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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Deepwater Horizon: Response in the Midst of an Historic Crisis

Tractor with trailers on beach.

Cleanup crews in Pensacola Beach, Florida, try to remove oil from the sand in November 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that severely injured the environment also directly affected the seafood trade and tourism economies of five Gulf states. Image Credit: NOAA

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill began on April 20, 2010, with a blowout of BP’s Macondo drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the death of 11 men, the spill resulted in the largest mobilization of resources addressing an environmental emergency in the history of the United States.

The size of the spill required the Emergency Response Division to refine tracking subsurface oil, flowrate calculations, and long-term oil transport modeling. Data and information management became a paramount issue. NOAA’s web-based environmental management mapping tool proved invaluable in tracking and sharing data across the many teams and command posts.

With only 12 full time responders and about 120 NOAA staff nationally, the size and complexity of the incident taxed the spill team’s capacity to respond. NOAA recruited retired staff and contractors to provide additional emergency support, along with scientists from across the nation and internationally.

Other NOAA programs provided critical services in the field, on ships, aircraft, and in regional laboratories, weather forecast offices, and regional command posts. As the response grew, staffing the various missions required extraordinary interagency coordination.

Overall, several thousand NOAA staff worked on spill response and damage assessment activities. Seven NOAA ships—39 percent of the NOAA fleet—conducted cruises with missions as diverse as seafood safety monitoring, wellhead monitoring, and detecting subsurface oil. Five NOAA aircraft flew over 773 flight hours to track the oil spill and to measure air quality impacts.

Challenges faced with Deepwater Horizon

Forecasting the oil’s movement: How would the Loop Current effect the oil’s potential to spread to the Florida Keys and beyond? To answer that staff worked 24-7 modeling where the oil might spread in an effort to help defuse the public’s concern that oil would rapidly travel around Florida and oil shorelines along the Atlantic seaboard. After more than a month of daily mapping, overflights, and satellite analyses, our data showed no recoverable oil in the area, and the threat of oil spreading by the Loop Current diminished.

Calculating how much oil spilled and where it went:

Estimating the size of an oil spill is difficult, and determining the volume spilled from this leaking wellhead over a mile deep was even more challenging. Federal scientists and engineers worked with experts from universities on interagency teams to calculate the flow rate and total volume of oil spilled.

Another interagency team, led by the U. S. Geological Survey, NOAA, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology developed a tool called the Oil Budget Calculator to determine what happened to the oil. Working with these experts and agencies, NOAA was able to estimate the amount spilled, and how much oil was chemically dispersed, burned, and recovered by skimmers.

NOAA scientists also studied how much oil naturally evaporated and dispersed, sank to the sea floor, or trapped in shoreline sediments. Other studies determined how long it took the oil to degrade in those different environments.

While dispersant use reduced the amount of surface and shoreline oiling, and reduced marsh impacts, dispersants likely did increase impacts to some species during sensitive life stages that live in the water column and the deep ocean. The use of dispersants is under review.

Infographic about Deepwater Horizon.

Statistical information about Deepwater Horizon. Image Credit: NOAA

Quickly communicating the science of the situation including:

The public demanded answers fast, and social media rapidly took over as a primary tool to voice their concerns. We responded with continual updates through social media and on our website and blog. Still, keeping ahead of misconceptions and misinformation about the spill proved challenging. The lesson learned is that we can’t underestimate social media interest.

In addition to responding to the public’s need for accurate information, NOAA had to coordinate with universities and other academics to and quickly leverage existing research on an active oil spill. The size and multi-month aspect of the spill generated huge academic interest, but also meant that scientists were mobilizing and conducting field activities in the middle of an active response.

Lessons Learned

The list of lessons learned during the response continues to grow and those lessons are not limited to science. Organizational, administrative, policy, and outreach challenges were also significant considering the size, scope, and complexity of the response.

After nearly 30 years, the Exxon Valdez spill studies continue in an effort to understand the impacts and recovery in Prince William Sound. Given that timeline as a guide, NOAA expects Deepwater Horizon studies to continue for decades.

It will take that research and the perspective of time to understand the overall effects of the spill and response actions on the Gulf ecosystem and the communities that depend on a healthy coast.

 

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:

Doug Helton and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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Restoring an Urban Dump Near Baltimore

Brown reeds with creek.

Reeds cover large portions of the wetlands. These areas will be restored through proposed methods such as changing the water flow and using chemical control. (Credit: NOAA)

Baltimore can be defined as much by its waterways as its skyscrapers. It’s connected to water through the Inner Harbor, its famous crab cakes, cargo and cruise ships, and its prominent location in the Chesapeake Bay.

West of the city, well-preserved Patapsco Valley State Park extends along 32 miles of the Patapsco River, encompassing 16,043 acres and eight developed recreational areas. Now, in nearby Rosedale, there is an exciting project to reclaim hundreds of acres of a special coastal area formerly used as an urban industrial wasteland.

The 68th Street Dump Site is a 239-acre swath of land, 118 acres of which was once the site of seven landfills, where industrial solvents, paints, and automobile tires were among the polluting substances left behind. The landfills operated from the 1950s to the early 1970s before closing and leaving behind toxic waste. The Environmental Protection Agency designated the area a Superfund site in 2000.

In the summer of 2008, EPA removed contaminated surface soils, containers, gas cylinders, empty drums, and batteries from the site. The actions immediately reduced the human health and ecological risks posed by surface contamination and debris to on-site workers, trespassers, and wildlife.

Despite the contamination and degraded state of the land, federal and state governments, as well as the local community recognized the value in restoring the 118-acres because of its proximity to important local waterways.

The 68th Street Dump site is adjacent to the Back River, with several tributaries, partially tidal, that traverse the site, including Herring Run, Redhouse Run, and Moores Run. The low salinity upper reaches of the Chesapeak Bay, like the Back River, are critical areas for a healthy bay, according to Simeon Hahn, regional resource coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration in the Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.

“Migratory fish like river herring, striped bass, and white and yellow perch require these habitats for spawning and juvenile development. As the name implies spawning still occurs in Herring Run,” Hahn said. “They also provide refuge for many other bay species like the important forage fish, killifish, and silversides that are eaten by striped bass, croaker, spot, weakfish and others. Even blue crabs and shrimp are there at times.”

Areas with large population centers, like Baltimore, present even bigger problems than just cleaning up and restoring contaminated sites. Blighted areas like the 68th Street Dump can lead to higher crime rates, lower property values, weakened local economies, and deny the public access to natural areas.

Aerial view of Baltimore with rivers.

68th Street Dump site was once the site of seven landfills. The blue outlined area shows the site. This aerial view was created using NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application® (Credit NOAA).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as its co-trustees—the Department of the Interior and the State of Maryland—have been involved in developing restoration projects to compensate for the natural resource injuries that occurred from hazardous substance releases at this site.

NOAA, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and EPA coordinated with the Urban Water Federal Partnership on site cleanup, restoration, and reuse of the 68th Street area. Reforestation, tidal wetland restoration, stream restoration, and potential public recreational access were incorporated into the cleanup plan for the site.

​That will provide direct benefits to local water quality and contribute regionally to Chesapeake Bay restoration objectives. The Urban Water Federal partners work together in the same way other local organizations have invested in the 68th Street restoration. The Back River Restoration Committee  has done a tremendous job of collecting the tons of trash that would enter the Bay from Herring Run, according to Hahn.

“Without this effort, the trash would move down the Chesapeake and into the oceans and cause the numerous negative impacts plastics and other debris cause to aquatic life and even to humans,” Hahn said.

NOAA worked with co-trustees and the responsible parties to include these activities in the cleanup and restoration plan.

 

ERMA® is an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as Environmental Sensitivity Index maps, ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers.

 


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Restoration: The Other Part of Spill Response

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Grass and water at sunset with bridge in background.

From landfill to vibrant tidal marsh, the wetland restoration at Lincoln Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, was funded from multiple oil spill settlements and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This project restored a significant area of coastal wetlands in New York-New Jersey harbor’s Arthur Kill ecosystem. (NOAA)

Typically, during an oil spill or chemical release, media images show emergency responders dressed in protective gear, skimming oil off the ocean’s surface or combing coastal beaches for oiled animals.

As dramatic as they are, those images can leave the impression that cleaning up after a spill is the end of the story. Often the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues working on spills years after response efforts have ended, determining how to restore the environment.

OK, it’s not really a myth we’re busting here, maybe a misconception. Let’s chat about the less visible task of long term restoration after an oil spill.

When a spill happens, there are two tasks for those who caused the spill, clean up the spilled oil or chemical released, and restore the environment.

That first responsibility, cleaning up the mess, is the subject of those media photos. It’s the immediate actions taken to scoop up the oil, clear the beaches, and rescue wildlife. It was not long after the Exxon Valdez spill that a television commercial appeared featuring a liquid dish soap used to wash birds covered in oil. That commercial has become so identified with oil spills, it’s practically the first thing that comes to mind when people start talking about oil spills.

Now, what happens when I ask you to picture long-term restoration after an oil spill? What do you see? Having a hard time picturing it? That’s because restoring the environment takes time, often years. Restoration doesn’t lend itself to immediate imagery.

It may not be the subject of a soap commercial, or be very visible to the public, but it’s the second half of the story after the emergency crews are gone.

So what does restoring the environment after a spill look like? Well it can start with scientists taking samples of an oiled fish and conclude with the construction of new wetlands. The Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program restores natural resources injured during an oil spill, release of hazardous materials, or vessel grounding to fully compensate the public for losses.

To ensure that fish, wildlife, and critical habitats like beaches, wetlands and corals impacted by a spill are restored a specific process is followed that includes:

  • Assess the Injury: Quantify injuries to the environment, including lost recreational uses, by conducting scientific and economic studies
  • Plan the Restoration: Develop a restoration plan that identifies projects and outlines the best methods to restore the impacted environment
  • Hold Polluters Accountable: Ensure that responsible parties pay the costs of assessing injuries and restoring the environment
  • Restore the Environment: Implement projects to restore habitats and resources to the condition they would have been in had the pollution not occurred

NOAA’s job is to not only to restore the environment, but to also evaluate and restore the experience the public lost during an oil spill, like fishing or swimming at the beach. For example, after spilled oil washes on shore, people often can no longer swim, picnic, or play at that beach. Or, there may be fewer or no recreational fishers on a nearby pier. In order to compensate the public for these lost days of enjoying the outdoors NOAA and partners may build restoration projects that improve recreational access to waterways, install boat launches, fishing piers, and hiking trails.

During all this work, it’s important to keep the public informed and to ask for comments and ideas on how an injured area should be restored. Several restoration projects are currently open for public review and comment, read more here.


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An Estuary in the Shadow of Seattle

People working at marsh's edge.

Volunteers help restore the Duwamish River by planting native vegetation at an Earth Day event hosted at Codiga Park, April 2008. (NOAA)

Update: It’s been announced that a proposed settlement was reached with Seattle to resolve its liability for injured natural resources. Seattle has purchased restoration credits from Bluefield Holdings Inc., a company that develops restoration projects. The city’s credit purchase totals approximately $3.5 million worth of restoration. This is the first natural resource damages settlement to fund restoration through the purchase of credits by a restoration development company. For more details: https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/city-seattle-agrees-natural-resource-damages-settlement-using-new-market-based-approach

What makes river water flow in one direction in the morning and change direction in the afternoon? Tides.

Where the Duwamish River meets Puget Sound in Washington state this shift of water flow happens daily. The Duwamish pours into the salty waters of Puget Sound, making it Seattle’s downtown estuary. The powerful tides that fill and drain the sound push and pull on the Duwamish causing a shift in directions at the river’s estuary.

This estuary does not look like the estuaries from high school text books. It no longer has a wide delta where the freshwater river fans out to meet the salty ocean. Instead, it looks like a channelized waterway. Almost all of the Duwamish estuarine wetlands and mudflats have been lost to dredging or filling for industrial purposes. Restoring the Duwamish‘s estuary is a massive challenge—requiring government agencies, industry, and the public to work together.

Aerial view of city with river.

Aerial photograph of the Lower Duwamish River. Harbor Island and Elliott Bay are shown in the top left and downtown Seattle in the top center of the photograph. (NOAA)

I am happy to report a significant step forward in this collaboration. NOAA recently produced key answers to some tough questions, based on lessons we learned as we worked on this restoration effort: What works the best to restore this highly urban and developed river and estuary? What are some of the key obstacles we encountered?

Main challenges for restoring the Duwamish:

  • Dealing with costs and challenges of existing contamination
  • Preventing erosion of new restoration
  • Keeping newly-planted vegetation alive—geese and other wildlife love to eat newly planted restoration sites

Key lessons learned for successful restoration:

  • Plan for uncertainty: the most common issue for restoration in urban areas is discovering unexpected challenges, such as sediment contamination during construction.
  • Allow for ongoing maintenance: Restoration isn’t over just because a project is complete. To ensure the long-term success of restoration efforts, continued stewardship of the site is necessary and should be included in project planning.
  • Get the biggest bang for your buck: When companies conduct cleanups of their sites, it is most cost effective to conduct restoration at the same time.
River with grid strung above it.

Geese inside goose exclusion fencing at Boeing Project. (Credit: Boeing)

The challenges and recommendations are only a snapshot of what can be found in the NOAA report, Habitat Restoration in an Urban Waterway: Lessons Learned from the Lower Duwamish River. While the Duwamish estuary may look nothing like it did historically, it is important to always be reminded that it is still full of life. From salmon to kayakers to industry, the estuary serves a key role in the Seattle community. Learn more about what we are doing to restore the Duwamish River.


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Studying Marine Life a Year After the Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach

One year after the pipeline oil spill at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara, California, scientists from NOAA and our partners have been back to the site of the spill. They are gathering a new round of samples to help determine the health of the environment and marine life.

This May and June, these teams have been conducting comprehensive scientific surveys to collect data on three distinct but interconnected habitats within the impacted spill zone: sandy beach, subtidal, and rocky intertidal habitats.

Specifically, the surveys are examining:

  • talitrid (beach hopper or “sand flea”) populations in sandy beach habitats.
  • a variety of organisms in rocky intertidal habitat.
  • surfgrass in subtidal habitats.
  • fish, including grunion spawning on the beaches and surfperch in nearshore waters.

Information collected from these sampling efforts will be used to determine the amount of restoration needed to return the environment to the condition it would have been in if not for the spill, and to compensate the public for natural resource injuries and lost recreational opportunities. This is part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which evaluates the environmental impacts of pollution and implements restoration to make up for those effects.

Ten people stand in the beach surf pulling a seine net to shore.

Scientists pull in a seine net along a beach near Santa Barbara, California, about a year after the oil spill at Refugio State Beach. They are sampling fish known as surfperch to evaluate any impacts from the oil spill. (NOAA)

This pipeline spill occurred on May 19, 2015 and resulted in more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil being released on land, with a portion of the oil reaching the Pacific Ocean. Field teams documented dead fish, invertebrates, and other wildlife in the oiled areas following the spill. The spill also shut down fisheries, closed multiple beaches, and impacted recreational uses, such as camping, non-commercial fishing, and beach visits.

To submit a restoration project idea, please visit: http://bit.ly/refugiorestoration. Learn more about spill cleanup and response efforts at www.refugioresponse.com.


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How Do Oil Spills Affect Sea Turtles?

Head and upper body of Kemp's Ridley sea turtle coated in thick brown oil.

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

Sea turtles: These beloved marine reptiles have been swimming the seas for millions of years. Yet, in less than a hundred years, threats from humans, such as accidentally catching turtles in fishing gear (“bycatch”), killing nesting turtles and their eggs, and destroying habitat, have caused sea turtle populations to plummet. In fact, all six species of sea turtles found in U.S. waters are listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

As we’ve seen in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years, oil spills represent yet another danger for these air-breathing reptiles that rely on clean water and clean beaches. But how exactly do oil spills affect sea turtles? And what do people do during and after an oil spill to look out for the well-being of sea turtles?

Living the Ocean Life

From the oil itself to the spill response and cleanup activities, a major oil spill has the potential to have serious negative effects on sea turtles. Part of the reason for this is because sea turtles migrate long distances and inhabit so many different parts of the ocean environment at different stages of their lives.

Graphic showing the life cycle of sea turtles in the ocean: egg laying; hatchling dispersal; oceanic feeding: small juveniles in sargassum; feeding on the continental shelf: large juveniles and adults, mating and breeding migration; and internesting near beach.

The life cycle of a sea turtle spans multiple habitats across the ocean, from sandy beaches to the open ocean. (NOAA)

For starters, sea turtles hatch (and females later return as adults to lay eggs) on sandy beaches. Then, they head to the vast open ocean where the tiny young turtles drift, hide from predators, and grow among floating islands of seaweed called sargassum. Finally, as larger juveniles and adults, they swim to the shallower waters of the continental shelf and near shore, where they spend the majority of the rest of their lives.

If a large offshore spill releases oil into the open ocean, currents and winds can carry oil across all of the habitats where sea turtles are found—and into the potential path of sea turtles of every age—as it makes its way to shore.

Another reason sea turtles can be particularly vulnerable to ocean oil spills is simply because they breathe air. Even though sea turtles can hold their breath on dives for extended periods of time, they usually come to the surface to breathe several times an hour. Because most oils float, sea turtles can surface into large oil slicks over and over again.

The situation can be even worse for very young sea turtles living among floating sargassum patches, as these small turtles almost never leave the top few feet of water, increasing their exposure to a floating oil slick. Furthermore, ocean currents and winds often bring oil to the same oceanic convergence zones that bring sargassum and young sea turtles together.

Turtle Meets Oil, Inside and Out

So, we know the many places sea turtles can run into an oil spill, but how exactly do they encounter the oil during a spill?

Graphic showing how spilled oil in the ocean can affect sea turtles at all stages of life and across ocean habitats: Oil on the shoreline can contaminate nesting females, nests, and hatchlings; larger turtles can inhale oil vapors, ingest oil in prey or sediment, and become coated in oil at the surface; winds and currents create ocean fronts, bringing together oil, dispersants, and sargassum communities, causing prolonged floating oil exposure; juvenile turtles ingest oil, inhale vapors, and become fatally mired and overheated; prey items may also be killed by becoming stuck in heavy oil or by dissolved oil components; and sargassum fouled by oil and dispersants can sink, leaving sargassum-dependent animals without food and cover and vulnerable to predators. Dead sea turtles may sink.

The potential impacts of an oil spill on sea turtles are many and varied. For example, some impacts can result from sea turtles inhaling and ingesting oil, becoming covered in oil to the point of being unable to swim, or losing important habitat or food that is killed or contaminated by oil. (NOAA)

It likely starts when they raise their heads above the water’s surface to breathe. When sea turtles surface in a slick, they can inhale oil and its vapors into their lungs; gulp oil into their mouths, down their throats, and into their digestive tracts while feeding; and become coated in oil, to the point of becoming entirely mired and unable to swim. Similarly, sea turtles may swim through oil drifting in the water column or disturb it in the sediments on the ocean bottom.

Female sea turtles that ingest oil can even pass oil compounds on to their developing young, and once laid, the eggs can absorb oil components in the sand through the eggshell, potentially damaging the baby turtle developing inside. Nesting turtles and their hatchlings are also likely to crawl into oil on contaminated beaches.

Not the Picture of Health

Graphic showing how oil spill cleanup and response activities can negatively affect sea turtles: Cleaning oil from surface and subsurface shores with large machines deters nesting; booms and other barriers prevent females from nesting; response vessels can strike and kill sea turtles and relocation trawlers can inadvertently drown them; application of dispersants may have effects on sea turtles; and skimming and burning heavy oil may kill some sea turtles, while also exposing others to smoke inhalation.

Oil spill cleanup and response activities can negatively affect sea turtles as well. For example, oil containment booms along beaches can prevent nesting females from reaching the shores to lay their eggs. (NOAA)

Once sea turtles encounter oil, what are the impacts of that exposure?

Inhaling and swallowing oil generally result in negative health effects for animals, as shown in dolphins and other wildlife, hindering their overall health, growth, and survival. Lining the inside of sea turtles’ throats are pointy spines called esophageal papillae, which normally act to keep swallowed food inside while allowing water to be expelled. Unfortunately, these projections also seem to trap thick oil in sea turtles’ throats, and evidence of oil has been detected in the feces of oiled turtles taken into wildlife rehabilitation centers.

Oil can irritate sensitive mucus membranes around the eyes, mouth, lungs, and digestive tract of sea turtles, and toxic oil compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can be absorbed into vital organ tissues such as the lungs and liver. Because sea turtles can hold their breath for long periods, inhaled oil has a greater chance of being absorbed into their bodies. Oil compounds that get passed from mother turtles to their young can interfere with development and threaten the survival of sea turtles still developing in the eggs.

Once inside their systems, oil can impede breathing and heart function in sea turtles, which can make diving, feeding, migrating, mating, and escaping predators more difficult. Being heavily covered in oil likewise impedes sea turtles’ abilities to undertake these activities, which puts them at risk of exhaustion and dehydration. In addition, dark oil under a hot summer sun can heat up turtles to dangerous temperatures, further jeopardizing their health and even killing them. In fact, sea turtles heavily coated in oil are not likely to survive without medical attention from humans.

Another, less direct way oil spills can affect the health of sea turtles is by killing or contaminating what they eat, which, depending on the species, can range from fish and crabs to jellyfish to seagrass and algae. In addition, if oil kills the sargassum where young sea turtles live, they lose their shelter and source of food and are forced to find suitable habitat elsewhere, which makes them more vulnerable to predators and uses more energy.

Spill response and cleanup operations also can harm sea turtles unintentionally. Turtles can be killed after being struck by response vessels or as a result of oil burning and skimming activities. Extra lighting and activity on beaches can disrupt nesting and hatchling turtles, as well as incubating eggs.

Help Is on the Way

A person holding a small clean Kemp's Ridley sea turtle over a blue bin.

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle ready to be returned to the wild after being cleaned and rehabilitated during an oil spill. (NOAA)

The harm that oil spills can cause to sea turtles is significant, and estimating the full suite of impacts to these species is a long and complicated process.  There are some actions that have been taken to protect these vulnerable marine reptiles during oil spills. These include activities such as:

  • Performing rescue operations by boat, which involve scooping turtles out of oil or water using dip-nets and assessing their health.
  • Taking rescued turtles to wildlife rehabilitation centers to be cleaned and cared for.
  • Monitoring beaches and coastlines for injured (and sometimes dead) turtles.
  • Monitoring nesting beaches to safeguard incubating nests.
  • Conducting aerial surveys to assess abundance of adults and large juvenile turtles potentially in the footprint of an oil spill.

Finally, the government agencies acting as stewards on behalf of sea turtles, as well as other wildlife and habitats, will undertake a scientific evaluation of an oil spill’s environmental impacts and identify restoration projects that make up for any impacts.

As an example, read about the impacts to sea turtles from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, details about how they were harmed, and the proposed restoration path forward.


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How Do You Begin to Clean up a Century of Pollution on New Jersey’s Passaic River?

A mechanical dredge pulls contaminated sediment from the bottom of the Passaic River.

A mechanical dredge removes sediment from an area with high dioxin concentrations on the Passaic River, adjacent to the former Diamond Alkali facility in Newark, New Jersey. (NOAA)

Dozens of companies share responsibility for the industrial pollution on New Jersey’s Passaic River, and several Superfund sites dot the lower portion of the river. But one of the perhaps best-known of these companies (and Superfund sites) is Diamond Alkali.

In the mid-20th century, Diamond Alkali (later Diamond Shamrock Chemicals Company) and others manufactured pesticides and herbicides, including those constituting “Agent Orange,” along the Passaic. The toxic waste from these activities left an undeniable mark on the river, which winds about 80 miles through northern New Jersey until it meets the Hackensack River and forms Newark Bay.

Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with support from the natural resource trustees, including NOAA, U.S. Department of Interior, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the New York State Department of Environmental Protection, has released a plan to clean up the lower eight miles of the Passaic River, which passes through Newark.

Those lower eight miles are where 90 percent of the river’s contaminated sediments are located [PDF] and addressing contamination in this section of the river is an important first step.

A History of War

Ruins of an old railroad bridge end part way over the Passaic River.

Ruins of an old Central Railroad of New Jersey bridge along the Passaic River hint at a bustling era of industrialization gone by. (Credit: Joseph, Creative Commons)

A major contributor to that contamination came from what is known as Agent Orange, a mix of “tactical herbicides,” which the U.S. military sprayed from 1962 to 1971 during the Vietnam War. These herbicides removed tropical foliage hiding enemy soldiers.

However, an unwanted byproduct of manufacturing Agent Orange was the extremely toxic dioxin known as TCDD. Dioxins are commonly released into the environment from burning waste, diesel exhaust, chemical manufacturing, and other processes. The EPA classifies TCDD as a human carcinogen (cause of cancer).

Pollution on the Passaic River stretches back more than two centuries, but its 20th century industrial history has left traces of dioxins, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds in sediments of the Passaic River and surrounding the Diamond Alkali site. Testing in the early 1980s confirmed this contamination, and the area was added to the National Priorities List, becoming a Superfund site in 1984.

Many of these contaminants persist for a long time in the environment, meaning concentrations of them have declined very little in the last 20 years. As a result of this pollution, no one should eat fish or crab caught from the Lower Passaic River, a 17 mile stretch of river leading to Newark Bay.

Finding a Solution

But how do you clean up such a complex and toxic history? The federal and state trustees for the Lower Passaic River provided technical support as EPA grappled with this question, debating two possible cleanup options, or “remedies,” for the river. The cleanup option EPA ultimately settled on involves dredging 3.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments from the river bottom and removing those sediments from the site. Then, a two-foot-deep “cap” made of sand and stone will be placed over contaminated sediments remaining at the bottom of the river.

This will be an enormous effort—one cubic yard is roughly the size of a standard dishwasher. According to NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator Reyhan Mehran, it will be one of the largest dredging projects in Superfund history. While the entire project could take more than ten years, Judith Enck, EPA Regional Administrator for New York, has pointed out that the process involves “cleaning up over a century of toxic pollution.”

A Tale of Two Remedies

Aerial view of New York City skyline, Newark, and industrial river landscape.

Manhattan skyline from over Newark, New Jersey. The view is across the confluence of the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers and shows the industrial buildup in the area. (Credit: Doc Searls, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Mehran describes the alternatives analysis as a complicated one—choosing between two cleanup remedies, the one described above and an “in-water” disposal solution. This second approach called for removing the contaminated sediments from the riverbed and burying them in Newark Bay, in what is known as a “confined aquatic disposal cell.” That essentially involves digging a big hole in the bottom of the bay, removing the clean sediments for use elsewhere, filling it with the contaminated sediments, and capping it to keep everything in place.

While the less expensive of the two options, serious concerns were raised about the potential effect this in-water solution would have on the long-term ecosystem health of Newark Bay.

The chosen remedy, which calls for removing the contaminated sediment from the riverbed and transporting it away by rail to a remote site on land, was selected as the better solution for the long-term health of the ecosystem. Finding the best option incorporated the scientific support and analysis of NOAA and the trustees.

As NOAA’s Mehran explains, “The site, with some of the highest concentrations of dioxins in sediment, is in the middle of one of the most densely populated parts of our nation, which makes the threat to public resources tremendous.”

While the upper and middle segments of the Passaic River flow through forests and natural marshes, areas bordering the lower river are densely populated and industrial. Because of industrialization, habitat for wildlife within Newark Bay has already been severely altered, yet the bay’s shallow waters continue to provide critically needed habitat for fish such as winter flounder, migratory birds including herons and egrets, and numerous other species.

“The watershed of the Lower Passaic River and Newark Bay is highly developed,” emphasizes Mehran, “and the resulting scarcity of ecological habitat makes it all the more valuable and important to protect and restore.”

Learn more about the cleanup plan for the Lower Passaic River [PDF].

Photo of Jersey Central Ruins used courtesy of Joseph, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Photo of Manhattan skyline with Passaic and Hackensack Rivers used courtesy of Doc Searls, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.