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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Weston Mill Dam Removal Project in Full Swing

New Jersey’s Millstone River with bridge and dam. Image: Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association.

Removal of the Weston Mill Dam is an important step in long-term efforts to restore habitat in the Raritan River watershed. Image credit: Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association.

Fish will once again be able to swim unencumbered in New Jersey’s Millstone River as removal of the Weston Mill Dam begins.

The project is part of the settlement negotiated to compensate for potential injuries to fish and other in-river trust resources from long-term hazardous substance releases related to the nearby American Cyanamid Superfund Site in Bridgewater, New Jersey. The site was used for manufacturing of chemicals, dyes, and pharmaceuticals and for coal tar distillation from the early 1900s until 1999.

“Removal of the Weston Mill Dam is an important step in long-term efforts to restore habitat in the Raritan River watershed,” said David Westerholm, Director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. “Cooperative resolution of natural resource damage liability benefits everyone – the public, industry, and the ecosystem. These collaborative efforts lower damage assessment costs, reduce risk of litigation, and – most importantly – shorten the time between injury and restoration of public resources.”

Removal of the dam will return the flow of the river closer to its natural state restoring passage for migratory fish, and improving water quality and habitat without negative impacts to endangered species or cultural, sociological, or archaeological resources.

The project will open about 4.5 miles of the Millstone River to migratory species – including American shad and river herring  -that spend much of their lives in the ocean and estuaries but need to return to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. American eel, which spawn in the ocean but spend much of their lives in rivers and streams, will also benefit.

The dam removal will also benefit people by increasing safety and improving recreational and scenic enjoyment of the waterway A free-flowing river allows safer kayaking, canoeing, and fishing.

Here in the United States, millions of dams and other barriers block fish from reaching upstream spawning and rearing habitat. Although dams often provide benefits, such as hydroelectric power and irrigation many, including the Weston Mill Dam, are now obsolete and present a hazard.

Fish ladders, bypass channels, and rock ramps are forms of Technical Fish Passage that may be considered when dam removal is not an option, according to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Restoration Center.

NOAA and our co-trustees – the U.S. Department of Interior and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection – secured removal of the Weston Mill Dam through cooperative resolution of natural resource damages and ongoing work with our local partners including the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association.

You can read more about the Raritan River in this article:

Reyhan Mehran of the Office of Response and Restoration and Carl Alderson of the NOAA Fisheries Restoration Center contributed to this article.


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Staff Participate in NOAA Science Camp in Seattle

Girl in classroom pouring liquid into fish tank. Image credit: NOAA.

A camper pours a bit of sesame oil into a fish tank to simulate a marine oil spill. NOAA Science Camp participants learned the basics of how spilled oil behaves, effects the environment, and how we forecast where it might go. Image credit: NOAA

The U.S. Coast Guard announces a ship collision in Puget Sound off Shilshole Bay. What happens now?

Trying to answer that question started the journey of participants in this year’s NOAA Science Camp. Washington Sea Grant organizes the popular camp and each year participants discover how NOAA oceanographers, biologists, chemists, physical scientists and others from the Office of Response and Restoration respond to hazardous spills.

More than 90 campers participated in 10 two-hour sessions during the two weeks of science camp, held July 10-21 at NOAA’s Western Regional Center in Seattle. Guided by staff from both the Emergency Response Division and the Assessment and Restoration Division campers explored answering the five questions our response staff ask during spill incidents:

  • Where will the oil go?
  • How will it behave in, on the water, and on different types of shorelines?
  • What biological and human resources may be at risk during a spill?
  • How might the oil adversely affect these resources?
  • What can be done to help?

Camp participants learned what scientific data is gathered to answer those questions. They also were introduced to response tools like our GNOME modeling software, and Environmental Sensitivity Index maps.

Our staff also helped campers learn about pollutants from cars, homes, agriculture, and other types of land uses and the effects on the Puget Sound.

In other lessons, campers simulated the flow of water and pollutants in the environment, using tabletop watershed models and building groundwater models. They then brainstormed methods to clean up, contain, and prevent watershed pollution.

In another session, campers rolled up their sleeves, donned lab googles and gloves and become aquatic toxicologists for a day, testing samples for toxic chemicals and water quality parameters and learned how to interpret their data.

Later in the week, campers had to solve a science mystery. They visited several NOAA offices to gather more information about various aspect of the scenario and then applied what they learned to test their hypotheses.

Campers presented their findings and conclusions on the last day of camp each week and were evaluated by a scientist representative from each office.

Staff science camp instructors included Marla Steinhoff, Mark Dix, Dalina Thrift-Viveros, Dylan Righi, Chris Barker, Matthew Bissell, Gary Shigenaka, Nicolle Rutherford, Amy MacFadyen, and Rebecca Hoff.

Marla Steinhoff and Amy MacFadyen contributed to this article.


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Counting People on the Beach is Not as Simple as it Sounds

Aerial view of people on beach. Image credit: NOAA.

In the aftermath of an oil spill, state and federal natural resource trustees often need to assess impacts to recreational use. This new manual focuses on onsite data collection using ground personnel and aerial photography. Image credit: NOAA

Imagine the perfect day at the beach, lying in the sand, fishing from the pier, maybe taking a boat out on the water. Then an oil spill occurs, and the beach is no longer a fun place to be.

When an oil spill or other pollutant keeps people from enjoying a natural area, it’s up to agencies like NOAA, acting as public trustees of affected areas, to determine how much recreational opportunities were lost. It’s part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

A new guide from the Assessment and Restoration Division, Best Practices for Collecting Onsite Data to Assess Recreational Use Impacts from an Oil Spill, is designed to help standardize the collection process.

The guide evolved from our experiences conducting the natural resource damage assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“We wanted to capitalize on the lessons learned during the Deepwater Horizon damage assessment, so we condensed our 1,119 page infield process manual into a portable guide that we could pull off the shelf and implement during any future oil spill,” said Adam Domanski, an economist who specializes in non-market valuation with the Assessment and Restoration Division.

The intention of the new guide is help any resource manager collect recreational use data and offers detailed information on:

  • Sampling Methods and Design
  • Onsite Data Collection Using Ground Personnel
  • Onsite Data Collection Using Aerial Photography
  • Safety Considerations for Data Collection
  • Data Entry and Processing Procedures

The guide is available at NOAA’s Damage, Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.


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What we do to Help Endangered Species

Two killer whales (orcas) breach in front a boat. Image credit: NOAA

NOAA developed an oil spill response plan for killer whales that includes three main techniques to deploy quickly to keep these endangered animals away from a spill. Image credit: NOAA

For over 40 years, the 1973 Endangered Species Act has helped protect native plants and animals and that habitats where they live, and many government agencies play a role in that important work. That’s one reason the United States celebrates Endangered Species Day every year in May.

The Office of Response and Restoration contributes to the efforts to protect these species in our spill response and assessment and restoration work.

When a spill occurs in coastal waters one priority for our emergency responders is identifying any threatened or endangered species living in the area near the spill.

  • At every spill or chemical release, our scientists need to take into account:
  • Is it breeding season for any protected species in the area?
  • Is any of the spill area nesting grounds for protected species?
  • Are protected species likely to come into contact with the spilled contaminant?
  • What are possible negative effects from the cleanup process on the protected species?

We assist the U.S. Coast Guard with a required Endangered Species Act consultation for spills to ensure those species are considered in any response action taken. We’ve also developed tools that can be used by all emergency responders and environmental resource managers to help protected endangered plants, animals, and their habitats.

Environmental Sensitivity Index maps identify coastal habitats and locations that may be especially vulnerable to an oil spills. ​The main components of these maps are sensitive wildlife, shoreline habitats, and the economic resources people use there, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

Threatened and​ Endangered Species Geodatabases allows oil spill planners and responders to easily access data on federal or state listed threatened and endangered species for specific regions. These data are a subset of the larger, more complex environmental sensitivity index data and are a convenient way to access some of the more critical biological information for an area.

Environmental Resources Management Application, called ERMA®, is our online mapping tool that integrates static and real-time environmental data and allows users to investigate data in their area. There are hundreds of publicly available base layers including many endangered and threatened species. Environmental Sensitivity Index maps are available in this tool.

Marine debris affects endangered and threatened species including species of sea turtles, whales, seals, and corals. These fragile populations face a variety of stressors in the ocean including people, derelict fishing gear, trash, and other debris. To learn more about the dangers of marine debris on marine life check out this blog post or visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

For more information on threatened and endangered species, and local events for Endangered Species Day, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For information on endangered and threatened marine species visit NOAA Fisheries.


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From Toxic Dump to Wetland in Florida

Wetland bordered with plants.

Restored Raleigh Street Dump site. Image credit: NOAA

How do you return a  dumpsite to a natural area with productive wetlands? With the hard work of scientists, and federal and state officials.

The Raleigh Street Dump Site is located in an industrial area of Tampa, east of McKay Bay. The low-lying land was once pocked with sinkholes and littered with battery casings, furnace slag, trash, and construction debris dumped at the site from 1977 to 1991.

By 2009, the level of pollution was 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 Raleigh Street site is part of a larger overall conservation effort in a region that for decades had been experiencing environmental decline.

In April 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 4 presented the Excellence in Site Re-Use Award. The ceremony included recognition of NOAA’s scientific work over the years on the cleanup and restoration.


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Closing Down Damage Assessment After Deepwater Horizon

Shelves filled with jars.

The plankton archive contains over 130,000 samples from 19 different surveys conducted as part of the natural resources damage assessment. Plankton archive located at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Image credit: NOAA

The environmental toll from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster was enormous, demanding a massive deployment of people and materials to measure the adverse effects.

Federal and state agencies worked quickly to scale up the emergency response, clean up the spill, mount a large-scale effort to assess the injuries to wildlife and other natural resources, and record how these lost resources adversely affected the public.

When the cleanup was finished, and the injuries were determined, another challenge came: NOAA and other agencies had to close down the largest damage assessment field operation in the nation’s history.

During five years of field studies assessing the injuries to natural resources, more than one hundred thousand samples were collected.

Instead of discarding the samples once the assessment was over, and the BP settlement was completed, it made more sense to find other uses for the samples, and the valuable laboratory, field, and office equipment attained during the assessment work. In many cases, the cost of finding new homes for samples and equipment was cheaper than disposal.

Repurposing samples and equipment: the work goes on

Shutting down the assessment operations involved clearing out laboratories and warehouses filled with samples, field equipment, and supplies.

In most instances, only a portion of each sample was needed for analysis and by the end of 2015, NOAA had an extensive trove of environmental samples.

Recognizing that many research scientists might put these samples to good use, NOAA made the materials available by publishing announcements in professional society newsletters. After receiving about one hundred inquiries, staff and contractors began distributing more than 5,000 samples.

Additionally, some sample collections were archived in publicly available repositories, with other historical and scientifically valuable collections. Thousands of samples of plankton, fish, and other organisms collected during post-spill trawls in Gulf waters went to a NOAA archive in Stennis, Mississippi.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. received rare deep-sea corals. Later this year the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank will host thousands of samples from species of dolphins and other marine mammals found dead after the oil spill.

Universities across the United States received samples for research. Sediment samples sent to Florida State University in Tallahassee are supporting studies on the long-term fate of Deepwater Horizon oil deposited on Gulf beaches and in nearshore environments.

Researchers at Jacksonville University in Florida are using samples to compare the weathering of tar balls found submerged to tar balls those stranded on land. Additionally, researchers at Texas A&M University obtained samples of the spilled oil for studies of bacteria that biodegrade oil.

Graphic with gloved hands pouring liquid from sample jar into beaker and numbers of samples, results, and studies resulting from NOAA efforts.

Finding new homes for scientific instruments and other equipment

Field samples were not the only items distributed to advance oil spill science. NOAA shipped hundreds of large and small pieces of equipment to universities and other research partners to aid ongoing investigations about the effects of oil spills on the environment, and the ongoing monitoring of the Gulf environment.

Repurposed supplies and equipment found a second life at many institutions including the:

  • University of Miami
  • NOVA Southeastern University
  • Dauphin Island Sea Lab
  • University of Southern Mississippi
  • University of South Florida
  • Louisiana State University
  • Texas A & M
  • Smithsonian Institution

In addition to laboratory equipment, some university researchers received practical items such as anchors, battery packs, buoys, forceps, freezer packs, glassware, preservatives such as alcohol and formalin, and thermometers.

NOAA coordinated with BP to recover and repurpose thousands of items BP purchased for the assessment. While clearing out office buildings and trailers, NOAA staff identified and requested valuable pieces of laboratory and field equipment, and other supplies. Some of these items, such as microscopes, initially cost tens of thousands of dollars.

First responders from NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard also received field safety equipment including:

  • Personal floatation devices
  • Safety goggles
  • Pallets of nitrile gloves
  • Lightning detectors
  • Sorbent boom

All of which support preparedness for future incidents.

Countless NOAA staff rose to the enormous challenges of responding to, assessing impacts from, and restoring the natural resources injured by the Deepwater Horizon incident. This work continues, assisted by the creative reuse and repurposing of materials across the country to support ongoing efforts to advance oil spill science and improve preparedness for future spills.

Read more about and the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and partners in responding to the spill, documenting the environmental damage, and holding BP accountable for restoring injured resources:

 

Greg Baker, Rob Ricker, and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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Assessing the Impacts from Deepwater Horizon

Beach with grass.

Beach habitat was part of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement. Image Credit: NOAA

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster spread spilled oil deep into the ocean’s depths and along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, compromising the complex ecosystem and local economies. The response and the natural resources damage assessment were the largest in the nation’s history.

Ecosystems are comprised of biological, physical, and chemical components, interconnected to form a community. What happens in one location has serious, cascading effects on organisms in other parts of the ecosystem. The Gulf’s coastal wetlands and estuaries support the entire Gulf ecosystem, providing food, shelter, and nursery grounds for a variety of animals. The open waters of the Gulf also provides habitat for fish, shrimp, shellfish, sea turtles, birds, and mammals.

Evaluating impacts from the spill

Considering these interdependencies during the assessment process was important. At the same time, it was impossible to test or examine every injured bird, every sickened dolphin, or every area contaminated with oil. That was cost prohibitive and scientifically impossible.

Instead, NOAA scientists evaluated representative samples of natural resources, habitats, ecological communities, ecosystem processes and linkages.

To do that, scientists made 20,000 trips to the field, to obtain 100,000 environmental samples that yielded 15 million records. This data collection and subsequent series of scientific studies formed the basis for the natural resources damage assessment that led to the largest civil settlement in federal history.

A short summary of the natural resource injuries:

Marshes injured

  • Plant cover and vegetation mass reduced along 350 to 720 miles of shoreline
  • Amphipods, periwinkles, shrimp, forage fish, red drum, fiddler crabs, insects killed

Harvestable oysters lost

  • 4 – 8.3 billion harvestable oysters lost

Birds, fish, shellfish, sea turtles, and dolphins killed

  • Between 51,000 to 84,000 birds killed
  • Between 56,000 to 166,000 small juvenile sea turtles killed
  • Up to 51% decrease in Barataria Bay dolphin population
  • An estimated 2 – 5 trillion newly hatched fish were killed

Rare corals and red crabs impacted

  • Throughout an area about 400 to 700 square miles around the wellhead

Recreational opportunities lost

  • About $527 – $859 million in lost recreation such as boating, fishing, and beach going
Top fish shows no oil bottom fish shows oil.

The top picture is a red drum control fish that was not exposed to oil, while the bottom red drum fish was exposed to Deepwater Horizon oil for 36 hours. The bottom fish developed excess fluid around the heart and other developmental deformities. This is an example of the many scientific studies conducted for the natural resources damage assessment. Image Credit: NOAA/Abt

What we shared

Those studies not only documented the injuries, but also helped the entire scientific community understand the effects of oil spills on nature and our communities. All of the scientific studies, including over 70 peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as all the data collected for the studies, are available to the public and the scientific community. Additionally, our environmental response management software allows anyone to download the data from a scientific study, and then see that data on a map.

We will be publishing new guidance documents regarding sea turtles and marine mammals by the end of 2017. These guides compile best practices and lessons learned and will expedite natural resources damage assessment procedures in the future.

Read more about Deepwater Horizon and the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and partners in responding to the spill, documenting the environmental damage, and holding BP accountable for restoring injured resources:

 

Tom Brosnan, Lisa DiPinto, and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.