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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What Was the Fate of Lake Erie’s Leaking Shipwreck, the Argo?

Two people on a boat inspect a diver in a full dive suit.

A diver, wearing a positive pressure dive suit, is inspected by his coworkers prior to conducting dive operations for the Argo response in Lake Erie, Nov. 24, 2015. Divers conducting operations during the Argo response are required to wear specialized dive suits designed for the utmost safety to the diver while ensuring flexibility, ease of decontamination, and chemical resistance. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At the end of October, we reported that our oil spill experts were helping the U.S. Coast Guard with a spill coming from the tank barge Argo in Lake Erie. The unusual twist in this case was that the leaking Argo was located at the bottom of the lake under approximately 40 feet of water. Nearly 80 years earlier, on October 20, 1937, this ship had foundered in a storm and sank in western Lake Erie.

At this point, the pollution response for the Argo is wrapping up, and we have more information about this shipwreck and the fate of its cargo.

For example, we knew that originally this ship was loaded with thousands of barrels of crude oil and benzol (an old commercial name for the chemical benzene), but after decades of sitting underwater, were the eight tanks holding them still intact? How much of the oil and chemical cargo was still inside them? What exactly was causing the discolored slicks on the lake surface? What was the threat to people and the environment from this pollution?

In Less Than Ship-Shape

Two hands place a label on a jar of oil.

A responder labels a sample of product for analysis extracted from the Lake Erie Barge Argo Nov. 11, 2015. NOAA was involved in coordinating environmental sampling and analysis of the leaking chemicals coming from this 1937 shipwreck. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Based on our previous work with NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project, we had identified the Argo as a potential pollution threat in 2013. It was one of five potentially polluting wrecks identified in the Great Lakes. However, the exact location of the wreck was unknown, and the barge was thought to be on the Canadian side of the lake.

But in September 2015, the Cleveland Underwater Explorers located the vessel, which was confirmed to be in U.S. waters of Lake Erie and appeared from side-scan sonar survey imagery to be intact. Divers commissioned by the Coast Guard surveyed the wreck in October and found its eight cargo tanks were intact.

Yet they also observed something slowly leaking from a small rivet hole in the vessel’s structure. After sampling the leaking material, we now know that it was primarily benzene with traces of a light petroleum product.

Lighter the Load

Two responders carry a large tube next to pipe and holding tanks.

Responders aboard one of two work barges for the Lake Erie Barge Argo response prepare the receiving tanks in this Nov. 18, 2015 photo in preparation for lightering operations of the Argo. All chemicals and petroleum products were successfully removed from the wreck of the barge. (U.S. Coast Guard)

From late October through early December, we had a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator and support team working with the Coast Guard’s response in Toledo, Ohio. One of our primary functions was advising the Coast Guard on chemical hazards (e.g., benzene is known to cause cancer). For example, we were modeling where the chemicals would travel through the air and across the water surface if a sizable release were to occur during the wreck’s salvage operations.

Responders finished lightering operations, which removed all remaining chemicals and oil from the barge to another vessel, on December 1. Based on sampling, we believe any residual chemical traces in the sediment surrounding the wreck will continue to break down naturally and do not pose a threat to people or aquatic life in the vicinity of the wreck.

Over the course of the response, NOAA provided almost 30 trajectory forecasts for surface slicks, daily weather forecasts, and data management support via our online response mapping application, ERMA, which displayed NOAA charts and weather, NOAA and Canadian spill trajectories, spill modeling and aerial survey information, spill response plans, and data for environmentally sensitive habitats and species in the area.

NOAA, along with state and federal partners, also managed the development of environmental monitoring, water sampling, sediment sampling, and waste disposal plans for the Argo’s response. In addition, the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory provided science and logistical support and the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries provided key historical and archival research on the vessel and cargo.

Check out our special series that explores the issues of sunken, abandoned, and derelict vessels—covering everything from when they become maritime heritage sites to how we deal with those that turn into polluting eyesores.


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NOAA Involved After Barge Argo, the Lake Erie Shipwreck Lost in 1937, Resurfaces with Oily Leak in U.S. Waters

Divers exit small boats into the waters of Lake Erie.

Contractors conduct dive operations at the site of a sunken barge near the Kelley’s Island Shoal in Lake Erie, Oct. 21, 2015. The divers were trying to establish the identity of the barge and if it or any of its cargo poses an environmental threat. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The 1937 sinking of a small barge in Lake Erie went largely unnoticed at the time, but the ill-fated tank barge Argo is in the news now that the wreck’s exact location—along with a leak—has been discovered.

And it wasn’t in Canadian waters, as previously thought.

Ship Down, Pollution Rising

That piece of underwater detective work by the Cleveland Underwater Explorers, combined with historical research done as part of NOAA’s RULET program (Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats) which in 2013 identified it as a potentially polluting shipwreck, have been key factors in the developing response to the Argo.

Recently found to be on the U.S. side of the border with Canada, the wreck has been traced to reports of pollution on Lake Erie in both nations, indicating that the Argo is leaking. At the time of the sinking, the barge was reportedly loaded with 4,762 barrels of crude oil and the chemical benzol. The U.S. Coast Guard, with support from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and in collaboration with Canada, is ramping up pollution response efforts to address the leaking Great Lakes wreck.

While underwater response technologies do exist to address wrecks filled with oil, there are a lot of steps involved before a wreck can be safely remediated. Early efforts will focus on identifying whether the barge is leaking petroleum or benzol (or both) and determining whether the source of the leaks can be controlled immediately.

The Coast Guard is evaluating whether and how to safely remove the cargo from the sunken barge to reduce the likelihood of future pollution. NOAA is providing environmental and chemical data, weather forecasting, modeling of observed oil sheens back to the wreck, and other observations to support the response.

Linking Leaks to Potential Harm

Evaluating the magnitude of the leaks will alert us to any significant threats to people or to fish, birds, or other wildlife in the lake. NOAA and other organizations are analyzing samples of lake water and zebra mussels attached to the wreck to determine whether concentrations of hazardous chemicals are present or exceed levels of concern.

If it appears that the Argo has been leaking for some time or if the concentrations of detected pollutants are expected to be toxic to fish or wildlife, NOAA and other agencies would consider pursuing a natural resource damage assessment, with the goal of evaluating harm to public natural resources and determining whether and which restoration actions would compensate for injuries. As “natural resource trustee” agencies, NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Ohio would perform these assessments over the next few months.

From Another Time

One of the compelling aspects of shipwrecks is the way they capture a moment in time. Looking back at the major events of that time, it is easy to see how a barge accident in the Great Lakes would barely garner a mention in the local papers. In 1937 Franklin Roosevelt had just been re-elected president, Adolf Hitler was chancellor of Germany, Benito Mussolini was prime minister of Italy, and Joseph Stalin was in power in the Soviet Union.

Even in the area of transportation, other momentous events dominated the news. The Golden Gate Bridge had just opened, the zeppelin Hindenburg was destroyed by fire while landing in New Jersey, and American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific.

Yes, 1937 was a long time ago. It was well before the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and other laws and regulations for the transport of oil and response to spills. When the Argo sank in a storm on October 20—79 years ago—the crew was safely rescued and the barge was left on the bottom, slowly sinking into the lake bed sediments.

The location wasn’t well known, even to maritime historians. We weren’t even sure if the wreck was in the U.S. or Canada, which shows how little is often known about the thousands of shipwrecks in North American waters—that is, until they start releasing their long-hidden cargo.

Update December 10, 2016: Learn about the fate of Barge Argo and its contents on board.

Stay tuned for a special series in early November when we’ll be diving deeper into the issues of sunken, abandoned, and derelict vessels—covering everything from when they become maritime heritage sites to how we deal with those that turn into polluting eyesores.


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Protecting the Great Lakes After a Coal Ship Hits Ground in Lake Erie

The coal ship CSL Niagara got stuck in Lake Erie's soft, muddy bottom at the entrance to Sandusky Bay in November 2013.

The coal ship CSL Niagara got stuck in Lake Erie’s soft, muddy bottom at the entrance to Sandusky Bay in November 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the course of a year, from October 2012 to October 2013, the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration responded to 138 oil spills, chemical accidents, and various other threats to coastal environments and communities. Many of these responses required considerable time from the scientific team to estimate where spills might spread, analyze chemical hazards, and assess whether natural resources are at risk. Sometimes, however, we’re called into some incidents that end well, with minimum help needed on our part and no oil spilled.

Last November, LCDR John Lomnicky received a call from the U.S. Coast Guard with an example of an accident that had the potential to be much worse. LCDR Lomnicky is our Scientific Support Coordinator for the Great Lakes region and is based in Cleveland, Ohio.

When Staying Grounded Is a Bad Thing

On November 17, just after 10:00 in the morning, the vessel master of the CSL Niagara reported to the U.S. Coast Guard that his ship had run aground while leaving Sandusky Bay through Moseley Channel to Lake Erie. Aboard the ship were 33,000 metric tons (36,376 U.S. tons) of coal, headed to Hamilton, Ontario, and about 193 metric tons of intermediate fuel oil (a blend of gasoil and heavy fuel oil) and marine diesel. The concern in a situation like this would be that the grounded ship might leak oil. Its stern was stuck in the soft mud at the bottom of Lake Erie. At the time, the vessel master reported there were no injuries, flooding, or visible pollution.

This ship, the CSL Niagara, has a long history of transporting coal in Lake Erie. Launched in April of 1972 for Canada Steamship Lines, Ltd., the new ship was 730 feet long and even then was carrying coal to Hamilton, Ontario. During over 40 years of sailing in the Great Lakes, the Niagara has also carried cargos of grain, coke, stone, and iron ore.

NOAA chart of Lake Erie.

Lake Erie has an average depth of 62 feet, but its western basin, where the CSL Niagara grounded, averages only 24 feet deep. (NOAA Chart)

Even though the vessel hadn’t released any oil, the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit, who had responders at the scene very shortly after the accident, put in a call to the Office of Response and Restoration’s LCDR Lomnicky for scientific support. As a precaution, they requested that we model the trajectory of oil in a worst case scenario if 145 metric tons of intermediate fuel oil and 48 metric tons of diesel fuel were released all at once into the water. We also provided a prediction of when the lake’s lower-than-usual water level would return to normal so a salvage team could refloat the stuck vessel. After gathering all of this information for the Coast Guard, LCDR Lomnicky continued to stand by for further requests.

In the hours that followed the ship’s grounding, the winds grew stronger, hampering efforts to free the vessel. The wind was causing the water level in the lake to drop and NOAA’s National Weather Service in Detroit predicted a 7.5 foot drop in levels for western Lake Erie. By 8:30 p.m., with 30 knot winds in two-to-three foot seas, the three tugboats contracted by the ship’s owner to dislodge the Niagara were making some progress. By midnight, however, with weather conditions worsening, salvage operations were suspended and scheduled to resume at first light.

But the next morning, November 18, the water level had dropped another two feet, and the three tugs still had had no luck freeing the stern of the Niagara from the lake bottom. The ship’s owner was now working on plans for lightering (removing the fuel) and containing any potentially spilled oil. Fortunately, there were still no reports of damage to the vessel or oil discharged into the water. The ship was just stuck.

By 4:00 that afternoon the water conditions had improved and another attempt to free the vessel was planned. Also, a combined tug-barge was en route should lightering become necessary.

Later that evening, shortly after 10:00, the ship was pulled free by two of the tugs and was back on its way early the next morning.

The location where the CSL Niagara grounded in Lake Erie is indicated with a red diamond, along with a window of information and photo of the grounded ship. It is mapped in Great Lakes ERMA, NOAA's online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup, restoration, and response.

The location where the CSL Niagara grounded in Lake Erie is indicated with a red diamond, along with a window of information and photo of the grounded ship. It is mapped in Great Lakes ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup, restoration, and response. (NOAA)

Keeping the Great Lakes Great

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the five Great Lakes, with an average depth of 62 feet. Yet its western basin, where this ship grounding occurred, has an average depth of only 24 feet. The lake is an important source of commerce for both the U.S and Canada, who depend on it for shipping, fishing, and hydroelectric power. These industries place environmental pressure on the lake’s ecosystems, which  are also threatened by urban and agricultural runoff.

Happily, quick responders, sound information, and a break in the weather may have prevented this incident from becoming something much worse. A spill into Lake Erie could be devastating, especially considering its shallow waters, but this time, like many other times along the nation’s coasts, an oil spill was avoided.

Didn’t know that NOAA works in the Great Lakes? Nicknamed “the third coast,” the Great Lakes are a major U.S. water body, with a shoreline that stretches longer than the East Coast and Gulf Coast combined. Learn more about the Great Lakes and NOAA’s efforts there in this Great Lakes regional snapshot.


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With Eye Toward Restoring Ecosystems, NOAA Releases New Pollution Mapping Tool for Great Lakes

[Editor’s Note: Happy Great Lakes Week! NOAA and our many U.S. and Canadian partners are celebrating and tackling issues for the world’s largest source of liquid freshwater from September 9-12, 2013.]

This is a post by Office of Response and Restoration Physical Scientist Ben Shorr.

A scientific team monitors cleanup progress in an airboat on the Kalamazoo River

Scientists observe cleanup progress for the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, an Area of Concern in the Great Lakes region. (NOAA/Terry Heatlie)

The Great Lakes have been a big part of my life. Growing up in Chicago, I spent many hours as a child sailing big and little boats on Lake Michigan. During college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I studied civil and environmental engineering, with a major focus in sailing on the Great Lakes and the small lakes and rivers in between. When I began working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Chicago, I had the opportunity to work on assessment and cleanup of contaminated sediment sites and water quality issues across the Great Lakes. Over the past decade at NOAA, I have also been able to work on the cleanup and restoration of natural resources in the Great Lakes and across the country.

And after working on it for the past year, this week our team announces the creation of the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) for the Great Lakes.

A Tool for Restoration

Great Lakes ERMA is an online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup and restoration efforts across the Great Lakes Basin. This tool brings together regional data and information from NOAA and its partners into a single interactive map. Great Lakes ERMA was created to help illustrate and expedite cleanup and restoration of Areas of Concern (areas identified by the U.S. and Canada as polluted and in need of cleanup and restoration). It does this by combining environmental contaminant data from NOAA’s Great Lakes Query Manager database with ecological, recreational, tribal, and commercial information from across the region.

Screen shot of Great Lakes ERMA with contaminant chemistry stations and Areas of Concern.

Great Lakes ERMA, shown above, displays Areas of Concern, areas identified by the U.S. and Canada as polluted and in need of cleanup and restoration, and NOAA Query Manager sediment sampling stations (orange points). This tool can help illustrate progress in restoring the health of the Great Lakes. (NOAA)

NOAA, as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, collaborated with the EPA, U.S. Coast Guard, and University of New Hampshire to develop Great Lakes ERMA. Out of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative came a five-year action plan focusing on a handful of essential issues for the region, spanning the cleanup of toxic pollution (where we come in) to the combat of invasive species. In addition to incorporating environmental cleanup and restoration information, we’re working with emergency response colleagues within NOAA, EPA, Coast Guard, and the academic community on how to use ERMA in the Great Lakes to improve planning, communication, and coordination for responses to oil and chemical spills.

The History Behind the Data

A key part of Great Lakes ERMA is its connection to the data in the Query Manager database. In my work developing Great Lakes ERMA over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to build upon that work done by my NOAA colleagues Jay Field and Todd Goeks (who is based in Chicago, Ill). They established a Great Lakes–wide database with contaminant concentration data and the related impacts on living organisms.

This database, which is the product of close collaboration with the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Great Lakes states, is the region’s most extensive compilation of environmental contaminant data. Comprised of data from smaller-scale watersheds and studies of individual pollution sites, the Great Lakes Query Manager database now contains over 480 studies with nearly 23,000 stations with contaminant chemistry or toxicity results. By integrating this data into Great Lakes ERMA, accessing it for cleanup and environmental injury assessment and restoration at contaminant sites across the Great Lakes is now even easier.

A Data-rich Future

As we look to the future, our team is excited about the opportunities to leverage NOAA and our partners’ research and analysis in ERMA to highlight and further NOAA’s mission of conserving and managing coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. Our team continues working to build partnerships in the Great Lakes under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and on pollution cases and hazardous waste sites that are a focus for NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.

Stay tuned to this blog for more about how we are applying innovative approaches to data management in the Great Lakes and around the country. For now, you can check out Great Lakes ERMA by visiting https://www.erma.unh.edu/greatlakes/erma.html.

Ben Shorr has been a Physical Scientist with the Office of Response and Restoration since he came to Seattle (mostly to ski and sail) in 2000. Ben works on a range of topics, from cleanup, damage assessment, and restoration to visualization and spatial analysis. In his spare time, Ben enjoys hanging out with his 5 and 3 year old kids, which means riding bikes, skiing, and sailing too!


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Taking a Closer Look at Marine Debris in Your Backyard

Here's hoping your backyard doesn't look like this: debris scattered on the ocean floor near the Pacific Islands. (NOAA)

Here’s hoping your backyard doesn’t look like this: debris scattered on the ocean floor near the Pacific Islands. (NOAA)

Check out NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog for their ongoing series, Marine Debris in Your Backyard, which examines the unique challenges of marine debris and its impacts on various parts of the United States.

Join them as they “journey across the nation, looking at the nine different regions the NOAA Marine Debris Program spans and the most common types of debris found in them, and how it may have ended up there.”

So far, they have visited the following places:

  • Alaska, where remote beaches, rough seas, and limited fair weather mean volunteers have only a few months each year to remove anywhere from one to 25 tons of debris per mile of shoreline.
  • Great Lakes, where 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water resides, discarded fishing lines often entangle wildlife, and rumors of a plastic-filled “garbage patch” are beginning to appear.
  • Pacific Islands, where Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and a whole lot of open ocean make up the largest region NOAA supports, but where there is so little space for landfills that NOAA helped establish a public-private partnership in Hawaii to turn abandoned fishing gear into a local electricity source.
  • California, where its 1,100 miles of shoreline vary from coastal mountains in the north to well-populated, sandy beaches in the south, and where the nation’s first “Trash Policy” will attempt to control the flow of garbage in California’s waterways.

Stay tuned as they continue working their way around the shores of the United States, and ask yourself, what does marine debris look like where you live? How do you help keep it out of the ocean?

And remember, even if you live hundreds of miles from a beach, a piece of litter such as a cigarette butt (which actually contains plastic) or a plastic bag can still make its way through storm drains and rivers to the ocean. This makes marine debris, no matter where you live, truly everyone’s problem.


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Is There a Garbage Patch in the Great Lakes?

This is a post by Sarah Opfer, NOAA Marine Debris Program Great Lakes Regional Coordinator.

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“—a purported island of trash twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean—receives a lot of media attention. Recent reports suggest that a similar garbage patch may be developing in the Great Lakes as well.

However, based on research we know that the name “garbage patch” is misleading and that there is no island of trash forming in the middle of the ocean. We also know that there is no blanket of marine trash that is visible using current satellite or aerial photography.

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Yet, there are places in the ocean where currents bring together lots and lots of floatable materials, such as plastics and other trash. While the types of litter gathering in these areas can vary greatly, from derelict fishing nets to balloons, the kind that is capturing the most attention right now are microplastics. These are small bits of plastic often not immediately evident to the naked eye.

While we know about the so-called “garbage patches” in the Pacific Ocean, could there be a similar phenomenon in other parts of the world, including the Great Lakes? Recent research on the distribution of plastics in the Great Lakes has people now asking that very question.

The Great Lakes are no mere group of puddles. They contain nearly 20% of the world’s surface freshwater and have a coastline longer than the East Coast of the United States. Within the Great Lakes system, water flows from Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, the lakes furthest west and highest in elevation, east into Lake Huron. From there, it travels through Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River into Lake Erie. Then, some 6 million cubic feet of water pass over Niagara Falls each minute and into Lake Ontario before flowing through the St. Lawrence River and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

This water flow influences circulation patterns within and between each of the lakes. Currents within the Great Lakes also are powered by wind, waves, energy from the sun, water density differences, the shape of the lakebed, and the shoreline. These circulation currents have the tendency to create aggregations of garbage and debris in certain areas, just like in the oceans. But, just as in the Pacific Ocean, this doesn’t mean the Great Lakes have floating trash islands either.

In an effort to better identify and understand how plastic debris is spread throughout the Great Lakes, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have partnered with COM DEV on an exploratory research project. COM DEV is a designer and manufacturer of space and remote sensing technology. Researchers are working with this industry partner to develop and test the ability of different remote sensors to detect plastics in the Great Lakes.

If they find the task is feasible and the trial runs prove to be effective, this work could be applied beyond the Great Lakes and across the United States. The NOAA Marine Debris Program, part of the Office of Response and Restoration, is engaged with and following the project. We plan to participate in the next steps of this promising effort. You can learn more about the project and a related workshop on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Bowling Green State University and was a Knauss Sea Grant fellow with NOAA in 2009. She is based in Ohio and enjoys having Lake Erie in her back yard! While away from work she enjoys cooking, reading, kayaking, dreaming of places she wants to travel to, and spending time with her family.


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Déjà vu on the Sheboygan River: Transitioning from Cleanup to Restoration in Wisconsin

Looking upstream on the Sheboygan River from the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge in downtown Sheboygan, Wisconsin. This section of the river was dredged in 2011 to remove sediment contaminated with PCBs and PAHs.

Looking upstream on the Sheboygan River from the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge in downtown Sheboygan, Wisconsin. This section of the river was dredged in 2011 to remove sediment contaminated with PCBs and PAHs. (NOAA/Jessica Winter)

One of my first introductions to the problems of environmental contamination was Wisconsin’s Sheboygan River. It empties into Lake Michigan, a rich recreational, commercial, and ecological area, but unfortunately, the Sheboygan has suffered from a past filled with toxic chemicals. As an intern in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office in 2006, I visited this scenic river in eastern Wisconsin to learn about the techniques used for cleaning up the river’s contaminated sediments. At the time, I didn’t know that I would return with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to work on the restorative process that follows cleanup: natural resource damage assessment.

A Superfund Site in the Making

Throughout the 20th century, industrial facilities released the hazardous chemicals polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals, and more into the Sheboygan River and adjacent floodplains. These chemicals have been measured at high concentrations in the river sediments and fish, limiting the public’s ability to use and enjoy the Sheboygan River for years. For example, resident fish and waterfowl from the river are unsafe to eat because the high contaminant levels exceed U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. To address this contamination, the EPA’s Superfund Division has designated the lower 14 miles of the Sheboygan River and the adjacent floodplains for cleanup.

On my most recent visit to the river in the fall of 2012, cleanup crews were in their final season of work on a project that has been underway for many years, beginning with emergency sediment removal in 1978. But how do you actually “clean” a polluted river like the Sheboygan?

"Geotubes," show here filled with sediment, were used to remove contaminants from Sheboygan river sediments. In the background, pipes collected weepwater which oozed out of the geotubes and left behind contaminated sediments. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

“Geotubes,” show here filled with sediment, were used to remove contaminants from Sheboygan river sediments. In the background, pipes collected weepwater which oozed out of the geotubes and left behind contaminated sediments. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

For the upstream stretch of the river, completed in 2006–2007, a crew had to suck up contaminated sediments from the riverbed, suspend them in water so they flow as slurry, and then pump the slurry through a pipeline. Next, they pumped it into “geotubes,” large porous bags that allow the river water to seep out but keep the sediment and solid pollutants inside. A wastewater treatment plant removed any remaining contamination from the water. Once the sediment was dry enough, it was transported to a specially designed hazardous waste landfill. Cleanup in the downstream stretch of the river in 2011–2012 used similar methods, as well as an excavator to scoop up some of the sediments and embedded pollutants.

Gearing up for Restoration

As this cleanup was winding down, my NOAA colleagues and I traveled to Sheboygan, Wis., to meet with other federal and state scientists studying the affected area. NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources serve as trustees for the public while conducting a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). During this process, the trustees collect and evaluate data to identify the natural resources that have been injured by contamination and to quantify the resulting injuries to the environment. For example, injuries might include increased tumor rates in fish or reduced prey available for fish to eat. Luckily for us, the Sheboygan River is well-studied; we have data investigating animal populations and habitat quality from the 1970s to the present.

Fish consumption advisories, as seen posted here along the river, have been in place on the Sheboygan River since 1979.

Fish consumption advisories, as seen posted here along the river, have been in place on the Sheboygan River since 1979. (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/Vic Pappas)

Once the trustees know precisely what the injuries are from this pollution, they work with the public to choose projects that will address those injuries. For example, this might include creating or enhancing wetlands that will provide better areas for fish to find food. Trustees then require the parties responsible for the contamination either to fund or implement these restoration projects themselves.

In 2012, this restoration process kicked off when the trustees undertook a preliminary assessment. They examined the current state of scientific information on the Sheboygan River’s sediments, soils, water, invertebrates, fish, birds, mammals, and reptiles to determine whether it is reasonable to pursue a full damage assessment, which would compensate the public for the natural resources hurt by the Sheboygan’s history of toxic chemicals. The preassessment screen [PDF] documents this work.

What did they conclude after the preliminary assessment? That injury to these resources was likely and that damage assessment is warranted. Next, the trustees will develop an Assessment Plan that will describe the methods that will be used to quantify damages. Trustees will invite the public to comment on the Assessment Plan. Stay tuned and check out the links below to access data and documents related to this site.

Data

  • Query Manager database: This is the general informational page for Query Manager, NOAA’s database and query tool for environmental chemistry data. Follow the link to the download page to obtain the database, map, and dictionary for Great Lakes data (which includes Sheboygan River and Harbor data) and to obtain the Query Manager software for interacting with the database.
  • NOAA is developing a new interface for accessing this data which will be available at ProjectDIVER.org. Project DIVER is currently a work in progress.

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