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 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. (U.S. Coast Guard)

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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Spiny Lobsters, Tropical Cyclones, and Derelict Traps

Metal trap resting on seafloor with vegetation growing around it.

Derelict lobster trap frame with  bio-fouling (most of the side slats are missing). The trap is residing on mixed seagrass and hard-bottom habitat. (NOAA)

Derelict traps generated by the Florida Keys commercial spiny lobster fishery can result in damage to the benthic habitat (meaning located on the ocean floor) such as seagrass beds and corals. During the passage of a tropical cyclone, strong currents and turbulence are generated underwater which  can move spiny lobster traps,  creating the potential for lost traps and habitat damage. An earlier study addressed the prevalence of non-retrieved traps, estimating that over 85,000 ghost traps reside on the seafloor in the Florida Keys. It has been estimated that ghost traps in the region kill approximately 637,622 lobsters annually.

Seagrass from above with a patch in the middle where the seagrass has worn away.

2005 image of an impact area from a lobster trap that was experimentally deployed in seagrass (Syringodium filiforme, or manatee grass) and remained resting on the seagrass for six months. (NOAA)

A new study focused on the Florida Keys commercial spiny lobster (Panulirus argus)  fishery shows how climate change could compound the negative effect marine debris has on the environment. This is perhaps the first study of its kind as it shows how many spiny lobster traps might be lost given different scenarios of future fishing activity and tropical cyclone intensity. In early April, a journal article on the study, titled “Tropical cyclones, derelict traps, and the future of the Florida Keys commercial spiny lobster fishery” was published in Marine Policy (69: 84-91).

The author, Amy V. Uhrin of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, looked at climate change, specifically how projected patterns of increasing hurricane intensity could make this a bigger problem as trap loss increases at higher wind speeds as does the movement of traps along the seafloor, causing more benthic habitat damage.


“The legacy of trap debris in the Florida Keys combined with possible increased inputs of yet more trap debris resulting from a future rise in tropical cyclone intensity presents an immediate challenge for both fisheries management and climate adaptation planning and underscores the importance of an effective process for addressing these issues.” — Amy V. Uhrin


The commercial spiny lobster fishery is important to the Florida Keys. According to experts at the Florida Sea Grant Program at the University of Florida, the fishery contributes over 20 million dollars per year to the economy of south Florida and the Florida Keys. Also, 90 percent of Florida’s spiny lobster harvest comes from the Florida Keys. A fact sheet the National Sea Grant program published several years ago recognized the problem of the derelict traps:

Man dropping a wooden trap into the water from the side of a boat.

Traps being deployed. (NOAA)

“Another significant issue in the spiny lobster fishery is the impact of ghost traps. The prevalence of trap gear that has not been retrieved is concerning as it has been noted to have impacts on benthic habitats and contribute to ghost fishing. Traps, though typically weighted with cement, are still capable of drifting large distances with currents along sand or seagrass causing habitat damage through abrasion or entanglement. Once the line and buoy are separated from the trap, lines may drift with the currents and entangle marine organisms or, more likely, entangle reef structures.”

Ms. Uhrin’s study evaluated three scenarios of tropical cyclone intensification across four levels of fishing effort (based on number of traps used). The study takes the position that derelict traps and marine debris generated by their degradation will increase as hurricanes intensify  in the Florida Keys. In order to create the scenarios, Ms. Uhrin carefully looked at historical data of both fishery effort and patterns in the region and calculated future projections, or predictions, of monthly trap loss as related to maximum wind speed under the three levels of tropical cyclone intensification.

The article suggests that “by maintaining existing fishing effort in the coming decades, trap loss could exceed 11 million over 60 years depending upon the rate of tropical cyclone intensification.” Even a scenario of existing fishing effort with a relatively unchanged (Business-as-Usual scenario) hurricane intensification, would generate over 6.5 million lost traps on the seafloor over 60 years, and create the potential for more than 3 million square meters of injured habitat. This is not including the potential for additional injuries during high wind events when the debris is likely to be moving across the seafloor. The author concludes, “The legacy of trap debris in the Florida Keys combined with possible increased inputs of yet more trap debris resulting from a future rise in tropical cyclone intensity presents an immediate challenge for both fisheries management and climate adaptation planning and underscores the importance of an effective process for addressing these issues.”

Woman with glasses.Amy V. Uhrin is currently Chief Scientist for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, where she oversees the research portfolio, leads internal research projects, and oversees Program-funded external research projects. Her work has addressed issues of natural and human-influenced disturbances in seagrass and other coastal ecosystems, including effects of hurricanes, wave energy, vessel groundings, and commercial fishing gear.

 


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What Do We Know Today About Microbeads and Microplastics in the Ocean?

Plastic microbeads visible in toothpaste on a toothbrush.

Microbeads are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic added to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. They can pass through wastewater treatment processes and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life. (NOAA)

Almost four years ago, I was surprised to find out about the presence of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products, such as exfoliating face cleansers and some types of toothpaste.

The problem with these tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic is that once they are washed down the drain, they escape being filtered by wastewater treatment processes, allowing them to enter the ocean and Great Lakes where they could absorb toxic chemicals in the environment and be ingested by animal life.

Microbeads are actually not a recent problem; according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about fifty years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients with the same purpose in these products. But even in 2012, this issue was still relatively unknown, with an abundance of products containing plastic microbeads on the market and not a lot of awareness on the part of consumers.

Microbeads, Macro-attention

For several years, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been working with researchers that are investigating issues relating to microbeads in our marine environment. In recent years, the issue has received a fair amount of attention in the media and elsewhere.

As a result of increasing overall awareness of the problem, many companies that use microbeads in their products have been phasing them out voluntarily. On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 [PDF], banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.

The law was met with a lot of support, including from the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group who commented during the act’s approval process, which said:

“Solid, plastic microbeads are used in personal care cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties. Research by independent scientists and nongovernmental organizations show that microbeads from all types of industrial uses are miniscule contributors to marine plastic debris; cosmetic microbeads are a tiny fraction of that. At the same time, our member companies take very seriously their role as environmental stewards of their products. As a result, companies have voluntarily committed to replace solid plastic microbeads. We look forward to this important bipartisan legislation making its way to President Obama’s desk and being signed into law.”

Under the Microscope

Tiny bits of microplastics litter a sandy patch of beach.

Microplastics, which include microbeads, are less than 5 millimeters long (roughly the size of a sesame seed). Most microplastic in the ocean actually ends up there after breaking down from bigger pieces of plastic on beaches. (NOAA)

After I originally learned about microbeads in cosmetic products, I discussed the issue with Dr. Joel Baker, Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science at the University of Washington Tacoma and the Science Director of the Center for Urban Waters.

At the time, he was leading a project for the NOAA Marine Debris Program focused on detecting microplastics in the marine environment. Microplastics, which include microbeads, are minute pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long, or about the size of a sesame seed. More recently, he has conducted a study, “Quantification of Marine Microplastics in the Surface Waters of the Gulf of Alaska,” that examined the quantity and distribution of microplastics at specific locations in Alaskan waters over time.

Following the signing of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, I checked back in with Dr. Baker to get his thoughts on the issue now. Four years ago, he had told me, “While we don’t yet understand the impacts of microplastics to aquatic organisms, we do know that releasing persistent materials into the ocean will result in ever-increasing concentrations of marine debris.”

Speaking to him now, while Dr. Baker sees the attention given to microbeads in health and beauty products over the last few years as a good way to raise awareness about plastics in the ocean, he cautions that there still is not enough known about the damage that these extremely small particles cause. He further points out that while certainly not insignificant, they represent a very small percentage of total microplastic debris in the ocean.

We need more research to be able to measure accurately the presence of smaller microplastics, including microbeads, in the ocean. While Dr. Baker and his colleagues have developed a manual on laboratory methods for extracting microplastics from water samples, the methods do not yet detect the smallest particles such as the microbeads that exist in some health and beauty products.

Breaking Down the Issues

In addition, Dr. Baker pointed out to me that microbeads are not the largest source of marine plastic or even microplastics. “Most plastic in the ocean is from beach plastics that break down and improper disposal of trash,” he said. Cosmetic microbeads are much smaller, and are considered primary microplastics [PDF], as opposed to secondary microplastics, which are the result of larger pieces of plastic breaking down into smaller pieces.

While Dr. Baker found encouraging the news that we’ll be stopping one of the many ways plastic reaches the ocean, he emphasized there are plenty more that will require a lot of effort. He suggested that more attention needs to be paid to the abundance of plastic bags that end up in the ocean, which he feels represents a larger part of the plastic marine debris problem.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program strives to learn more about the impacts of marine microplastics. In addition to Dr. Baker’s work, the program currently is supporting microplastic research projects that include, but aren’t limited to, measuring microplastics in the marine environment; the presence of microplastics in different geographical regions, such as the coastal mid-Atlantic region and national park beaches; examining juvenile fishes to determine if they are ingesting microplastic; and the effects of microplastics in aquatic food chains.

For more information on these issues, you also can refer to a UNEP 2014 update on plastic debris in the ocean [PDF].


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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.

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