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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For Submerged Oil Pollution in Western Gulf of Mexico, Restoration Is Coming After 2005 DBL 152 Oil Spill

By Sandra Arismendez, Regional Resource Coordinator for the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division.

Imagine trying to describe the state of 45,000 acres of habitat on the ocean bottom—an area the size of over 34,000 football fields. And you have to do it without four of your five senses. You can’t touch it. You can’t taste it. You can’t smell it. You can’t hear it. Sometimes you can barely see a few inches in front of your scuba mask as you swim 60 feet below the surface in the murky waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But that was the task NOAA scientists faced seven years ago in the wake of a large offshore oil spill in the western Gulf of Mexico.

The DBL 152, shown here on November 13, 2005 shortly before capsizing, ended up discharging nearly 2 million gallons of a thick slurry oil, which sank to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX)

The DBL 152, shown here on November 13, 2005 shortly before capsizing, ended up discharging nearly 2 million gallons of a thick slurry oil, which sank to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX)

An Oily-Fated Journey

The oil was released from tank barge (T/B) DBL 152 as it was traveling from Houston, Texas, to Tampa, Fla., in November 2005.  While in transit, the barge struck the submerged remains of a pipeline service platform that collapsed a few months earlier during Hurricane Rita. The double-hulled barge was carrying approximately 5 million gallons of slurry oil, a type of oil denser than seawater, which meant as the thick oil poured out of the barge, it sank to the seafloor.

Heavy chains dragged absorbent material along the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico in order to detect submerged oil. (ENTRIX, 11/19/2005)

Heavy chains dragged absorbent material along the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico in order to detect submerged oil. (ENTRIX, 11/19/2005)

Eventually, the barge’s tug was able to tow it toward shore, hoping to ground and stabilize it in shallower waters. However, the barge grounded unexpectedly 30 miles from shore, releasing more oil and eventually capsizing. Approximately 1.9 million gallons of oil drained into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. To find, track, and clean up the oil in these cloudy waters, oil spill responders used information from divers, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and oil trajectory models. Executing this process over such a large area of the seafloor took more than a year. While divers were able to recover an estimated 98,910 gallons of oil, some 1.8 million gallons more remained unrecovered.

NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) provides the unique scientific and technical expertise to assess and restore natural resources injured by oil spills like the DBL 152 incident as well as releases of hazardous substances and vessel groundings.  For more than 20 years, DARRP has worked cooperatively with other federal, tribal, and state co-trustees and responsible parties to assess the injuries and reverse the effects of contamination to our marine resources, including fish, marine mammals, wetlands, reefs, and other ocean and coastal habitats.

Oil Spill Sentinels in the Open Sea

So what happened to the other 1.8 million gallons of oil which were not feasible to clean up? Initially, the oil sank to the ocean bottom, creating a “footprint” of the impacted area.

Crab pot sentinels used to detect submerged oil on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX, Dec. 3, 2005)

Crab pot sentinels used to detect submerged oil on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (ENTRIX, Dec. 3, 2005)

Immediately following the spill, NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard, Texas state trustees, and the responsible party worked together to assess impacts to natural resources and habitats affected by the spill. Scientists collected and analyzed oil samples, bottom-dwelling animals living in the sediments, and samples of sediments and water taken in the oiled areas. In particular, creatures on the seafloor were at risk of being smothered or contaminated by the dense oil as it sank to the bottom.

As you might expect, assessing injuries to an area of the open ocean covering 34,000 football fields is no easy task, especially considering how difficult it is to detect the oily culprit itself. Because we couldn’t always see the submerged oil over such a large area, oil-absorbing pads were dragged systematically across miles of ocean to locate patches of oil. Underwater sorbent “sentinels,” oil-absorbing tools used to detect oil, also were placed and monitored strategically in the predicted path of the spilled oil to tell us if the footprint of the remaining oil at the ocean bottom was relatively stationary, and if not, in what general direction it was moving. Monitoring revealed the oiled area was moving and dissipating over time as it weathered due to exposure to physical forces such as currents.

The environmental assessment showed that fish and organisms living on or near the ocean floor (such as worms, clams, and crabs) were injured by the oil that sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. That submerged oil impacted approximately 45,000 acres of ocean floor. However, much of this area recovered over time as the oil naturally dissipated and weathering broke it up.

A Path Forward

Submerged oil from Tank Barge DBL 152 on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (EXTRIX, December 2005)

Submerged oil from Tank Barge DBL 152 on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. (EXTRIX, December 2005)

In March 2013, NOAA released the Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan [PDF] for the DBL 152 incident, which demonstrates that restoration is possible for this oil spill. The plan outlines injuries to natural resources and proposes a restoration project to implement estuarine shoreline protection and salt marsh creation at the Texas Chenier Plain National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Galveston Bay, Texas. The preferred shoreline protection and marsh restoration project proposed in the draft plan is designed to replenish the natural resources lost due to the oiling during the period both when they were injured and while they recovered.

Public comments can be submitted through April 15, 2013 by mailing written comments to: 

NOAA, Office of General Counsel, Natural Resources Section
Attn: Chris Plaisted
501 W. Ocean Blvd., Suite 4470
Long Beach, CA 90802

Or submitting comments electronically at (Docket I.D.:  NOAA-NMFS-2013-0034).

Following the close of the public comment period, NOAA will consider any comments and release a Final Restoration Plan. This comment period is the last step before restoration projects are selected and funding is sought from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund for implementation.

Since the party responsible for the oil spill reached its legal limit of liability and is not obligated to pay further liabilities by law, NOAA will submit a claim to the National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC), administered by the U.S. Coast Guard, to cover the cost of enacting the needed environmental restoration. The Pollution Funds Center serves as a safety net to help cover the costs of reclaiming our nation’s invaluable natural resources following these types of events.

Sandra Arismendez

Sandra Arismendez

Sandra Arismendez is a coastal ecologist and Regional Resource Coordinator for the Gulf of Mexico in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

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$2 Million in Aquatic Restoration Projects Proposed for Polluted Housatonic River in Connecticut

Housatonic River with covered bridge.

The latest round of aquatic restoration projects for the Housatonic River will also indirectly improve water quality, increase buffering during coastal storms, and reduce runoff pollution into the river. (NOAA)

NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Connecticut released a proposal to use approximately $2 million from a 1999 settlement with General Electric Company (GE) to fund projects to increase fish habitat and restore marshes on the Housatonic River. Between 1932 and 1977, GE discharged polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other chemical wastes from its facility in Pittsfield, Mass, into the Housatonic River, which runs through western Massachusetts and Connecticut. As a result, the Housatonic’s fish, wildlife, and their habitats suffered from the effects of these highly toxic compounds.

Part of an amendment to the 2009 restoration plan [PDF] for the Housatonic site, these latest projects highlight aquatic restoration because the original plan primarily focused on recreational and riparian restoration, with more than half of those projects already complete. The amendment identifies seven preferred restoration projects and three non-preferred alternatives to increase restoration of injured aquatic natural resources and services. These projects aim to more fully compensate the public for the full suite of environmental injuries resulting from GE’s decades of PCB contamination by:

  • Enhancing wetland habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife.
  • Supporting native salt marsh restoration by eradicating nonnative reeds and removing large debris (e.g., plywood and lumber).
  • Restoring migratory fish and wildlife passages by removing dams and constructing bypass channels.
  • Promoting recreational fishing, other outdoor activities, and natural resource conservation.

The 1999 legal settlement with GE included $7.75 million for projects in Connecticut aimed at restoring, rehabilitating, or acquiring the equivalent of the natural resources and recreational uses of the Housatonic River injured by GE’s Pittsfield facility pollution. Settlement funds grew to more than $9 million in an interest-bearing fund. NOAA and its co-trustees are using the majority of the remaining $2,423,328 of those funds to implement these additional aquatic natural resources projects.

Public comments and additional project proposals for this draft amendment to the restoration plan will be accepted through March 11, 2013. Comments should be sent to Robin Adamcewicz, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Eastern District Headquarters, 209 Hebron Road, Marlborough, CT 06447, or emailed to

Learn more about Restoring Natural Resources in Connecticut’s Housatonic River Watershed [PDF].

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Eyes in the Sky to Boots on the Ground: Three Powerful Tools for Restoring the Gulf of Mexico

Volunteers. The Internet. Remote sensing. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been using all three to deal with the environmental aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At Restore America’s Estuaries’ recent conference on coastal restoration [PDF], three of my colleagues showed how each of these elements has become a tool to boost restoration efforts in the Gulf.

Managing Data

OR&R scientist George Graettinger explained how responders can use remote sensing technology to assess damage after a major polluting event, such as the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill. He has helped develop tools that allow both Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists and responders to visualize and manage the onslaught of data flooding in during an environmental disaster and turn that into useful information for restoration.

Here, the ERMA Gulf Response application displays information gathered by SAR remote sensing technology to locate oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident.

Here, the ERMA Gulf Response application displays information gathered by SAR remote sensing technology to locate oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

The principle tool for this work is OR&R’s ERMA, an online mapping platform for gathering and displaying environmental and response data. During the Deepwater Horizon response, ERMA pulled in remote sensing data from several sources, each with its own advantages and disadvantages:

  • MODIS and MERIS, NASA satellite instruments which each day captured Gulf-wide oceanic and atmospheric data and photos during the Deepwater Horizon response. While very effective in the open ocean, these sensors do not perform well in coastal waters [PDF].
  • AVIRIS, another NASA sensor which took high-resolution infrared imagery from a plane to estimate the amount of oil on the water surface. Its disadvantages included being able to cover only a small area and being limited by weather conditions.
  • SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar), a satellite radar technology with super-fine spatial resolution. This technology actually transitioned from experimental to operational during the 2010 oil spill response in the Gulf of Mexico. While very effective at “seeing” through cloud cover to detect ocean features, SAR does not allow easy differentiation between thinner and thicker layers of oil on the water surface.

Managing People

Volunteers plant vegatation to restore a section of Commencement Bay, WA which was injured by hazardous releases from industrial activities.

Volunteers plant vegatation to restore a section of Commencement Bay, WA which was injured by hazardous releases from industrial activities. (NOAA)

“If you spill it, they will come,” declared Tom Brosnan, scientist and communications manager for our Assessment and Restoration Division, at his presentation. “They” were the hordes of volunteers offering their eager help after the 2010 well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico caused the largest oil spill in U.S. waters.

Brosnan outlined some of the many challenges of using volunteers productively during an oil spill: legal liability, safety, technical training, logistics, reliability. The National Response Team, a federal interagency group coordinating emergency spill response, has taken a strategic approach to these challenges by creating guidelines for incorporating volunteers into response activities [PDF].

Brosnan also pointed out other great opportunities for harnessing the energy of concerned citizens for environmental restoration. One example was partnering with Citizens for a Healthy Bay in Tacoma, Wash. This is a community group soliciting and overseeing volunteer efforts to maintain already completed restoration projects making up for the decades of industrial pollution around Tacoma’s Commencement Bay.

Managing Communications

And no less important, explained NOAA communications specialist Tim Zink, is keeping people engaged after an oil spill is out of the public eye. For the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, this has been a challenge particularly during the environmental damage assessment process. Zink described the difficulties of continuing to communicate effectively after initial interest from the media has diminished, of many different government trustee organizations trying to speak with one unified voice, and of the need for communication with the public to be framed carefully within the legal and cooperative aspects of the case.

He cited something as simple as a well-run online presence: the Gulf Spill Restoration website. This is a joint effort representing no fewer than three federal government departments (Commerce, State, and Interior) and five state governments. Well-organized and user-friendly, this website serves as a one-stop source of information about the ongoing effort to evaluate and restore environmental injuries in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill.

Among the closing speakers at the conference, Dr. Dawn Wright, chief scientist at GIS software company Esri, reinforced the importance of communicating “inspired science” to policymakers, communities, and other stakeholders throughout the restoration process. As a GIS specialist, she spoke to the many types of sophisticated spatial analysis that are available to anyone with a smartphone. The average person now has unprecedented access to geographic data on earthquakes, flu epidemics, and sea level changes. However, it is up to us to decide how we use these data-rich maps—and other tools—to understand and tell the story of environmental restoration.


Investigating Environmental Impacts: Oil on the Kalamazoo River

Posted sign closing river activity due to oil spill response.

The Kalamazoo River has been closed to the public since the spill in 2010. We’re examining how this has affected public recreation and tribal cultural uses. (Terry Heatlie, NOAA)

In late summer of 2010, while the nation was fixated on the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an underground pipeline in Michigan also began gushing oil. My job has been to help investigate the environmental damage that spill caused when the oil flowed into the Kalamazoo River.

The Situation
More than 800,000 gallons of crude oil** poured out of the leaking pipeline before it was eventually shut off. It oozed through the soft, wet ground just outside of Marshall, Mich., before washing into the Kalamazoo River, one of the largest rivers in southern Michigan.

I was at a meeting in Milwaukee with my suitcase full of sandals and skirts — not exactly dressed for an oil spill — when I got called to the scene. I drove nearly nonstop to Marshall, with only a quick detour in Indiana to buy steel-toed boots and work pants.

The Challenges
When I arrived, the other scientists and I made plans to collect data on the oil’s damage. Heavy rains had caused the river to flood over its banks, and as the oil flowed approximately forty miles* down the Kalamazoo, it was also carried up onto the banks and into trees. As the flood waters receded, oil was left on overhanging branches and in floodplains.

As the flood water receded, oil was left behind on river vegetation and overhanging tree branches, as well as in yards and forested floodplains. Yellow containment boom is in the foreground. (Gene Suuppi, State of Michigan)

The river’s floodplains, full of forests and wetlands, are also home to sensitive seasonal ponds, which provide valuable habitat for fish and macroinvertebrates (aquatic “bugs” at the base of the food chain). Therefore, we needed to find out: how far did the oil make it into the floodplain, what did it contact while there, and how much oil was left?

The smell of oil was sickeningly strong at first. Residents evacuated the houses nearest to the leak, and workers within half a mile of the pipeline break had to wear respirators to protect them from inhaling fumes. Even a dozen miles downstream, I could smell the oil and feel the fumes irritating my eyes. These fumes were the light components of the oil evaporating into the air. The heavy components of the oil were left behind on the banks or gradually sank to the bottom of the river.

The sunken oil has proven difficult to clean up. This winter, spill responders have been working to quantify how much sunken oil is left and to develop and test techniques for cleaning it up.

The Science
Along with my team from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Michigan, and the Huron Band and Gun Lake Tribe of the Potawatomi joined together as trustees to assess damages that the spill caused to natural resources.

We’ve conducted a variety of studies to collect information on the impacts of the spill and repeated some of the studies to see how the environment is recovering. Now we’re gathering all this data for the official damage assessment. We’ve examined samples of fish, mussels, water, and sediments for evidence of oil-related chemicals. We’ve collected observations of oiled vegetation and records of the number and condition of animals brought to the wildlife rehab center.

Talmadge Creek cleanup crews on Aug 6, 2010.

Cleanup crews place absorbent pads to sop up oil at Talmadge Creek, near the source of the spill, on Aug 6, 2010. We also take into account the effect cleanup has on the environment. (Chuck Getter)

Unfortunately, cleanup-related activities have an environmental impact too. For example, extra boat traffic on the river during cleanup led to some riverbank erosion and crushed freshwater mussels. Our studies include these factors too. We’ll also look into the effect the spill had on public recreation (the river has been closed to the public since the spill) and on tribal cultural uses.

What Next?
We and the other trustees will seek out restoration projects that address the impacts caused by the spill, being careful to balance the projects with the results of our studies. We’ll take project ideas from the public and from watershed organizations to make sure that we choose projects that fit in well with other restoration work being done across the broader Kalamazoo River watershed.

Enbridge Energy, as the owner of the pipeline, will have the option to implement the projects themselves with oversight from us trustees, or could pay for the cost of these projects as part of a larger legal settlement.

Stay tuned and we’ll keep you updated as this story unfolds.

*Correction: This originally stated that the oil flowed thirty miles down the Kalamazoo River.

**This was later discovered to be an oil sands (or tar sands) product.

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Four Years and $44 Million Later: Restoring San Francisco Bay After the Cosco Busan Oil Spill

This is a post by Greg Baker, a scientist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Cosco Busan ship with Bay Bridge.

The M/V Cosco Busan leaves the San Francisco Bay on Dec. 20, 2007, after hitting the Bay Bridge on Nov. 7. Credit: Jonathan R. Cilley, U.S. Coast Guard.

The infamous fog of San Francisco was thick and gray the morning the Cosco Busan cargo ship crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It was November 7, 2007, and within seconds of the crash, 53,000 gallons of fuel oil were released into the surrounding waters. One of the largest oil spills in the history of San Francisco Bay, it set into motion a series of events that ultimately led to this week’s historic $44.4 million settlement [PDF] with the companies responsible for the spill (Regal Stone Limited and Fleet Management Limited).

To the public, this $44.4 million means there will be money for bird, fish, and habitat restoration in the bay. It will enhance shoreline parks and outdoor recreation throughout the Bay Area, helping compensate the public for the lost visits to the beach when oil washed up on the shores. This settlement will resolve all outstanding legal claims for natural resource damages, paying for the damage assessment, remaining cleanup costs, and for restoration of natural resources from the spill.

That first morning, we didn’t really know how much oil had been spilled—initial reports indicated it was only a small amount. But as the fog lifted, it quickly became apparent that oil was spreading over a large expanse of the bay. When I got the initial call about the spill, I had just landed in southern California to work on my major project at the time, which would soon be pushed aside. My coworker on the phone suggested I get back to the Bay Area as soon as possible. For the next several weeks I worked long hours alongside fellow scientists to quickly organize and conduct the field work to evaluate natural resource damages from the Cosco Busan oil spill.

Cosco Busan with Coast Guard boat.

A U.S. Coast Guard boat approaches the gash in the side of the Cosco Busan, which released 53,000 gallons of bunker oil into San Francisco Bay. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

The type of oil that gushed into San Francisco Bay was bunker oil, which is commonly used to propel large ships and is different from crude oil or refined fuels. Bunker fuels are so viscous (thick and slow-moving) that they actually have to be heated to over 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to flow to ship engines.

As the thick bunker oil spread on the waters surrounding San Francisco, it turned into tarry patches and balls that eventually stranded along hundreds of miles of shoreline. Much of our understanding about the toxic effects from oil spills comes from studies of crude oil, conducted after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. But as we studied the effects of bunker oil on fish and wildlife after the Cosco Busan spill, we discovered bunker oil not only behaves differently than crude oil in the environment, but it appears to have different toxicological effects.

Two to three months after the spill, when the huge annual schools of Pacific herring entered San Francisco Bay to find their shallow spawning grounds, most of the evidence of lingering bunker oil was already gone, either cleaned up or weathered away. But when we collected herring eggs from areas both affected and unaffected by the spill, we made a remarkable discovery: Almost all of the eggs collected from spill locations were dead or deformed. The eggs collected outside of the spill zone were largely normal. This was especially surprising given the lack of significant remaining evidence of bunker oil.

We conducted additional studies over two more seasons of herring spawning in the bay and eventually concluded that the toxic characteristics of the bunker oil from the Cosco Busan spill affected as much as a quarter of the herring spawning in 2008. We also concluded that the effects didn’t carry over past that first spawning season after the spill. Our studies, directed by scientists from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the Bodega Marine Laboratory in California, forged new scientific understandings on the effects of oil spills on aquatic resources and will guide further progress on our assessment of present and future spills.

This week at the announcement of the $44.4 million spill settlement, I had a moment to reflect on the countless hours of work that culminated in that press conference and the road to restoration of San Francisco Bay: from the emergency responders cleaning up the oiled waters (and the thank-you cards to them from local school kids left on the beach) to the attorneys poring over the maritime and clean water laws violated by the spill.

Just two short hours before the press conference we still hadn’t received word that the settlement was filed in court. But then the message came, the last piece of the puzzle finally fell into place, and we were ready to unveil the whole, hopeful picture to the public.

The draft Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan for the Cosco Busan oil spill provides details on the restoration projects being planned; you can review it here. The public may submit comments on the plan through October 31, 2011.

Greg BakerGreg Baker works as an Environmental Scientist in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.