 40 teachers in the building. The brand new, steel-and-concrete school, located in the East Texas Oilfield, was one of the wealthiest in the country. Yet it was reduced to rubble in part because no one could smell the danger building in the basement.

While the building originally had been designed for a different heat distribution system, school officials had recently approved tapping into a residue gas line of the local Parade Gasoline Company, a common money-saving practice in the oilfield at the time. Unfortunately, on that March afternoon, a faulty pipe connection caused the gas (methane mixed with some liquid hydrocarbons) to leak into a closed space beneath the building. Just before class dismissal, when a maintenance employee turned on an electric sander, the odorless gas ignited. The resulting explosion caused the building to collapse, burying victims. (Watch a video of a news reel covering the event from March 1937.)

By standards employed today, a gas leak could be detected in advance by its odor. The odorless gas in the New London disaster was able to accumulate in the space before anyone was aware of it. As a direct result of this incident, a Texas law mandated that malodorants be added to all natural gas for commercial and industrial use, a practice that is now an industry standard. Mercaptan, a harmless chemical, gives gas its distinctive rotten egg odor. It is added to natural gas to make it quickly recognizable and to prevent accidents like this from happening.

As a firefighter at the beginning of his career in Beaumont, Texas, Derwin Daniels worked for the same fire company that responded many years ago to the 1937 explosion. His personal connection to this particular incident sparked a desire to further his career in the fields of emergency management and fire protection technology.

Derwin Daniels brought his expertise to the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center to coordinate training activities in emergency response. Daniels has been developing a “First Responder Awareness Level Training” that will provide NOAA staff with better understanding of potential hazards that they might encounter during post-disaster emergency response and recovery activities.

The training will help staff better assess an emergency situation so they can notify appropriate authorities. As part of this training, students consider real scenarios such as the New London explosion to learn important lessons about responding to disasters, a technique Daniels likes to use whenever possible.

For example, a section of this course covers “Odor Thresholds” and “Dimensions of Odor.” This involves human senses as it relates to hazardous materials. Taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound are all valuable tools for detecting the presence of harmful materials. The New London school explosion and the changes that resulted illustrate to students the role of odor in assessing possible causes of a disaster, such as a chemical release or explosion. Drawing on lessons from past incidents brings context to modern practices.

Coast Guard staff standing at tables during a training in the Disaster Response Center.

The Disaster Response Center brings together NOAA-wide resources to improve preparedness, planning, and response capacity for natural and human-caused disasters along the Gulf Coast. As part of that mission, the center regularly provides training on a variety of emergency response-related topics throughout the year. (NOAA)

One of the DRC’s many roles is developing and delivering training to NOAA personnel as well as federal, state, and local partners to promote better disaster preparedness in the Gulf region. Learn more about the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center.

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