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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NOAA Scientist Supports Alaska Pipeline Leak Response

Beluga whale dorsal in ocean.

An endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale dorsal. National Marine Fisheries has more information on the whales. (Credit NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is assisting the U.S. Coast Guard in responding to a leaking natural gas pipeline in Cook Inlet, Alaska.

The leak was first reported to federal regulatory agencies on Feb. 7, by Hilcorp Alaska, LLC, which owns the pipeline located about 3.5 miles northeast of Nikiski, Alaska.

The 8-inch pipeline runs 4.6 miles from the shoreline to Hilcorp’s Platform A and then branches off to three other platforms in the inlet. The natural gas is used for fuel to support ongoing operations, as well as heating, and other life support functions.

The pipeline continues to leak between 200,000 and 300,000 cubic feet of processed natural gas a day into the inlet. This processed natural gas is 99% methane. The company said the presence of ice is preventing divers from conducting repairs, and the sea ice is not expected to melt until April.

Once notified of the leak, the U.S. Coast Guard contacted the scientific support coordinator in Alaska, Catherine Berg. She was asked for information on the expected area presenting flammability concerns in support of cautionary notices being broadcast to mariners. As scientific support coordinator, Berg routinely provides scientific and technical support during response for oil spills and hazardous materials releases in the coastal zone, helping to assess the risks to people and the environment.

Because released natural gas is not an oil discharge or a hazardous substance release, in this case, Berg is providing technical support to the Coast Guard and the state as requested, drawing upon similar networks and expertise.

You can read more about NOAA’s work in response and restoration in Alaska in the following articles:

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

At the Trans Alaska Pipeline’s Start, Where 200 Million Barrels of Oil Begin their Journey Each Year

Alaska ShoreZone: Mapping over 46,000 Miles of Coastal Habitat

See What Restoration Looks Like for an Oiled Stream on an Isolated Alaskan Island

Melting Permafrost and Camping with Muskoxen: Planning for Oil Spills on Arctic Coasts

National Marine Fisheries has more information on the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.

 


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10 Common Words with Uncommon Meanings in Spill Response

A ship run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico is surrounded by protective oil boom.

A ship run aground on coral reef in Puerto Rico is surrounded by protective oil boom. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite an effort to use plain language, government agencies often use jargon that only makes sense to insiders. Here is list of common words that can become head-scratchers when used in the context of spill response.

Boom

Not the loud deep resonating sound described in a dictionary. In oil response booms are floating, physical barriers to oil, made of plastic, metal, or other materials, which slow the spread of oil and keep it contained. Read more on the history of booms in spill response here.

Crude

A vulgar comment? Nope. in this case the spill response definition fits more into the traditional understanding of the word, something in a raw or unrefined state. Crude oil is unrefined petroleum, usually liquid, consisting of a mixture of hydrocarbons. Crude oil may be refined into any of hundreds of components, such as commercial gasoline, kerosene, heating oils, diesel oils, lubricating oils, waxes, and asphalts. Read more on crude and other oil types here.

Hazing

Usually defined as a rigorous initiation process into an organization of some sort, in spill response hazing is about exclusion, “hazing” methods are used to keep whales out of harm’s way. Read more about hazing methods here.

Mousse

The first thing that pops into the mind when someone uses the word mousse is that silky pudding-like dessert, or a product to sculpt unruly hair. In spill response, mousse is a term to describe a water-in-oil emulsion that resembles chocolate mousse in color and texture. These emulsions are often very stable, and often have a pudding-like consistency. Typically, a mousse forms when relatively fresh oil is exposed to strong wave action. Mousse colors can range from orange or tan to dark brown. A mousse may contain up to 75 percent water, and may have a volume up to four times that of the original oil. Learn how to make an oil and water mousse here.

Pancakes

Nope, not the breakfast food. In this case pancakes refer to isolated, roughly circular patches of spilled oil ranging in size from a few feet across to hundreds of yards (or meters) in diameter. These oil patches can form tarballs sometimes found along sandy beaches. Read more on tarballs here.

Pom-poms

Similar to the equipment used by many a cheer-squad member, pom-poms in spill response are used to absorb oil for removal. Made of synthetic fibers, pom-poms are used individually or tied on long ropes and used to catch oil as it leaches from beaches and rocky areas. Strings of pom-poms are effective in collecting oil in rock or difficult to reach areas where the tide rises and falls. Read about how pom-poms were used to cleanup an oil spill here.

SOS

Save our ship? How about Science of Oil Spills. Every year the Emergency Response Division educates emergency spill responders increasing their understanding of oil spill science. Read about SOS classes here.

Slick

Typically defined as something done in a smooth way, a slick is the common term used to describe a film of oil (usually less than 2 microns thick) on the water surface. Oil spilled on water absorbs energy and dampens out surface waves, making the oil appear smoother—or slicker—than the surrounding water. Read about oil slicks and sea turtles here.

Streamer

Those paper ribbons hanging from the ceiling at a party, right? Wrong. In spill response a streamer, also called fingers or ribbons, are narrow lines of oil, mousse, or sheen on the water surface, surrounded on both sides by clean water. Streamers result from the combined effects of wind, currents, and/or natural convergence zones. Often, heavier concentrations of mousse or sheen will be present in the center of a streamer, with progressively lighter sheen along the edges. Read about techniques for cleaning up streamers in oil spills here.

Weathering

OK, in this instance, the meaning used in spill response is similar to the general definition. In oil response weathering is the physical and chemical characteristics of oil interacting with the physical and biochemical features of the habitat where a spill occurs. These factors determine how the oil will behave and ultimately what will happen to it. Read more about weathering here.

 


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Preserving Natural Resources for All Americans

People standing in boats on river spraying water with hoses.

To clean sediment following the oil spill in the Kalamazoo River, Michigan, workers sprayed sediment with water and agitated sediment by hand with a rake. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

By Robin Garcia

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) works with federal, state, and local agencies to prepare for, respond to, and assess the risks to natural resources following oil spills and hazardous waste releases. Often, OR&R also collaborates with Native American tribes to ensure that response, assessment, and restoration efforts fully address the needs of all communities.

In recognition of Native American History Month, here are past oil spills and hazardous waste releases that OR&R worked on with Native American tribes as trustees, or government officials acting on behalf of the public.

  • Industrial activities beginning in the 1890s released polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other toxins into the St. Louis River in Minnesota. Recreational activities are discouraged in the area and recreational fishing has decreased, likely due to visible sheens. NOAA, the Fond du Lac Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa, and other trustees have completed an assessment of the site and are developing restoration projects with the responsible parties.
  • Since the early 1900s, activities at a wood treatment facility and a shipyard released toxins including PAHs, mercury, and heavy metals into Eagle Harbor in Washington. About 500 acres of Eagle Harbor were contaminated, and seafood consumption advisories are still in effect. NOAA, the Suquamish Tribe, the Muckleshoot Tribe, and other trustees reached a settlement in 1994 and a restoration plan was finalized in 2009. Projects restored and created habitats for species including Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. While these projects are complete, NOAA is providing input as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers additional cleanup efforts.

    Diver underwater planting eel grass.

    A diver plants eelgrass at the Milwaukee Dock site in Eagle Harbor, Washington. (NOAA)

  • In March 1999, a tanker truck jackknifed on a highway, spilling over 5000 gallons of gasoline onto the reservation of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and into Beaver Creek. The spill occurred in an important spawning and rearing area for Chinook salmon, steelhead, and other migratory fishes. NOAA, the Confederated Tribes, and the U.S. Department of the Interior reached a settlement with the responsible party in 2006 and finalized a restoration plan in 2009. Restoration projects began in 2011, including the restoration of native vegetation and the development of beaver-dam mimicking structures.

Robin Garcia is the Policy Analyst for the Office of Response and Restoration. She supports congressional and partner outreach for the Emergency Response Division, the Assessment and Restoration Division, and NOAA’s Disaster Response Center.


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

Ocean with black smoke from burning oil.

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

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

Point Source Pollution

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

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

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

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

Non-Point Solution Pollution

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

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

Netting across river with trash on one side.

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

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

 


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For Better Chemical Safety, NOAA and EPA Work to Improve Data Sharing During Emergencies

Oil tank fire on platform

In March 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard worked with state and local partners to respond to an oil production platform fire in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana. (U.S. Coast Guard)

When a disaster occurs, it’s critical that the organizations involved in the response can communicate and share information quickly and effectively.

That means groups as diverse and numerous as emergency management, fire service, law enforcement, emergency medical, and responders from local, state, tribal, and federal governments all need to be on the same page. At NOAA, we’re working with our partners to help ensure that the information responders need flows quickly and accurately—when they need it.

An important part of being able to share data is establishing a common set of guidelines or rules for exchanging information. Having a data standard, for example, can enable neighboring districts and states to share key information with one another—even if they aren’t using the same system for storing their information.

The ability to pass information back and forth like that may seem basic, but imagine an emergency in which different response agencies can’t communicate with one another because their radios are incompatible (one of the problems that came to light in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001).

Chemical Reaction, Executive Decision

In the United States, organizations and businesses that produce or store specific hazardous chemicals above certain amounts are required to disclose information to local fire departments, local emergency planning committees, and state or tribal emergency response commissions to help those groups plan for and respond to chemical emergencies.

This process is mandated by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). Under EPCRA, those chemical sites must complete an annual “Tier II form,” where they share information about the chemicals on site (such as types, quantities, and locations), as well as other important details like contact information for their site’s emergency coordinator.

As a result of fatal chemical accidents in recent years, Executive Order (EO) 13650 (Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security) was implemented in August 2013. It called for improving operational coordination between federal, state, local, and tribal organizations; enhancing information collection and sharing; and modernizing regulations, policy, and standards.

Many of the items in the executive order are specifically related to facilitating the exchange of information to help emergency responders and planners. Among the changes that EO 13650 proposes is the creation of a national Tier II data standard so that information can be shared between systems (e.g., between neighboring states using different Tier II filing systems) to improve the exchange of Tier II information.

NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have recently developed and released version 1.0.0 of the national Tier II data standard, which will allow Tier II information to be shared by all programs that follow the standard. We chose a common platform, XML, for the new standard to make adoption of the standard as easy as possible.

Top Tier Software

NOAA and EPA also develop a Tier II management program called Tier2 Submit™, which allows chemical sites to complete Tier II forms electronically. The chemical sites can then submit those electronic Tier II submission files, according to the requirements of their state. About half of the states and territories in the U.S. use the Tier2 Submit program, which is available for download from the EPA website. Tier2 Submit files can also be imported directly into the CAMEOfm database program for emergency response and planning purposes.

When the new version of Tier2 Submit is released this fall, it will be able to import and export data in an XML format that adheres to the new national Tier II data standard. (Tier2 Submit will also continue to support import from the older file formats in this upcoming release.) While this is a significant change to the data file structure and an important improvement for exchanging data between programs, it will have minimal impact on the user experience and they will interact with Tier2 Submit much as they have in previous years. (The fall release of CAMEOfm will also allow Tier  II information to be imported via the new XML data standard, but the next CAMEOfm will not include any additional import or export XML support beyond that.)

A Suite of Updates for Safety

Besides the Tier II data standard, the joint NOAA-EPA CAMEO® team has implemented several other changes, prompted by the executive order, to the suite of chemical response and planning software. We have added the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) information in CAMEO Chemicals; added Spanish and French response guides from the 2016 Emergency Response Guidebook in CAMEO Chemicals; included the Navy’s RAILCAR model in ALOHA® as an alternative tank source strength model, and redesigned the MARPLOT® mapping program to allow users to incorporate geospatial data from many sources (and in many different file formats).

In addition, the CAMEO team is currently developing several apps for mobile phones and tablets.

The CAMEO software products have been valuable hazardous materials response and planning tools since the first products were introduced in 1986. The CAMEO suite consists of four core programs—ALOHA (models hazardous gas clouds), CAMEO Chemicals (a chemical database), CAMEOfm (a chemical emergency data management application), and MARPLOT (a mapping program)—as well as several related programs, such as Tier2 Submit. These applications can be used together or separately, but when used together, the programs interact seamlessly and information can be linked easily between them.

As a result of NOAA and EPA’s work to address Executive Order 13650 recommendations, emergency responders have improved access to information and an enhanced ability to share information with other organizations for chemical facility safety and security—improving safety for everyone when a disaster occurs.


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Restoring Marsh Habitat by Sharing Assessment Techniques

Group of four people stand in a marsh.

Training participants examine a one meter square quadrant transect (rod at bottom) to illustrate how new metrics could be applied for a northeast assessment. (NOAA)

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to environmental assessments for oil spills or hazardous waste events. We must therefore custom-tailor our technical approach for each pollution incident.

We first determine whether impacts to natural resources have occurred and whether it is appropriate to proceed with a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). We collect time-sensitive data, evaluate available research and information about the type of injury, and determine what species and habitats are likely to have been affected. If we determine that habitats, wildlife or human uses have been harmed or could experience significant impacts, we often proceed with a full damage assessment.

This type of scientific assessment is particularly challenging in a marsh environment given potential injury due to both oil persistence and toxicity. For example, a home heating oil released by the North Cape barge in 1996 caused acute injury to lobsters, clams, fish, crabs, and mussels in, and adjacent to, the marshes of southern Rhode Island. The light oil was highly toxic, but quickly dissipated, thereby causing a lot of immediate injury, but less long-term problems. By contrast, a more chronic impact was the result of persistent fuel oil released by the Barge Bouchard 120 in the salt marshes of Massachusetts in 2003. That oil saturated 100 miles of shoreline, impacting tidal marshes, mudflats, beaches, and rocky shorelines. These evolving factors are why we constantly share best practices and lessons learned among our colleagues in the northeast and nationwide.

Members of the Northeast and Spatial Data Branch of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and NOAA’s Restoration Center recently met at Spermaceti Cove, Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to participate in a hands-on workshop to improve our salt marsh damage assessment techniques and data compilation.

They were building on previous findings presented at a 2015 salt marsh assessment workshop in Massachusetts, that information learned there should be shared in other locales. Of note were the variety of vegetation and native invertebrates around the coastal United States that necessitate region-specific marsh field training.

Two people standing in shallow water holding a seining net.

Scientists seining salt marsh tidal channel collecting native small fish for injury determination. (NOAA)

To address the study of natural resource damages in a mid-north Atlantic salt marsh environ, this 2016 effort included the count of flora and fauna species within a 2 meter square quadrant along a designated transect (see photo) to provide a measure of diversity and species richness.  Also they used a seine, a lift net, and minnow traps to collect fish adjacent to the marsh for species identification and to measure body size and observe possible abnormalities, both external and internal.

Additionally, NOAA scientists discussed and demonstrated current best practices to perform our work regarding health and safety, sample custody, and data management.

In an actual future marsh injury assessment, the Trustees would develop a conceptual site model for guidance in testing the hypotheses, the specific study design, and the proper site and habitat injury measures.

Ken Finkelstein and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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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.