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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Looking Back: Six Years Since Deepwater

beach-grasses (4)Wednesday, April 20, is the six-year anniversary of the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.  That terrible incident was the start of a three month-long oil spill that spilled millions of gallons per day until the well was capped on July 15, 2010.    The cleanup took years to complete, the natural resource damage assessment was just finalized this spring, and restoration activities will take decades to complete.  Many long-term research projects are underway and we are still learning about the effects of the spill on the environmental and the coastal communities of the Gulf of Mexico.

On April 4, 2016, the court approved a settlement with BP for natural resource injuries stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This settlement concludes the largest natural resource damage assessment ever undertaken. It is safe to say that scientists will be publishing papers and results for decades.  For many of the people involved, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered THE SPILL, the same way the generation of scientists that worked on the Exxon Valdez Spill in Alaska almost 30 years ago consider that event.  We even keep track of events in a rough vernacular based on those incidents.  Post-Deepwater, or Pre-OPA (the Oil Pollution Act, passed in 1990, the summer after the Exxon Valdez spill).  But while those spills generate most of the publicity, policy interest, and research, responders in NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies know that spills are a routine occurrence.  Since the Deepwater Horizon spill, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has responded to over 800 other incidents.  Most are ones that you’ve probably never heard off, but here are a few of the larger incidents since Deepwater.

Enbridge Pipeline Leak, Kalamazoo, Michigan:  On July 25, 2010, while the nation was fixated on the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an underground pipeline in Michigan also began gushing oil. More than 800,000 gallons of crude oil poured out of the leaking pipeline and flowed along 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River, one of the largest rivers in southern Michigan. The spill impacted over 1,560 acres of stream and river habitat as well as floodplain and upland areas, and reduced recreational and tribal uses of the river. A natural resource damage assessment was settled in 2015 that will result in multiple resource restoration projects along the Kalamazoo River.

Two kayakers on the river with vegetation visible on the water in foreground.

Kayaking on the Kalamazoo River. (NOAA)

Exxon Mobil Pipeline Rupture, Yellowstone River, Montana:  On July 1, 2011, an ExxonMobil Pipeline near Billings, Montana, ruptured, releasing an estimated 31,500 to 42,000 gallons of oil into the iconic river, which was at flood-stage level at the time of the spill.  Oil spread downstream affecting sensitive habitats.

Paulsboro, New Jersey Rail Accident and Release: On November 30, 2012, a train transporting the chemical vinyl chloride derailed while crossing a bridge that collapsed over Mantua Creek, in Paulsboro, N.J., near Philadelphia. Four rail cars fell into the creek, breaching one tank and releasing approximately 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride. A voluntary evacuation zone was established for the area, and nearby schools were ordered to immediately take shelter and seal off their buildings.

Molasses Spill, Honolulu, Hawaii: On September 8, 2013, a faulty pipeline operated by Matson Shipping Company leaked 233,000 gallons (1,400 tons) of molasses into Hawaii’s Honolulu Harbor.  A large fish kill resulted.

Texas “Y” collision, Galveston, Texas:  On March 22, 2014, the 585 foot bulk carrier ‘M/V Summer Wind’ collided with an oil tank-barge, containing 924,000 gallons of fuel oil.  The collision occurred at the intersection or “Y” in Lower Galveston Bay, where three lanes of marine traffic converge: vessels from the Port of Texas City, the Houston Ship Channel and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.   The collision breached the hull of the tank barge, spilling about 168,000 gallons of fuel oil spilled into the waterway. A natural resource damage assessment is underway, evaluating impacts to shoreline habitats, birds, bottlenose dolphins, and recreational uses.

Refugio State Beach Pipeline Rupture, California:   On May 19, 2015, a 24-inch crude pipeline ruptured near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California. Of the approximately 100,000 gallons of crude oil released, some was captured and some flowed into the Pacific Ocean.  The spill raised many challenges. The spill occurred in an especially sensitive region of the coast, known for its incredible diversity of marine life and home to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The Refugio spill site is also 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. A natural resource damage assessment for the Refugio spill is underway, focusing on impacts to wildlife, habitat, and lost recreational uses.

Two people in cleanup suits with a shovel stand on a beach with oiled rocks.

Two cleanup crew members work to remove oil from the sand along a portion of soiled coastline near Refugio State Beach, on May 23, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Barge APEX 3508 Collision, Columbus, Kentucky:  On September 2, 2015, two tug boats collided on the Mississippi River near Columbus, Kentucky, spilling an estimated 120,500 gallons of heavy oil.  The oil sank to the river bottom and had to be recovered by dredge.

Train Derailment, West Virginia:  On February 16, 2015, a CSX oil train derailed and caught fire in West Virginia near the confluence of Armstrong Creek and the Kanawha River. The train was hauling 3.1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a facility in Virginia. Of the 109 train cars, 27 of them derailed on the banks of the Kanawha River, but none of them entered the river. Much of the oil they were carrying was consumed in the fire, which affected 19 train cars, and an unknown amount of oil reached the icy creek and river.

Each year NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is asked to respond to an average of 150 incidents, and so far this year we have been asked for help with 43 incidents. Most of these were not huge, and include groundings in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii; five sunken vessels, fires at two marinas, a burning vessel, and an oil platform fire; nine oil spills and a chemical spill; and multiple “mystery sheens”—slicks of oil or chemicals that are spotted on the surface of the water and don’t have a clear origin. Since 1990, we have responded to thousands of incidents, helping to guide effective cleanups and protect sensitive resources. Also since 1990 and with our co-trustees, we have settled almost 60 spills for more than $9.7 billion for restoration. We hope that we will never have to respond to another “Deepwater” or “Exxon Valdez”, but should a large disaster occur, we will be ready. In the meantime, smaller accidents happen frequently and we are ready for those, too.

Doug Helton and Vicki Loe contributed to this post.


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After Decades of Pollution, Bringing Safe Fishing Back to Kids in Southern California

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

A boy holds up a scorpion fish on a boat.

A boy participating in the Montrose youth fishing program shows off his catch, a scorpion fish, from the Betty-O fishing boat with Marina Del Rey Anglers in southern California. (NOAA)

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

Polluted waters and polluted fish seem like obvious (and good) reasons to skip a fishing trip at such a beach, and they are.

For a long time, that was the case for a certain slice of coastal southern California, and those skipped fishing trips really add up. Fortunately, NOAA and our partners are responsible for making up for those trips never taken and do so through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, factories, including one owned by the Montrose Chemical Corporation, released several million pounds of DDT and roughly 256,000 pounds of PCBs through ocean outfall pipes onto the Palos Verdes Shelf off of southern California. These chemicals made their way up the food chain, impacting fish and wildlife, and in turn, people too.

By 1991, the high chemical concentrations in fish prompted the California Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment to issue its first consumption advisory for common sportfish found along the southern California coast.

A boy stands next to a sign warning not to eat contaminated fish, with people fishing off a pier beyond.

Decades of pollution dumped onto the Palos Verdes Shelf off of southern California later led to fish consumption advisories, warning people of the dangers of eating contaminated fish. (NOAA)

At the same time, media reports amplified the message that fish were contaminated in this area, which resulted in a large number of anglers completely shying away from fishing within the contaminated zone—whether the fish they were catching were affected or not. In addition, unaware of the dangers, low-income, subsistence anglers continued to catch and eat contaminated fish.

All of these factors contributed to a measurable impact to these types of fishing opportunities in southern California, prompting the need to restore them.

Connecting Kids with Fishing

Following a natural resource damages settlement in 2000, NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP) was developed to restore wildlife, fishing, and fish habitat that were harmed by DDTs and PCBs in the southern California marine environment.

In our 2005 restoration plan [PDF], we identified the need for a public information campaign targeted to youth and families, which would help anglers make informed decisions about what to do with the local fish they caught. Our program was also hoping to change the public perception about local fishing by giving anglers information about alternative, safe fish species to catch and consume and which species to avoid.

Starting in 2007, we funded and supported a youth fishing outreach mini-grant program, one of the major components of this campaign. For this program, we teamed up with local fishing clubs, youth groups, environmental organizations, aquaria, and the City of Los Angeles to educate young people and their families about safe fishing practices.

The program focused on three key and seven secondary messages related to recreational fishing in the area and included a hands-on fishing component. Participating groups also distributed our What’s the Catch? comic books [PDF] and fish identification cards [PDF] to youth who took part in the program. Some of the activities included touring a local aquarium to reinforce fish identification and playing interactive games that demonstrated bioaccumulation of chemicals in the food chain.

Since the campaign started in 2007, over 20,000 youth have participated in our fishing outreach program through eight participating organizations. All of these organizations were serving low-income or at-risk youth ages 5-19 years old and included having kids actually fish from either a boat or pier.

Fishing for Information

Starting in 2012, we started surveying youth, teachers, and counselors at the end of each fishing outreach program. Featuring questions such as “Did you enjoy the fishing today?” and “Did you learn how to identify fish which are safe to eat?” these surveys helped us understand whether kids were actually learning the program’s key messages.

A group of kids surround a man filleting fish on a pier.

Staff from the City of Los Angeles show kids how to properly fillet a fish to reduce their intake of contaminants. (NOAA)

We found that the program improved each year. By 2015 at least 86% of youth understood our top three key messages:

  • Fishing is one of the most common outdoor activities in the world, allowing people to make a personal connection with nature.
  • There are many fish in southern California that are healthy to eat.
  • A small number of fish are not safe to eat.

The frequency and type of secondary messages that were taught by our partnering organizations varied among programs. In most cases, programs improved with teaching these concepts each year, with at least 77% of youth understanding most of the secondary messages:

  • DDT and PCB contaminants bioaccumulate up the food chain.
  • DDTs and PCBs, harmful chemicals to wildlife and humans, were dumped into the ocean for more than 30 years in southern California and are still in the environment today.
  • Eating only the fillet and throwing away the insides of the fish is a safe way to eat.
  • Grilling a fillet is the safest way to prepare fish to eat.
  • Look for signs on piers telling you which fish are not safe to eat.
  • All fish are an important part of the ocean ecosystem. If you do not keep a fish for the table, gently return it to the ocean.
  • You play an important role in preserving our ocean resources. Follow fishing rules and regulations to be good ocean stewards.

Feel the Learn

Youth group on board a boat with volunteers from Marina Del Rey Anglers holding up foam board educational signs.

Since the campaign started in 2007, over 20,000 kids have participated in the fishing outreach program through eight participating organizations, all of which worked with low-income or at-risk youth. Here, a group of kids on board a boat with volunteers from Marina Del Rey Anglers show off some of the educational signs used in the program. (NOAA)

We also surveyed third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers that participated in the Fun Fishing Program at The SEA Lab in Redondo Beach, California. Teachers evaluated the usefulness of our comic book and fish identification cards, which they received before their field trip.

At least 96% of teachers surveyed over four years agreed that the comic book presented useful information for their students, captured student’s interests, and was a resource they could easily use in the classroom. For the fish identification card, at least 87% of teachers felt similarly about this educational tool.

We also know that students who participated in the program at The SEA Lab remembered what they learned from their field trip six months later. More than half of the students we surveyed at this later date recalled seven out of 10 program messages correctly and were making healthier decisions when eating fish. Teachers who were also surveyed during this time showed that more than 50% were occasionally teaching concepts related to six of the program messages in their classrooms.

In the final year of this fishing outreach program (due to the full use of funding allocations outlined in the restoration plan), we are planning to support two organizations, The SEA Lab and the City of Los Angeles, in summer and fall 2016.

The program has been hugely successful at improving the health of children and their families and introducing them to the joyful sport of fishing, while showing lasting impacts on teachers and students. This success is due in a big way to the dedication of our many partners and especially those who provided thousands of volunteer hours.

Fishing Outreach Program Partner Organizations:

Cabrillo Marine Aquarium (2007)

The SEA Lab (2007-2016)

United Anglers of Southern California (2009/2011)

Asian Youth Center (2009)

Friends of Colorado Lagoon (2011-2012)

City of Los Angeles-Department of Recreation and Parks (2011-2016)

Marina Del Rey Anglers Fishing Club (2012-2015)

Los Angeles Rod and Reel Club (2014-2015)

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.


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How Do We Measure What We Lose When an Oil Spill Harms Nature?

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

This is a post by economist Adam Domanski of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

A beach closed sign on a fence in front of an ocean beach at Coal Point.

When an oil spill closes a beach, economists will count how many trips to the coast were affected by that spill and use information on where those trips were originating to measure the lost value per lost trip. This informs the amount of restoration that needs to make up for those losses. (Used with permission of Chris Leggett)

After oil spills into the ocean, NOAA studies the impacts to animals and plants, but we also make sure to measure the direct impacts to people’s use of nature. This is all part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which makes up for those impacts.

Humans can value environmental quality just for its existence (think of remote mountains and pristine beaches). In the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, this “non-use value” is most often compensated for by replacing the natural resources or services that were lost.

Oil and Fun Don’t Mix

However, people can also value the environment because they use it for recreational or cultural purposes. For example, people may be affected if they can’t go fishing, boating, or walking along the beach because of an oil spill.

When oil or another contaminant comes near shore, sometimes people will cancel their planned trip, sometimes they’ll change where they’re going, and other times they’ll still take a trip but will enjoy it less. Trustees of the affected resources, like NOAA, apply different tools to measure these recreational use losses (we’ll talk about cultural losses in an upcoming blog post).

However, people may make one of these changes even if there isn’t any oil present on the beach. Sometimes beaches or fishing areas may be closed because cleanup crews or environmental assessment teams are present. Other times, people may hear about an oil spill in the news and may change their trip based on their reasonable expectation that the oil spill will affect their trip in some way.

Infographic showing three scenarios for how people react to an oil spill: some people stay home from the beach, some people go to a beach farther from the oil spill, and some people go to the same beach but have a less enjoyable experience.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, any one of these changes is an impact than we can quantify in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

Counting How Much Less Fun

Under the Oil Pollution Act, people generally can file legal claims for two types of economic losses related to recreational use due to a spill. Lost revenue to local businesses, such as stores, restaurants, and hotels, is a private loss and is reserved for those businesses to claim. On the other hand, the lost value to the would-be hikers, boaters, anglers, and swimmers is considered a public loss and is the responsibility of trustees, that is, local, state, and federal agencies and tribes acting as stewards of the affected public natural resources.

People walking on a developed portion of white sand beach at the ocean.

Pollution makes for a bad day at the beach, which is why NOAA also measures the impact of oil spills and chemical releases on people’s use of natural resources. (NOAA)

To measure these public damages, trustee economists will count how many trips to the coast were affected by that particular oil spill and use information on where those trips were originating to measure the lost value per lost trip. Together, these two pieces make up the trustee claim for lost recreational use after an oil spill.

To measure lost trips, trustees will often use on-site, telephone, or mail surveys in combination with on-site or aerial counts of people on the coast. Sometimes, we can take advantage of other data sources that already tell us how many people visit the coast, such as existing beach attendance data, parking meter counts, or recreational fishing surveys.

For example, after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay, trustees performed on-site counts of people at some beaches, used a telephone survey to estimate the levels of use at others, and relied on the California Recreational Fisheries Survey to estimate trips taken by anglers. This information was combined with weather data in a statistical model to predict the number of people that would have taken trips if the oil spill hadn’t occurred. The assessment estimated that there had been over 1 million lost trips.

The lost value per lost trip is measured using economic models that combine information on where people live and which recreational sites they can choose from. Just like shopping at the grocery store (where you choose from lots of different products at different prices), recreators choose between lots of different access points, each of which has a different “price” (in terms of gas and travel time).

People standing around a pier fishing.

When pollution affects people’s ability to use and enjoy natural resources, such as fishing, we use money from the entity responsible for the pollution to fund projects that will benefit the very same users who were affected. (NOAA)

Using many observations of how many people choose which sites at which prices, economists can measure the recreational demand for each site. When a site is affected by an oil spill, this model can be used to determine the lost value to recreators. For the Cosco Busan oil spill, this approach estimated that the average lost value per lost trip was $18.25 (as measured in 2007 dollars).

The goal of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process is to compensate the public for the harm caused by a spill. After we calculate the lost value, the trustees aren’t done yet. Using money from the entity responsible for the oil spill, we spend restoration dollars on projects that will benefit the very same users who were affected. A few examples of projects we have built include fishing piers, boat ramps, parks, and artificial reefs.

Survey Says

So, how important are lost recreational use claims to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process? Here are a few approximate numbers from past oil spill cases:

As you can see, surveying how people use the environment is a critical part of this process. And although taking surveys can be annoying, they often times generate really useful data that economists get super excited about—and from which you can directly benefit. So, the next time you get asked if you want to take a survey, take the opportunity to make an economist happy and say yes.

Learn more about the economics of Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the value of a good day at the beach (video).

adam-domanski_150Adam Domanski is an economist who specializes in non-market valuation with the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. He received his PhD in Economics from North Carolina State University and has worked on numerous oil spill and hazardous waste site cases. In his spare time he enjoys traveling and spending time outside.


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From Kayaking to Carbon Storage, What We Stand to Gain (and Lose) from Our Coasts

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

This is a guest post by Stefanie Simpson of Restore America’s Estuaries.

People sitting in canoes and standing on a shoreline.

When coastal habitats are damaged or destroyed, we lose all of the benefits they provide, such as carbon storage and places to canoe. (NOAA)

Estuaries, bays, inlets, sounds—these unique places where rivers meet the sea can go by many different names depending on which region of the United States you’re in. Whether you’re kayaking through marsh in the Carolinas, hiking through mangrove forest in the Everglades, or fishing in San Francisco Bay, you are experiencing the bounty estuaries provide.

Natural habitats like estuaries offer people an incredible array of benefits, which we value in assorted ways—ecologically, economically, culturally, recreationally, and aesthetically.

Estuaries, where saltwater and freshwater merge, are some of the most productive habitats in the world. Their benefits, also called “ecosystem services,” can be measured in a variety of ways, such as by counting the number of birding or boating trips made there or by measuring the amount of fish or seafood produced.

If you eat seafood, chances are before ending on up your plate, that fish spent at least some of its life in an estuary. Estuaries provide critical habitat for over 75% of our commercial fish catch and 80% of our recreational fish catch. Coastal waters support more than 69 million jobs and generate half the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) [PDF]. Estuaries also improve water quality by filtering excess nutrients and pollutants and protect the coast from storms and flooding.

Another, perhaps less obvious, benefit of estuaries is that they are also excellent at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in the ground long-term. In fact, estuary habitats like mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrasses store so much carbon, scientists gave it its own name: blue carbon.

How do we know how much carbon is in an estuary? Scientists can collect soil cores from habitats such as a salt marsh and analyze them in the lab to determine how much carbon is in the soil and how long it’s been there.

But you can also see the difference. Carbon-rich soils are made up of years of accumulated sediment and dead and decaying plant and animal material. These soils are dark, thick, and mucky—much different from the sandy, mineral soils you might find along a beach.

Science continues to improve our understanding of ecosystem services, such as blue carbon, and their value to people. For example, in 2014 a study was conducted in the Snohomish Estuary in Washington’s Puget Sound to find out just how much carbon could be stored by restoring estuaries. The study estimated that full restoration of the Snohomish Estuary (over 9,884 acres) would remove 8.9 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—that’s roughly equal to taking 1,760,000 cars off the road for an entire year.

Estuary restoration would not only help to mitigate the effects of climate change but would have a positive cascading effect on other ecosystem services as well, including providing habitat for fish, improving water quality, and preventing erosion.

Healthy estuaries provide us with so many important benefits, yet these habitats are some of the most threatened in the world and are disappearing at alarming rates. In less than 100 years, most of these habitats may be lost, due to human development and the effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise.

When we lose estuaries and other coastal habitats, we lose all of the ecosystem services they provide, including carbon storage. When coastal habitat is drained or destroyed, the carbon stored in the ground is released back into the atmosphere and our coast becomes more vulnerable to storms and flooding. It is estimated that half a billion tons of carbon dioxide are released every year due to coastal and estuary habitat loss.

These benefits can also be compromised when coastal habitats are harmed by oil spills and chemical pollution. People also feel these impacts to nature, whether because an oil spill has closed their favorite beach or chemical dumping has made the fish a tribe relies on unsafe to eat.

Scientists and economists continue to increase our understanding of the many benefits provided by our coastal habitats, and land managers use this information to protect and restore habitats and their numerous services. Stay tuned for more this week as NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and Restore America’s Estuaries explore how our use of nature suffers from pollution and why habitat restoration is so important.

Stefanie Simpson.Stefanie Simpson is the Blue Carbon Program Coordinator for Restore America’s Estuaries where she works to promote blue carbon as a tool for coastal restoration and conservation and coordinates the Blue Carbon National Network. Ms. Simpson is also a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Philippines 2010-12) and has her Master of Science in Environmental Studies.

The views expressed here reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the federal government.


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10 Photos That Tell the Story of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and its Impacts

Exxon Valdez ship with response vessels in Prince William Sound.

The single-hull tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil. (U.S. Coast Guard)

While oil spills happen almost every day, we are fortunate that relatively few make such large or lasting impressions as the Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez spills. Before 2010, when the United States was fixated on a gushing oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, most Americans could probably only name one spill: when the tanker Exxon Valdez released 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

Here we’ve gathered 10 photos that help tell the story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its impacts, not only on the environment but also on science, policy, spill response, school kids, and even board games. It has become a touchstone event in many ways, one to be learned from even decades after the fact.

1. Time for safety

Calendar showing March 1989 and image of Exxon Valdez ship.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Exxon Shipping Company’s safety calendar featured the tanker Exxon Valdez in March 1989, the same month the ship ran aground. Image: From the collection of Gary Shigenaka.

Long before the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, a series of events were building that would enable this catastrophic marine accident to unfold as it did. These actions varied from the opening of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s to the decision by the corporation running that pipeline to disband its oil spill response team and Exxon’s efforts to hold up both the tanker Exxon Valdez and its captain, Joseph Hazelwood, as exemplars of safety.

Captain Hazelwood received two Exxon Fleet safety awards for 1987 and 1988, the years leading up to March 1989, which was coincidentally the month the Exxon Valdez was featured on an Exxon Shipping Company calendar bearing the warning to “take time to be careful – now.”

Read more about the timeline of events leading up to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

2. A law for the birds

Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, federal and state agencies can more easily evaluate the full environmental impacts of oil spills — and then enact restoration to make up for that harm. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

Photos of oil-soaked birds and other wildlife in Prince William Sound reinforced just how inadequate the patchwork of existing federal, state, and local laws were at preventing or addressing the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

While lawmakers took nearly a year and a half—and a few more oil spills—to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, this landmark legislation was without a doubt inspired by that major oil spill. (After all, the law specifically “bars from Prince William Sound any tank vessels that have spilled over 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989.” In other words, the Exxon Valdez.) In the years since it passed, this law has made huge strides in improving oil spill prevention, cleanup, liability, and restoration.

3.  The end of single-hull tankers

People observe a large tanker with a huge gash in its hull in dry dock.

Evidence of the success of double-hull tankers: The Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla collided with a submerged oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009 and despite this damage, did not spill any oil. (Texas General Land Office)

This image of a damaged ship is not showing the T/V Exxon Valdez, and that is precisely the point. The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker with a single hull, which meant that when it hit ground, there was only one layer of metal for the rocks to tear through and release its tanks of oil.

But this 2009 photo shows the Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla after it sustained a major gash in its double-sided hull — and didn’t spill a drop of oil. Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all new tankers and tank-barges were required to be built with double hulls to reduce the chance of another Exxon Valdez situation. January 1, 2015 was the final deadline for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters.

 4. Oiled otters and angry kids

Policymakers weren’t the only ones to take note and take action in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, California, was quite upset that the oil spill was having such devastating effects on one of her favorite animals: sea otters. So, on April 13, 1989, she wrote and illustrated a letter to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to let him know she felt that the oil spill was “killing nature.”

Indeed, sea otters in Prince William Sound weren’t declared recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill until 2013. Other species still haven’t recovered and in some sheltered beaches below the surface, you can still find pockets of oil.

5. Oil and killer whales do mix (unfortunately)

Killer whales swimming alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn).

One of the species that has yet to recover after the Exxon Valdez oil spill is the killer whale, or orca. Before this oil spill, scientists and oil spill experts thought that these marine mammals were able to detect and avoid oil spills. That is, until two killer whale pods were spotted swimming near or through oil from this spill. One of them, a group nicknamed the “AT1 Transients” which feed primarily on marine mammals, suffered an abrupt 40% drop in population during the 18 months following the oil spill.

The second group of affected killer whales, the fish-eating “AB Pod Residents,” lost 33% of their population, and while they have started to rebound, the transients are listed as a “depleted stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and may have as few as seven individuals remaining, down from a stable population of at least 22 in the 1980s.

Building on the lessons of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, NOAA has developed an emergency plan for keeping the endangered Southern Resident killer whale populations of Washington and British Columbia away from potential oil spills.

6. Tuna troubles

Top: A normal young yellowfin tuna. Bottom: A deformed yellowfin tuna exposed to oil during development.

A normal yellowfin tuna larva (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil during development (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of abnormalities including excess fluid building up around the heart due to heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (NOAA)

How does crude oil affect fish populations? In the decades since the Exxon Valdez spill, teams of scientists have been studying the long-term effects of oil on fish such as herring, pink salmon, and tuna. In the first couple years after this spill, they found that oil was in fact toxic to developing fish, curving their spines, reducing the size of their eyes and jaws, and building up fluid around their hearts.

As part of this rich research tradition begun after the Exxon Valdez spill, NOAA scientists helped uncover the precise mechanisms for how this happens after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The photo here shows both a normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top) and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom).

The oil-exposed larva exhibits a suite of abnormalities, showing how toxic chemicals in oil such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can affect the embryonic heart. By altering the embryonic heartbeat, exposure to oil can transform the shape of the heart, with implications for how well the fish can swim and survive as an adult.

7. Caught between a rock and a hard place

Mearns Rock boulder in 2003.

The boulder nicknamed “Mearns Rock,” located in the southwest corner of Prince William Sound, Alaska, was coated in oil which was not cleaned off after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This image was taken in 2003. (NOAA)

Not all impacts from an oil spill are as easy to see as deformed fish hearts. As NOAA scientists Alan Mearns and Gary Shigenaka have learned since 1989, picking out those impacts from the noisy background levels of variability in the natural environment become even harder when the global climate and ocean are undergoing unprecedented change as well.

Mearns, for example, has been monitoring the boom and bust cycles of marine life on a large boulder—nicknamed “Mearns Rock”—that was oiled but not cleaned after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What he and Shigenaka have observed on that rock and elsewhere in Prince William Sound has revealed large natural swings in the numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles, changes which are unrelated to the oil spill as they were occurring even in areas untouched by the spill.

Read more about how these scientists are exploring these challenges and a report on NOAA’s involvement in the wake of this spill.

8. A game culture

A view of part of the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” with a map of Prince William Sound.

The game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” challenges players to clean all 200 miles of shoreline oiled by the Exxon Valdez — and do so with limits on time and money. (Credit: Alaska Resources Library and Information Services, ARLIS)

Just as the Exxon Valdez oil spill touched approximately 200 miles of remote and rugged Alaskan shoreline, this spill also touched the hearts and minds of people far from the spill. References to it permeated mainstream American culture in surprising ways, inspiring a cookbook, a movie, a play, music, books, poetry, and even a board game.

That’s right, a bartender from Valdez, Alaska, produced the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” as a result of his experience employed in spill cleanup. Players vied to be the first to wash all 200 miles of oiled shoreline without running out of time or money.

9. Carrying a piece of the ship

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with "On the rocks," is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay.

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with “On the rocks,” is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay. (NOAA)

One NOAA scientist in particular, Gary Shigenaka, who kicked off his career working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, was personally touched by this spill as well. After receiving a small chunk of metal from the ship’s salvage, Shigenaka began amassing a collection of Exxon Valdez–related memorabilia, ranging from a highball glass commemorating the ship’s launch in 1986 (ironic considering the questions surrounding its captain being intoxicated the night of the accident) to the front page of the local paper the day of the spill.

See more photos of his collection.

10. The infamous ship’s fate

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled on the beach of Alang, India, 2012.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled in Alang, India, 2012. Photo by ToxicsWatch Alliance.

After causing the largest-to-date oil spill in U.S. waters, what ever happened to the ill-fated Exxon Valdez ship? It limped back for repairs to San Diego Bay where it was built, but by the time it was sea-ready again, the ship had been banned from Prince William Sound by the Oil Pollution Act and would instead be reassigned to the Mediterranean and Middle East and renamed accordingly, the Exxon Mediterranean.

But a series of new names and bad luck continued to follow this ship, until it was finally sold for scrap in 2011. Under its final name, Oriental Nicety, it was intentionally grounded at the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Alang, Gujarat, India, in 2012 and dismantled in its final resting place 23 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground half a world away.


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For the First Time in Decades, Scientists Examine How Oil Spills Might Affect Baleen Whales

A North Atlantic right whale's mouth is visible at the ocean surface.

NOAA scientists and partners recently collaborated to examine how oil and dispersants might affect the function of baleen in humpback, bowhead, and right whales (pictured). Hundreds of baleen plates hang from these whales’ top jaws and allow them to filter food from the water. (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Permit 15488)

Several days of unseasonably warm weather in late September had Gary Shigenaka starting to wonder how much longer he and his colleagues would be welcome at Ohmsett, a national oil spill research facility in New Jersey.

They were working with whale baleen, and although the gum tissue anchoring their baleen samples had been preserved with formalin, the balmy fall weather was taking a toll. As a result, things were starting to smell a little rank.

Fortunately, cooler weather rounded out that first week of experiments, and the group, of course, was invited back again. Over the course of three week-long trials in September, December, and January, they were trying to tease out the potential impacts of oil and dispersants on whale baleen.

As a marine biologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Shigenaka’s job is to consider how oil spills might threaten marine life and advise the U.S. Coast Guard on this issue during a spill response.

But the last time scientists had examined how oil might affect whale baleen was in a handful of studies back in the 1980s. This research took place before the 1989 Exxon Valdez and 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spills and predated numerous advances in scientific technique, technology, and understanding.

Thanks to a recent opportunity provided by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which runs the Ohmsett facility, Shigenaka and a team of scientists, engineers, and oil spill experts have been able to revisit this question in the facility’s 2.6 million gallon saltwater tank.

The diverse team that made this study possible hails not just from NOAA but also Alaska’s North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management (Dr. Todd Sformo), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Dr. Michael Moore and Tom Lanagan), Hampden-Sydney College (Dr. Alexander Werth), and Oil Spill Response Limited (Paul Schuler). In addition, NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program provided substantial support for the project, including funding and regulatory expertise, and was coordinated by Dr. Teri Rowles.

Getting a Mouthful

To understand why this group is focused on baleen and how an oil spill might affect this particular part of a whale, you first need to understand what baleen is and how a whale uses it. Similar to fingernails and hooves, baleen is composed of the protein keratin, along with a few calcium salts, giving it a tough but pliable character.

A hand holds a ruler next to oiled baleen hanging from a clamp next to a man.

Made of the flexible substance keratin, baleen plates have tangles of “fringe hair” that act as nets to strain marine life from mouthfuls of ocean water. This study examined how oil and dispersants might affect the performance of baleen. (NOAA)

Twelve species of whales, including humpback and bowhead, have hundreds of long plates of baleen hanging from the top jaw, lined up like the teeth on a comb, which they use to filter feed. A whale’s tongue rubs against its baleen plates, fraying their inner edges and creating tangles of “fringe hair” that act like nets to catch tiny sea creatures as the whale strains massive gulps of ocean water back out through the baleen plates.

Baleen does vary somewhat between species of whales. Some might have longer or shorter baleen plates, for example, depending on what the whale eats. Bowhead whales, which are Arctic plankton-eaters, can have plates up to 13 feet long.

This study was, at least in part, inspired by scientists wondering what would happen to a bowhead whale if a mouthful of water brought not just lunch but also crude oil from an ill-fated tanker traversing its Arctic waters.

Would oil pass through a whale’s hundreds of baleen plates and coat their mats of fringe hairs? Would that oil make it more difficult for the whale to push huge volumes of water through the oily baleen, causing the whale to use more energy as it tried? Does that result change whether the oil is freshly spilled, or weathered with age, or dispersed with chemicals? Would dispersant make it easier for oil to reach a whale’s gut?

Using more energy to get food would mean the whales then would need to eat even more food to make up for the energy difference, creating a tiring cycle that could tax these gargantuan marine mammals.

Testing this hypothesis has been the objective of Shigenaka’s team. While it might sound simple, almost nothing about the project has been straightforward.

Challenges as Big as a Whale

One of the first challenges was tackled by the engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. They were tasked with turning the mechanical features of Ohmsett’s giant saltwater tank into, essentially, a baleen whale’s mouth.

Woods Hole fabricated a special clamp and then worked with the Ohmsett engineering staff to attach it to a corresponding mount on the mechanical bridges that move back and forth over the giant tank. The clamp gripped the sections of baleen and allowed them to be held at different angles as they moved through the water. In addition, this custom clamp had a load cell, which was connected to a computer on the bridge. As the bridge moved the clamp and baleen at different speeds and angles through the water, the team could measure change in drag on the baleen via the load cell.

With the mechanical portion set up, the Ohmsett staff released oil into the test tank on the surface of the water, and the team watched expectantly how the bridges moved the baleen through the thin oil slick. It turned out to be a pretty inefficient way to get oil on baleen. “How might a whale deal with oil on the surface of the water?” asked Shigenaka. “If it’s feeding, it might scoop up a mouthful of water and oil and run it through the baleen.” But how could they simulate that experience?

They tried using paintbrushes to apply crude oil to the baleen, but that seemed to alter the character of the baleen too much, matting down the fringe hairs. After discussions with the Ohmsett engineering staff, the research team finally settled on dipping the baleen into a pool of floating oil that was contained by a floating ring. This set-up allowed a relatively heavy amount of oil to contact baleen in the water and would help the scientists calibrate their expectations about potential impacts.

Testing the Waters

Four black plumes of dispersed oil are released underwater onto long plates of baleen moving behind the applicator.

After mixing chemical dispersant with oil, the research team released plumes of it underwater in Ohmsett’s test tank as baleen samples moved through the water behind the applicator. Researchers also tested the effects of dispersant alone on baleen function. (NOAA)

In all, Shigenaka and his teammates ran 127 different trials across this experiment. They measured the drag values for baleen in a variety of combinations: through saltwater alone, with fresh oil, with weathered oil, with dispersed oil (pre-mixed and released underwater through a custom array designed and built by Ohmsett staff), and with chemical dispersant alone. They tested during temperate weather as well as lower temperature conditions, which clearly thickened the consistency of the oil. They conducted the tests using baleen from three different species of whales: bowhead, humpback, and right whale.

Following all the required regulations and with the proper permits, the bowhead baleen was donated by subsistence whalers from Barrow, Alaska. The baleen from other species came from whales that had stranded on beaches from locations outside of Alaska.

In addition to testing the potential changes in drag on the baleen, the team of researchers used an electric razor to shave off baleen fringe hairs as samples for chemical analysis to determine whether the oil or dispersant had any effects on baleen at the molecular level. They also determined how much oil, dispersed oil, and dispersant were retained on the baleen fringe hairs after the trials.

At this point, the team is analyzing the data from the experimental trials and plans to submit the results for publication in a scientific journal. NOAA is also beginning to create a guidance document on oil and cetaceans (whales and dolphins), which will incorporate the conclusions of this research.

While the scientific community has learned a lot about the apparent effects of oil on dolphins in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, there is very little information on large whales. The body of research on oil’s effects on baleen from the 1980s concluded that there were few and transient effects, but whether that conclusion holds up today remains to be seen.

“This is another piece of the puzzle,” said Shigenaka. “If we can distill response-relevant guidance that helps to mediate spill impacts to whales, then we will have been successful.”

Work was conducted under NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Permits 17350 and 18786.


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During the Chaos of Oil Spills, Seeking a System to Test Potential Solutions

This is a post by Ed Levine of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Response workers load oil containment boom onto a supply ship in Louisiana.

NOAA helped develop a systematic approach to vetting new and non-traditional spill response products and techniques during the fast-paced atmosphere of an oil spill. We helped implement this system during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to evaluate the tens of thousands of ideas proposed during the spill. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the pre-dawn hours of January 7, 1994, the tank barge Morris J Berman ran aground near San Juan, Puerto Rico, damaging coral and spilling more than 800,000 gallons of a thick, black fuel oil. Strong winds and waves battered the barge as it continued to leak and created dangerous conditions for spill responders.

During the hectic but organized spill response that followed [PDF] the barge’s grounding, a number of vendors appeared at the command post with spill cleanup products which they assured responders would fix everything. This scenario had played out at many earlier oil spills, and nearly every time, these peddled products were treated differently, at various times sidelined, ignored, tested, or put to use.

It’s not unexpected for the initial situation at any emergency response—be it medical, natural disaster, fire, or oil spill—to be chaotic. Responders are dealing with limited resources, expertise, and information at the very beginning.

As the situation progresses, additional help, information, and experts typically arrive to make things more manageable. Usually, in the middle of all this, people are trying to be helpful, or make a buck, and sometimes both.

At the spill response in Puerto Rico, the responders formed an official ad hoc group charged with cataloging and evaluating each new suggested cleanup product or technology. The group involved local government agencies, NOAA, and the U.S. Coast Guard. It began to develop a systematic approach to what had typically been a widely varying process at previous oil spills.

The methodology the group developed for this case was rough and quickly implemented for the situation at hand. Over the course of the several months required to deal with the damaged barge and oil spill, the ad hoc group tested several, though not all, of the potential cleanup products.

Approaching Order

A few years later, another group took this process a step further through the Regional Response Team III, a state-federal entity for response policy, planning, and coordination for West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

This working group set out to develop a more organized and systematic way to deal with alternative oil spill response techniques and technologies, those which aren’t typically used during oil spill responses. After many months of working collaboratively, this multi-agency working group, which included me and other colleagues in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, produced the approach known as the Alternative Response Tools Evaluation System (ARTES).

This system allows a special response team to rapidly evaluate a proposed response tool and provide feedback in the form of a recommendation to the on-scene coordinator, who directs spill responses for a specified area. This coordinator then can make an informed decision on the use of the proposed tool.

artes-process-flow-chart_noaa_720

The Alternative Response Tools Evaluation System (ARTES) process is designed for use both before and after a spill. “OSC” stands for on-scene coordinator, the person who directs a spill response, and “RRT” stands for Regional Response Team, the multi-agency group charged with spill response policy, planning, and coordination for different regions of the United States.

The ARTES process is designed for two uses. First, it can be used to assess a product’s appropriateness for use during a specific incident, under specific circumstances, such as a diesel spill resulting from a damaged tug boat on the Mississippi River. Second, the process can serve as a pre-evaluation tool during pre-spill planning to identify conditions when a proposed product would be most effective.

One advantage of the ARTES process is that it provides a management system for addressing the numerous proposals submitted by vendors and others during a spill. Subjecting all proposals to the same degree of evaluation also ensures that vendors are considered on a “level playing field.”

Although developed for one geographic region, the ARTES process quickly became adopted by others around the country and has been included in numerous local and regional response plans.

Once the ARTES process was codified, several products including an oil solidifier and a bioremediation agent underwent regional pre-spill evaluations. Personally, I was involved in several of those evaluations as well as one during an actual spill.

A Flood of Oil … and Ideas

A super tanker ship with a large slit in the bow anchored in the Gulf of Mexico.

The super tanker “A Whale” after testing during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The skimming slits on its bow are being sealed because it was not able to perform as designed. This vessel design was one of more than 80,000 proposals for surface oil spill response submitted during the spill. (NOAA)

Another defining moment for the ARTES process came in 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Within the first week of the spill, the unified command, the multi-agency organization which coordinates the response and includes those responsible for the spill, was inundated with suggestions to cap the leaking well and clean up the oil released into the Gulf of Mexico.

At one of the morning coordination meetings, the BP incident commander shared his frustration in keeping up with the deluge of offers. He asked if anyone had a suggestion for dealing with all of them. My hand shot up immediately.

After the meeting I spoke with leaders from both BP and the U.S. Coast Guard and described the ARTES process to them. They gave me the go-ahead to implement it. Boy, did I not know what we were in for!

As the days went by, the number of submissions kept growing, and growing, and growing. What started out as a one-person responsibility—recording submissions by phone and email—was soon taken over by a larger group staffed by the Coast Guard and California Office of Spill Prevention and Response and which eventually grew into a special unit of the response.

A dedicated website was created to receive product proposals and ideas, separate them into either a spill response or well capping method, track their progress through the evaluation system, and report the final decision to archive the idea, test it, or put it to use during the spill.

People who submitted ideas were able to track submissions and remain apprised of each one’s progress. Eventually, 123,000 individual ideas were submitted and tracked, 470 made the initial cut, 100 were formally evaluated, and about 30 were implemented during response field operations. Of the original 123,000 submissions, there were 80,000 subsurface and 43,000 surface oil spill response ideas.

One of the many proposals for cleaning up the oil took the form of the ship A Whale. It was a super tanker with a large slit in the bow at the waterline that was meant to serve as a huge skimmer, pulling oil off the ocean surface. Unfortunately, testing revealed that it didn’t work.

Some other examples of submissions included sand-cleaning machines and a barge designed to be an oil skimming and storage device (nicknamed the “Bubba Barge”) that actually did work. On the other hand, popular proposals such as human hair, feathers, and pool “noodles” didn’t perform very well.

Even under the weight of this incredible outpouring of proposals, the ARTES process held up, offering a great example of how far pre-planning can go.

Ed Levine.

Ed Levine is the Response Operations Supervisor – East for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, managing Scientific Support Coordinators from Maine to Texas.