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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From Natural Seeps to a Historic Legacy, What Sets Apart the Latest Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Cleanup worker and oiled boulders on Refugio State Beach where the oil from the pipeline entered the beach.

The pipeline release allowed an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil to reach the Pacific Ocean, shown here where the oil entered Refugio State Beach. (NOAA)

The response to the oil pipeline break on May 19, 2015 near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California, is winding down. Out of two* area beaches closed due to the oil spill, all but one, Refugio State Beach, have reopened.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided scientific support throughout the response, including aerial observations of the spill, information on fate and effects of the crude oil, oil detection and treatment, and potential environmental impacts both in the water and on the shore.

Now that the response to this oil spill is transitioning from cleanup to efforts to assess and quantify the environmental impacts, a look back shows that, while not a huge spill in terms of volume, the location and timing of the event make it stand out in several ways.

Seep or Spill: Where Did the Oil Come From?

This oil spill, which allowed an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil to reach the Pacific Ocean, occurred in an area known for its abundant natural oil seeps. The Coal Oil Point area is home to seeps that release an estimated 6,500-7,000 gallons of oil per day (Lorenson et al., 2011) and are among the most active in the world. Oil seeps are natural leaks of oil and gas from subterranean reservoirs through the ocean floor.

The pipeline spill released a much greater volume of oil than the daily output of the local seeps. Furthermore, because it was from a single source, the spill resulted in much heavier oiling along the coast than you would find from the seeps alone.

A primary challenge, for purposes of spill response and damage assessment, was to determine whether oil on the shoreline and nearby waters was from the seeps or the pipeline. Since the oil from the local natural seeps and the leaking pipeline both originated from the same geologic formation, their chemical makeup is similar.

However, chemists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Louisiana State University, and the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Lab were able to distinguish the difference by examining special chemical markers through a process known as “fingerprinting.”

Respecting Native American Coastal Culture

The affected shorelines include some of the most important cultural resource areas for California Native Americans. Members of the Chumash Tribe populated many coastal villages in what is now Santa Barbara County prior to 1800. Many local residents of the area trace their ancestry to these communities.

To ensure that impacts to cultural resources were minimized, Tribal Cultural Resource Monitors were actively engaged in many of the upland and shoreline cleanup activities and decisions throughout the spill response.

Bringing Researchers into the Response

The massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 highlighted the need for further research on issues surrounding oil transport and spill response. As a result, there was a great deal of interest in this spill among members of the academic community, which is not always the case for oil spills. In addition, the spill occurred not far from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

From the perspective of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, this involvement with researchers was beneficial to the overall effort and will potentially serve to broaden our scientific resources and knowledge base for future spills.

The Legacy of 1969

Another unique aspect of the oil spill at Refugio State Beach was its proximity to the site of one of the most historically significant spills in U.S. history. Just over 46 years ago, off the coast of Santa Barbara, a well blowout occurred, spilling as much as 4.2 million gallons of oil into the ocean. The well was capped after 11 days.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which was covered widely in the media, oiled miles of southern California beaches as well. It had such a devastating impact on wildlife and habitat that it is credited with being the catalyst that started the modern-day environmental movement. Naturally, the 2015 oil spill near the same location serves as a reminder of that terrible event and the damage that spilled oil can do in a short period of time.

Moving Toward Restoration

In order to assess the environmental impacts from the spill and cleanup, scientists have collected several hundred samples of sediment, oil, water, fish, mussels, sand crabs, and other living things. In addition, they have conducted surveys of the marine life before and after the oil spill.

The assessment, which is being led by the state of California, involves marine ecology experts from several California universities as well as federal and state agencies.

After a thorough assessment of the spill’s harm, the focus will shift toward restoring the injured natural and cultural resources and compensating the public for the impacts to those resources and the loss of use and enjoyment of them as a result of the spill. This process, known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, is undertaken by a group of trustees, made up of federal and state agencies, in cooperation with the owner of the pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline. This group of trustees will seek public input to help guide the development of a restoration plan.

*UPDATED 7/10/2015: This was corrected to reflect the fact that only two area beaches were closed due to the spill while 20 remained open in Santa Barbara.

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From Building B-17 Bombers to Building Habitat for Fish: The Reshaping of an Industrial Seattle River

Imagine living in as little as two percent of your home and trying to live a normal life. That might leave you with something the size of a half bathroom.

Now imagine it’s a dirty half bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned in years.

Gross, right? As Muckleshoot tribal member Louie Ungaro recently pointed out, that has been roughly the situation for young Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout for several decades as they pass through the Lower Duwamish River in south Seattle, Washington.

Salmon and Steelhead trout, born in freshwater streams and creeks in Washington forests, have to make their way to the Puget Sound and then the ocean through the Duwamish River. However, this section of river has been heavily industrialized and lacks the clean waters, fallen trees, huge boulders, and meandering side channels that would represent a spacious, healthy home for young fish.

Chair of his tribe’s fish commission, Ungaro sent a reminder that the health of this river and his tribe, which has a long history of fishing on the Duwamish and nearby rivers, are closely tied. “We’re no different than this river,” he implored. Yet he was encouraged by the Boeing Company’s recent cleanup and restoration of fish habitat along this Superfund site, a move that he hopes is “just a start.”

The Pace—and Price—of Industry

Starting as far back as the 1870s and stretching well into the twentieth century, the Lower Duwamish River was transformed by people as the burgeoning city of Seattle grew. The river was straightened and dredged, its banks cleared and hardened. Factories and other development lined its banks, while industrial pollution—particularly PCBs—poured into its waters.

More than 40 organizations are potentially responsible for this long-ago pollution that still haunts the river and the fish, birds, and wildlife that call it home. Yet most of those organizations have dragged their feet in cleaning it up and restoring the impacted lands and waters. However, the Boeing Company, a longtime resident of the Lower Duwamish River, has stepped up to collaborate in remaking the river.

Newly restored marsh and riverbank vegetation with protective ropes and fencing on the Duwamish River.

The former site of Boeing’s Plant 2 is now home to five acres of marsh and riverbank habitat, creating a much friendlier shoreline for fish and other wildlife. Protective fencing and ropes attempt to exclude geese from eating the young plants. (NOAA)

Boeing’s history there began in 1936 when it set up shop along 28 acres of the Duwamish. Here, the airplane manufacturer constructed a sprawling building known as Plant 2 where it—with the help of the women nicknamed “Rosie the Riveters”—would eventually assemble 7,000 B-17 bombers for the U.S. government during World War II. The Army Corps of Engineers even took pains to hide this factory from foreign spies by camouflaging its roof “to resemble a hillside neighborhood dotted with homes and trees,” according to Boeing.

But like many of its neighbors along the Duwamish, Boeing’s history left a mark on the river. At the end of 2011, Boeing tore down the aging Plant 2 to prepare for cleanup and restoration along the Duwamish. Working with the City of Seattle, Port of Seattle, and King County, Boeing has already removed the equivalent of thousands of railcars of contaminated sediment from the river bottom and is replacing it with clean sand.

From Rosie the Riveter to Rosie the Restorer

By 2013, a hundred years after the Army Corps of Engineers reshaped this section of the Duwamish from a nine mile estuary into a five mile industrial channel, Boeing had finished its latest transformation of the shoreline. It planted more than 170,000 native wetland plants and grasses here, which are interspersed with large piles of wood anchored to the shore.

Five acres of marsh and riverbank vegetation now line its shores, providing food, shelter, and calmer side channels for young fish to rest and grow as they transition from freshwater to the salty ocean.

Canada geese on an unrestored portion of the Duwamish River shoreline.

Protecting the newly restored shoreline, out of sight to the left, from Canada geese is a challenge to getting the young wetland plants established. Behind the geese, the artificial, rocky shoreline is a stark difference from the adjacent restored portion. (NOAA)

Now the challenge is to keep the Canada geese from eating all of the tender young plants before they have the chance to establish themselves. That is why protective ropes and fencing surround the restoration sites.

Already, biologists are beginning to see a change in the composition of the birds frequenting this portion of the river. Rather than the crows, starlings, and gulls typically associated with areas colonized by humans, birds such as herons and mergansers, a fish-eating duck, are showing up at the restoration sites. Those birds like to eat fish, which offers hope that fish such as salmon and trout are starting to make a comeback as well.

Of course, these efforts are only the beginning. Through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, NOAA looks forward to working with other responsible organizations along the Duwamish River to continue restoring its health, both for people and nature now and in the future.

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Alcoa Aluminum Factories Settle $19.4 Million for Pollution of St. Lawrence River Watershed, Most Will Fund Restoration of Tribal Culture, Recreational Fishing, and Habitat

For decades, two Alcoa alumininum facilities discharged toxic PCBs into the St. Lawrence River, its tributaries the Grasse and Raquette Rivers, and the surrounding area in Massena, N.Y. Alcoa and Reynolds are paying $19.4 million to settle the resulting damages to natural resources. (NOAA)

For decades, two Alcoa alumininum facilities discharged toxic PCBs into the St. Lawrence River, its tributaries the Grasse and Raquette Rivers, and the surrounding area in Massena, N.Y. Alcoa and Reynolds are paying $19.4 million to settle the resulting damages to natural resources. (NOAA)

In the northern reaches of upstate New York, just across and upriver from Canada, two factories chug along. Both now owned by aluminum manufacturer Alcoa, these factories have been producing aluminum on the banks of the Grasse and St. Lawrence Rivers since 1903 and 1958. And like many other industries in the past, these two Alcoa plants in Massena, N.Y., discharged a stream of toxic pollutants into the water, air, and soil around them.

Now, only a few miles away, dozens of young Mohawk children at the Akwesasne Freedom School attempt to reclaim their Mohawk heritage and a connection with the natural world and traditional practices endangered in part by the area’s contaminated history.

Today, the majority of the $19.4 million settlement with Alcoa and the former Reynolds Metals Company will go toward healing past wounds to this rich ecological and cultural environment with a suite of proposed restoration projects.

A History of Pollution on the St. Lawrence

Starting in the late 1950s, Alcoa and Reynolds used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in hydraulic fluid and electrical equipment as they produced aluminum at these two factories. Nearby, General Motors Central Foundry (GM) also used PCBs in the hydraulic fluids when building automotive engines and in electric equipment. The PCBs from these three facilities in turn made their way into the St. Lawrence River, its tributaries the Grasse and Raquette Rivers, and the surrounding area.

Banned in 1979, PCBs are a group of persistent and highly toxic compounds which, in addition to causing cancer in animals, affects growth, behavior, reproduction, immune response, and neurological development. Manufacturing activities at these three factories released a slew of other industrial pollutants [PDF] that impacted the environment, including aluminum, fluoride, cyanide, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, a hazardous component of oil, coal, and tar).

In 2000, Alcoa purchased Reynolds and as a result, Reynolds’ facility is now known as Alcoa East. Its sister facility, Alcoa West, is the longest continually operating aluminum facility in the world. The third, now-shuttered, General Motors factory sits next door to Alcoa East and has already paid approximately $1.8 million for environmental restoration in separate bankruptcy proceedings. Combined with $18.5 million from Alcoa’s settlement, the Alcoa and GM settlements will provide approximately $20.3 million for specific projects to restore access to recreational fishing, fish and wildlife, and Mohawk traditional practices and language.

Moving Toward Environmental Restoration

The St. Lawrence Environmental Trustee Council, a group of federal, state, and tribal governments which includes NOAA, has coordinated with the companies to assess the damages to ecological resources, recreational fishing, and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s cultural resources. Due to the history of industrial pollution released from these factories into the St. Lawrence River watershed, the sediments, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians along the St. Lawrence, Grasse, and Raquette Rivers have all suffered. Under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, various cleanup activities, such as dredging and capping contaminated river sediments, have been attempting to remediate the polluted environment.

Improvements to spawning habitat and stocking of lake sturgeon is one of the restoration projects preferred by the natural resource trustees. (Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe)

Improvements to spawning habitat and stocking of lake sturgeon is one of the restoration projects preferred by the natural resource trustees. (Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe)

As part of a process that moves beyond cleanup, the trustees, led by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, have identified preferred recreational fishing, ecological, and cultural restoration projects to compensate the public for the resulting environmental injuries.

For example, contaminants from the three facilities degraded adult and juvenile fish habitat for species such as the American eel (currently being considered for Endangered Species Act protection) and the state-threatened lake sturgeon. The presence of toxic PCBs triggered fish consumption advisories for the St. Lawrence, Grasse, Raquette, and St. Regis Rivers. In place since 1984, these advisories have resulted in an estimated 221,000–250,000 fewer fishing trips on these rivers, both in the past and into the future. In response, four new boat launches will be constructed and one existing launch will be upgraded to provide shoreline and in-river fishing access points.

The trustees also will protect and restore wetland and upland habitat, enhance stream banks, improve impeded fish and other wildlife passage through the rivers, enhance fish stocks and spawning habitat, and restore bird habitat. The preferred restoration projects are described in the St. Lawrence River Environment Restoration Compensation and Determination Plan [PDF]. The public can comment on this plan and on the Alcoa $19.4 million natural resource damage settlement, which includes $18.5 million for restoration and nearly $1 million in reimbursement for past environmental assessment costs.

Reconnecting to the Natural World

One of the most creative examples of the preferred restoration projects centers not on restoring natural resources such as sturgeon, a species important to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, but on restoring the unique culture of the Mohawks, which is tied closely to the natural world.

A tribal apprenticeship program will work to restore traditional Mohawk cultural practices, including basketmaking. (Akwesasne Museum and Cultural Center)

A tribal apprenticeship program will work to restore traditional Mohawk cultural practices, including basketmaking. (Akwesasne Museum and Cultural Center)

Grassy meadows on both sides of the Lower Grasse River were set aside for the Mohawks of Akewsasne by the Seven Nations of Canada Treaty of 1796. The name Akwesasne means “the land where the partridge drums,” a reference to the sound created by the rapids of the St. Lawrence River prior to the construction of dams.

The people of Akwesasne were directly impacted by the contamination from the Alcoa, Reynolds, and GM factories. An innovative tribal apprenticeship program will seek to restore traditional Mohawk cultural practices that have been lost or impaired since contamination limited use of the uplands, the rivers, and their natural resources. The tribe, as a trustee, has targeted four traditional areas for apprentices to receive hands-on training from experienced masters:

  • Water, fishing, and use of the river.
  • Horticulture and basketmaking.
  • Medicinal plants and healing.
  • Hunting and trapping.

The apprenticeship program will provide experience in directly harvesting, preparing, preserving, and producing traditional Mohawk cultural products while promoting Mohawk language in each aspect of the training.

Restoration funding also will support existing institutions and programs focused on recovering cultural practices and language injured by contaminants from these manufacturing sites.

For more information and instructions on how to comment on the preferred restoration projects and the settlement, visit the NOAA Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program website.

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NOAA and Canadian Partners Share Arctic Data Across Borders

Arctic Ocean, Canada Basin, July 22, 2005. (NOAA/Jeremy Potter)

Arctic Ocean, Canada Basin, July 22, 2005. (NOAA/Jeremy Potter)

The United States and our neighbors to the north in Canada share a border approximately 5,525 miles long. Some 1,538 miles (or roughly 28%) of which are shared with the State of Alaska alone. And with this shared boundary comes shared natural resources, shared interests, and the need for a shared understanding of how we can work together to protect our communities, wildlife, and environment from the escalating risk of oil spills and other accidents in the Arctic.

To that end, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration co-hosted a workshop in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, with the Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat (a Canadian delegate representing aboriginal interests to the Arctic Council) and the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center from February 12-13, 2013. The goal was to bring together representatives from both the U.S. and Canada to examine the potential for incorporating Canadian data into NOAA’s online mapping tool, Arctic ERMA®.

Arctic ERMA (Environmental Response Management Application) is an online Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool being used to prepare and plan for Arctic pollution response, assessment, and environmental restoration. ERMA brings together critical information needed for an effective emergency response in the Arctic’s distinctive conditions, such as the extent and concentration of sea ice, locations of ports and oil and gas pipelines, and vulnerable environmental resources which could be harmed by an oil spill.

The workshop participants came from a variety of organizations. Here, top row: NASA, Consultant, Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Ice Service, Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat. Bottom row: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Environment Canada, NOAA. (University of New Hampshire/Kathy Mandsager)

The workshop participants came from a variety of organizations. Here, top row: NASA, Consultant, Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Ice Service, Inuvialuit Settlement Region Joint Secretariat. Bottom row: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Environment Canada, NOAA. (University of New Hampshire/Kathy Mandsager)

Discussions at the workshop focused on identifying the regional gaps in data in Arctic ERMA, usable data formats, and how to improve functionality and access to information and tools that would help in the case of an oil spill or environmental accident. Workshop participants spanned multiple areas of expertise: government emergency responders, environmental protection and fisheries managers, weather and natural resource agencies, private industry, non-governmental organizations, local indigenous communities, and universities.

By the end, the workshop improved our understanding of U.S. and Canadian data management practices and systems, how we identify both the data that are available and still needed, and what the long-term training needs are for Arctic communities. We also discussed at length how to better incorporate traditional local knowledge about landscapes and natural resources in Arctic ERMA. We hope that engaging in these conversations and building strong relationships today will promote the kind of cooperation and collaboration that will carry us through any environmental emergencies in the future.

This joint workshop is a project under the Arctic Council’s Emergency, Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group and under the agreement between Environment Canada and NOAA. Learn more about how the Office of Response and Restoration is preparing for oil spills and other pollution incidents in the Arctic.

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With Restoration, Will Willamette River Lampreys Rebound for Northwest Tribes?

This is a post by Office of Response Restoration’s Robert Neely and Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

It’s mid-summer, and something amazing is happening at Willamette Falls, a pounding cascade of water about 30 minutes from downtown Portland, Oregon. People are balancing on mossy, wet boulders tucked among the falls, reaching into its waters to harvest Pacific lamprey by hand.

A tribal member holds two lampreys in his hands.

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Tribal member Torey Wakeland displays some lamprey that were harvested at Willamette Falls on Monday, July 18, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Ron Karten.)

After pouring over the falls, the Willamette River rolls on for nearly 30 miles before joining the Columbia River.

Prior to the construction of dams throughout the Columbia River basin, which includes the Willamette River and its tributaries, native Americans harvested lampreys in many other locations in much the same way they do now at Willamette Falls: by braving the cascading water and slippery rocks to grab wriggling lamprey by hand or with dip nets.

Northwest tribes have relied on the lamprey for food, medicinal, and ceremonial purposes for generations, since long before the first European explorers and fur traders became aware of these falls. But virtually all of the tribes’ historic collection spots are gone now, either because they are submerged under dam-impounded waters or because lampreys are absent, their upstream journey blocked by dams. Willamette Falls is the last place in the Columbia basin where tribes can collect lampreys as their ancestors did.

So it’s not surprising that the tribes are concerned about the Willamette River lamprey and the rest of the Columbia basin lamprey population. In fact, lamprey numbers have declined steadily since at least the 1960s.  According to a 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet [PDF], likely threats to lampreys include habitat loss associated with passage barriers, dredging, and stream and floodplain degradation; river flow alterations; predation by non-native species; poor water quality; changing ocean conditions; and exposure to toxic substances.

Willamette River lamprey may be particularly vulnerable when it comes to toxic substances. Paddle the river as it flows north from the falls and you will eventually pass by downtown Portland. It is about here that you enter the Portland Harbor Superfund site, an 11-mile stretch of river with numerous patches of contaminated sediments from more than 100 years of industrial and urban uses. Juvenile lampreys, called ammocoetes, must pass through this portion of river on their seaward migration, just as adult lampreys do as they return upriver to spawn. But it is the ammocoetes that are most likely to be at risk from pollutants buried in the riverbed.

Pacific lamprey

Pacific lamprey. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Lampreys are an anadromous species, which means they spawn in freshwater, spend their adulthood in the ocean, and return to freshwater to reproduce. In this respect they are similar to salmon, but lamprey life cycles are more complex. After hatching from their eggs, ammocoetes drift downstream to areas with slow-moving water and silty, sandy sediments. Here they burrow into the sediments and filter-feed for up to seven years before emerging to continue their journey to the sea. It is during this time that they may be particularly vulnerable as they eat contaminated foods and are directly exposed to pollutants for long periods.

Ammocoetes are known to use the stretch of the Willamette River encompassed by the Superfund site, and lamprey tissue samples collected from within the site show higher levels of contaminants than those collected from cleaner sediments upstream of Portland Harbor. It is not clear how ammocoetes in Portland Harbor are affected by contamination, but at least one analysis suggests exposure to contaminated sediment from Portland Harbor may adversely affect their behavior.

So what is being done? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working with its partners and a group of companies called the Lower Willamette Group to assess risks to human health and the environment and to determine how best to clean up the river. EPA’s efforts are ultimately aimed at removing the threats posed by contaminated sediments.

NOAA is one of eight members on a trustee council that is working to understand how contaminants may have impacted natural resources. The council is also planning habitat restoration projects to make up for those impacts.  (The other members of the council include five tribes–Grand Ronde, Siletz, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce–and the state and federal fish and wildlife agencies.)

In addition to the lamprey, the council is planning restoration projects to benefit other types of fish and wildlife, like osprey, bald eagles, mink, and salmon. The council is focusing on these species because evidence suggests they may have been most impacted by contaminants and because they represent species guilds that are important in the lower Willamette River and similar Pacific Northwest ecosystems.

Tribal member displays cooler with harvest of lamprey.

Michael Wilson, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Tribal member and the Tribe’s Natural Resources Department manager, shows the lamprey that were harvested by NRD staff at Willamette Falls on Friday, July 29, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca McCoun.)

This summer, the council wants to hear what the public thinks about restoration in Portland Harbor. A plan that lays out restoration options to benefit lampreys and other species that use the lower Willamette River, Multnomah Channel, and parts of the Columbia River close to the Superfund site has just been released. The council wants to hear from tribal members; people who fish on the river; folks who like to bike, jog, or picnic along the river; and others who care about the health of fish, wildlife and other natural resources in the Superfund site.

The plan includes a list of 44 potential restoration projects, including activities like removing culverts to improve access to upstream habitats, creating off-channel areas with clean water and sediment where fish can rest during migration, and “daylighting” cold, clean streams that currently run through pipes in the heavily built-up and industrial section of the river. For the next couple of months, the council is hosting meetings, presenting at neighborhood associations, and attending community events around Portland to let people know about their work and gather comments on the plan.

To see a copy of the draft plan and a schedule of meetings and comment deadlines, visit And for a little lamprey fun, take a look at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s lamprey activity book [PDF].

Robert NeelyRobert Neely is an environmental scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration.  He has experience in ocean and coastal management, brownfields revitalization, Ecological Risk Assessment, and Natural Resource Damage Assessment. He started with NOAA in 1998 and has worked for the agency in Charleston, S.C.; Washington, D.C.; New Bedford, Mass.; and Seattle, Wash., where he lives with his wife and daughter. He’s been working with his co-trustees at Portland Harbor since 2005.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.

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500 Miles from Help, Preparing for the Worst in a Remote Arctic Village

Kotzebue Sound.

The Great White North: Looking out onto an iced-over Kotzebue Sound, Alaska. Credit: NOAA.

In a small town set not far above the Arctic Circle, residents of Kotzebue, Alaska, brace themselves for a worst-case scenario that looms uncomfortably close: an oil spill in the frigid, remote waters of the Chukchi Sea. This fall, they and a variety of federal and state agencies, including NOAA, imagined what would happen if a fuel barge broke up, spilling 400,000 gallons of oil onto the northwestern Alaska coast near Kotzebue. Would subsistence hunters in the area be affected? What would happen to nearby whales, seals, or shorebirds?

Kotzebue workshop break-out group.

A break-out group discusses NOAA's projections at one of the oil spill workshops. Siikauraq Martha Whiting, left, is mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough, where Kotzebue is located. Credit: NOAA.

This nightmarish scenario presented everyone, from Kotzebue’s mayor (of a town that is almost three-quarters Alaska Native) to the U.S. Coast Guard, with the dilemma of figuring out how and which cultural and natural resources to protect—if even possible—in the event of a major oil spill.

Oceanographers from the Office of Response and Restoration used NOAA models to forecast where the intermediate fuel oil released in this scenario might end up. They projected that hundreds of thousands of gallons would wash onto an Arctic coast that in the summer, according to OR&R ecologist Alan Mearns, is not unlike Louisiana, with barrier islands and large lagoons hosting extensive marshes and packed with migratory birds and other wildlife. In the scenario, thousands of gallons of fuel oil slipped into several lagoons. Most of the oil, however, came ashore at the village of Shishmaref, about 100 miles southwest of Kotzebue.

Recalling the headaches of dealing with oiled Gulf of Mexico marshes, Mearns walked away from the Kotzebue exercises realizing that these sensitive lagoons needed to be protected during a spill. The Coast Guard has response equipment in Anchorage, but, for a town more than 500 miles away, what could the community do before this kind of equipment arrived? Those attending the exercise saw the need to train local residents to be the first line of defense against oil spills. Mearns likens this to the model of volunteer fire departments. He notes a (quite effective) example of this already exists among Washington state’s San Juan Islands: the community-staffed Islands’ Oil Spill Association [leaves this blog].

However, the next phase of spill response would have to come from the “big guns,” an established rapid response organization that could bring in the heavy equipment and experience in dealing with oil spills. Unfortunately, there aren’t any such organizations currently committed to filling this role for the northwest coast of Alaska. Even if there were, it would take five to ten days to get most equipment to Kotzebue in the first place. That, in itself, is a challenge: imagine a helicopter transporting a skimming boat across the Arctic horizon.

Once response equipment is there to deal with any oil, a new suite of concerns appears for the local Native community. For example, they have burial sites and historic camps from traditional subsistence activities—fishing, whaling, trapping, camping, etc.—spread across the coast. Because these places are so meaningful for local Natives, decision makers should also be planning where (and where not) to land a helicopter or send out trucks loaded with oil boom.

“Some of the greatest concerns [are about] the ability of the environment to recover from a spill and provide healthy subsistence and cultural resources to communities,” said Ukallaysaaq Tom Okleasik, Planning Director of the Northwest Arctic Borough, based in Kotzebue. “Subsistence is inseparable from the way of life in rural villages that would be impacted by an oil spill in the Northwest Arctic—it would impact a way of life.”

Large sled with city pickup truck.

A large sled, next to a City of Kotzebue pickup truck, highlights the mix of Native and Western cultures at play in this corner of the world. Credit: NOAA.

Native Elders, hunters, and fishers also represent an extensive and too-often underutilized source for what is known as “traditional ecological knowledge” about local plants, animals, and the environment. Elevating and acknowledging this resource could be an important step in building up an arsenal of tools to use against a spill, whether it comes from maritime transport or the offshore oil and gas drilling expected to begin in the Chukchi Sea in 2012.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the other federal, state, and local organizations involved in this workshop in remote Kotzebue are trying to bridge the gap between ecology and culture in evaluating potential impacts of responding to oil spills. And that’s just the first step: Once a spill happens, these groups need to be ready not only to evaluate the impacts of the spill itself, but how to compensate for those impacts and restore natural resources. Of course, these questions—and their proposed solutions—can be complicated by the shifting conditions in the Arctic [leaves this blog] as the air and sea temperatures continue to rise. Which is why there is no such thing as being too prepared, especially in a place like the Arctic.