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’s Office of Response and Restoration Blog Has Moved!

We are excited to announce that NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Blog has now moved!

Check out our new and improved blogging platform at https://blog.response.restoration.noaa.gov!

Our new blog has all the features you know and love, with improved integration into our website so that all the response and restoration information you need is at your fingertips! If you’ve already subscribed to our WordPress blog with your email address, don’t worry, you’ll continue to get email notifications of new blog posts. If you haven’t yet subscribed and would like to receive notifications, you can sign up on our new blog home page.

We are excited to continue to share informative blogs, inspiring stories, and news to keep you informed about the world of oil and chemical spill response and restoration.

Continue to follow NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Blog at our new address.


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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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When Vegetable Oil Coats Local Birds, One NOAA Staffer Swaps Computer Software for Rubber Gloves and Soapy Water

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Valerie Chu.

Closeup of an oiled Canada goose in a wash tub while hands in rubber gloves wash it.

A Canada goose gets carefully washed after a vegetable oil spill in Seattle, Washington, coated its feathers. (Copyright: PAWS Wildlife Center)

While I work for a part of NOAA that responds to oil and chemical spills, I’m normally behind the scenes. My job is to check if the computer software programs run properly so that they can do things like predict the impacts of pollution on aquatic species. But a recent and unusual vegetable oil spill in my own backyard brought me to the front lines for the first time.

While food-based oils don’t tend to be as toxic as petroleum-based oils, they can still harm wildlife in a number of ways, such as coating feathers or fur and destroying the insulating properties that keep animals warm in aquatic environments.

An accidental spill of cooking oil in Seattle, Washington, ended up affecting dozens of ducks and geese in a neighborhood pond. The oiled birds are being treated at PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, Washington, with a group called Focus Wildlife International providing treatment to these birds.

That’s how I got involved with this spill, even though NOAA is not involved with this spill response. I’m a volunteer Wildlife Care Assistant at PAWS and have been volunteering there for about two years. The primary goal at PAWS is to rehabilitate sick, injured, and orphaned wildlife and then release them back into the wild. They care for more than 260 species, ranging from eagles and chickadees to seals and bears. Saturday, November 21, 2015 was my first time volunteering with oiled wildlife.

Two women in overalls and gloves spray water to rinse oil and soap from a Canada goose.

Each oiled bird is carefully washed and rinsed multiple times to remove oil from its feathers. (Copyright: PAWS Wildlife Center)

As I learned, the process of washing each oiled bird involves multiple washing tubs, a rinsing station, warm water, and lots of Dawn dish soap. I was assigned several tasks to help with the washing. First, I had to give the oiled birds eye drops to help protect their eyes from the soap. In addition, I dumped washing tubs after they were used, refilled the tubs with warm water, and cleaned the enclosure containing some of the oiled birds.

Interestingly, I also recorded the start and end times of washing and rinsing for each bird. The washing and rinsing process times varied with the birds’ cooperation, as well as the degree of oiling. If there was an uncooperative bird, then the process would definitely take longer. In total, I volunteered for four hours and helped wash vegetable oil off of two Canada geese.

Overall, it was really fulfilling for me to help wash birds affected by this spill because it combined my career in spill response software with my hobby of caring for wildlife. Spending my Saturday washing oiled birds was absolutely worthwhile for me, giving me first-hand experience with what it is like to care for animals affected by an oil spill.

And more than ever, this experience has encouraged me to continue developing software tools for spill response and volunteering with oiled wildlife.

Three people help wash an oiled goose in big soapy wash tubs.

Valerie Chu, at center, volunteers with PAWS to help clean oiled birds.

Valerie Chu is an Environmental Scientist who has been providing support for the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division software projects since 2012, when she obtained her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science and Resource Management and then started working with NOAA and Genwest. During her spare time, she volunteers with animal welfare-related causes such as PAWS and Zazu’s House Parrot Sanctuary.


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

Two people shovel sand into a bag on a beach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Two people walking along the oiled beach.

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


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Recalling the Early Hours—and Challenges—of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the sixth in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

Charlie Henry explains something to a small group of men and women.

NOAA’s Charlie Henry (second from left) discusses details of the response in the early days of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (right) and other key members of the response. (NOAA)

“Mr. Henry, I’m sorry to wake you, but we have a problem offshore.” This was a young U.S. Coast Guard officer calling me during the night of April 20, 2010. He told me there was an explosion and fire aboard the drilling platform Deepwater Horizon, 50 miles offshore of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.

At this point, there were far more unknowns than facts. What we did know was that the rig had been evacuated and the primary response efforts were focused on rescuing the 126 crewmen still on the rig. Early reports said a fire continued to burn, but we didn’t know then if it was due to a well blowout situation or a fire from fuel on the vessel.

Waking up to an Emergency

I replied that I would start working up an initial oil spill trajectory analysis (which you can see represented on this map [PDF]) and then drive to the Coast Guard office in Morgan City, Louisiana. As the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for the western Gulf of Mexico, my role at the time was to serve as a science adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard on the core team responding to spills.

The only thing worse than being woken up in the middle of the night, is calling others and waking them up. My first call was to my colleague Glen Watabayashi, an experienced oceanographer and modeler with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, located back in our Seattle spill response “war room.” Assessing the ocean currents and wind predictions for the area around the burning rig would provide a foundation for both a prediction of any oil’s path on the surface and might even contribute to the search and rescue activities for missing survivors.

This information soon would assist those people making important response decisions. For everyone that morning, oil pollution some 50 miles offshore was less of a priority than saving lives. If my memory serves, there were more than 60 crew unaccounted for when I was first notified. I could do little else at that point but dress and drive to the Coast Guard office.

A Developing Picture Emerges

Burning Deepwater Horizon rig with firefighting ships in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Deepwater Horizon incident claimed the lives of 11 rig workers and released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. (U.S. Coast Guard)

It was still dark when I arrived. Coast Guard search and rescue operations continued, joined by “Good Samaritan” vessels in the area. Photos of the burning Deepwater Horizon rig illuminating the dark night were trickling into the command post.

The number of missing crew members continued to drop that morning and into the day, until the number reached 11—and stopped. Those 11 men who died that night were primarily the crew operating the well at the time of the explosion. When the Deepwater Horizon rig rolled to its side and sank nearly a mile to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico two days after the explosion, those crewmen were still aboard.

After the explosion, the only thing holding the Deepwater Horizon in place was the riser and drill pipe connection between the floating platform and the wellhead some 5,000 feet below the ocean surface. During the first two days, the released oil and gas were mostly burning at the sea surface.

When the rig sank, the situation began to change—but deceivingly at first. Remotely operated vehicle (ROV) surveys found that fractures in the riser pipe created when the vessel sank were releasing oil and gas. Released under the high pressure of the well and at extreme ocean depth, this oil and gas became a cloudy plume of oil droplets and gas bubbles. The larger droplets of oil rose to the ocean surface in four to six hours, the smaller droplets might take a day or longer, and the smallest droplets never reached the surface.

As a result, what we saw of the oil at the surface grew slowly during the first couple days. At first, nobody knew how much oil was actually coming from the twisted, bent riser and pipe, but within a few days the amount of oil visible on the water provided evidence that it was a lot of oil.

Enduring a Spill Unlike any Other

On April 29, 2010, at a press conference during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, NOAA's Scientific Support Coordinator Charlie Henry explained a map of where spilled oil was predicted to spread in the Gulf of Mexico. To the left of Henry is Rear Admiral Mary Landry, U.S. Coast Guard.

On April 29, 2010, at a press conference during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator Charlie Henry explained a map of where spilled oil was predicted to spread in the Gulf of Mexico. To the left of Henry is Rear Admiral Mary Landry, U.S. Coast Guard. (NOAA)

Many superlatives have been attached to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The largest oil spill in U.S. waters. The most expensive spill in history. The largest cleanup, the most studied, the most litigious. It has been called by some the worst ecological disaster in U.S history. Prior to 2010, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 held many of these superlatives.

Many of the NOAA team responded at the scene of both spills, and for us, the unusual length and high stress of such extended spill responses become personal. Your normal family and life is in part replaced by the NOAA family, as you work long hours far from home and often share supper with your colleagues in the evenings, helping offset some of the difficulties encountered.

Most oil spill–related emergencies are over in a matter of days, and few receive more than a paragraph in the local newspaper. This incident was different. The magnitude and extent of the Deepwater Horizon response reached from the Gulf of Mexico to Washington, DC, and eyes were on it from across the nation and world.

The video feed of the gushing wellhead which was in the corner of many TV channels was a constant and painful reminder that oil was still spilling into the Gulf despite the efforts of a huge and growing response. As oil spill responders and stewards of our marine resources, we were just as frustrated.

NOAA’s primary role in spill response is science that supports decision making. Managing such a major science response seemed at times just as daunting as the unfettered flow of oil from the seafloor. Research cruises that normally take years to plan were launched in days. A new generation of oil research began seemingly overnight. And my colleagues and I remained in emergency mode for weeks on end.

About six weeks into the spill, I did sleep in one Saturday morning. Normally, I would leave the house around 5:15 a.m. to make a 6:00 a.m. briefing.

My wife woke me in a panic, saying, “Honey, you must have over slept.” I answered, “No, I took the morning off on purpose.” She smiled, “You remembered today was our anniversary.”

To be honest, I hadn’t. I was just in need of a few extra hours of sleep, but sometimes you just get lucky. It was nice to have those few extra hours with my wife before returning to what seemed like the endless challenges and stresses of an oil spill I know my NOAA colleagues and I will never forget.


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NOAA Helps Reverse Pollution Woes for Two Florida Wetland Areas

marsh with vegetation around the edge.

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

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

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

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

Big Worries from Fertilizer Slurries

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

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

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

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

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

From Illegal Dump to Wetland Bonus

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

Pond with vegetation in the foreground.

Restored Raleigh Street Dump site. (NOAA)

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

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

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

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


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

Crowds of people and emergency vehicles surrounding damaged school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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