NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


New Legislation Expands Scope of NOAA Marine Debris Program to Deal with Natural Disaster Debris

Workers scrape marine organisms from the tsunami dock at Agate Beach, Oregon.

A team of about a dozen staff and volunteers organized by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife made quick work of removing marine organisms from the dock on the sand at Agate Beach, Ore. The dock has been confirmed as having gone missing from a Japanese port after the March 2011 tsunami. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

On December 20, 2012, President Obama signed legislation reauthorizing the NOAA Marine Debris Program [PDF] and its mission to address the harmful impacts of marine debris on the United States. The program, which is housed within NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, was originally created in 2006 by the Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act.

“The NOAA Marine Debris Program is grateful for Congress’s support on this very important issue,” said Nancy Wallace, the program’s director.  “We look forward to continuing our work to ensure the ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants are free from the impacts of marine debris.”

For the most part, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s mandates remain the same: to identify, determine sources of, assess, prevent, reduce, and remove debris, whether along a North Carolina beach or in Lake Michigan. This latest legislation, which was combined with the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act, also highlights education and outreach, regional coordination, and fishing gear research as key activities for the program.

However, Congress gave the NOAA Marine Debris Program a new core function to address “severe marine debris events,” defined as “atypically large amounts of marine debris” caused by natural disasters. After debris such as floating docks from the March 2011 Japan tsunami began washing up on West Coast beaches, Congress recognized this emerging need to deal with the unusual amounts and types of marine debris which often follow events such as tsunamis or hurricanes.

Learn more about what to do if you think you have found marine debris from the Japan tsunami.

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An Intern’s Insights into NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration

This is a post by OR&R legislative and constituent affairs intern Christina Phang.

Now that summer is beginning to wind down, so too is my internship here at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). With only a little time left here, I’ve started to reflect on the great experiences I’ve had so far.

When I first found out I was accepted as a summer intern, I could barely contain my excitement! As an economics and environmental science double major, working at OR&R was akin to a dream come true. When I arrived my first day, I was incredibly nervous. Interns here have a history of tackling amazing projects. One previous intern, for example, helped draft comments on an agreement between NOAA and the oil and gas industry. Talk about intimidating! My worries were quickly eased however, when I met the friendly and enthusiastic OR&R team here at NOAA’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.

Like other interns before me, my work focuses on legislative and constituent affairs relevant to OR&R’s work on oil spill response, environmental restoration, and marine debris. On a day-to-day basis, I track legislation and key votes in Congress, provide comments on policy initiatives and research reports, revise briefing documents, and attend forums and seminars.

In my three months here, I’m glad to report I’ve never once been sent to get coffee—instead, I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to attend Congressional hearings, draft write-ups for NOAA leadership, and meet inspirational people such as iconic oceanographer Sylvia Earle. It’s been a truly remarkable internship experience.

But aside from meeting ocean heroes, my favorite thing about OR&R has been that I’ve always been treated as part of the team. I sit in on the same meetings, tackle the same projects, and sit side-by-side with the nation’s best leaders in oil spill response, restoration, and marine debris. Every day I learn something new, and I constantly am astounded at the impact I’ve made.

Although I’ve been taught a great deal the past two years at the College of William and Mary (Va.), this internship continues to remind me that there is always more to learn. Thanks to my amazing mentor and coworkers here, I will be heading back to school in August armed with a host of new skills and knowledge. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my professional career!

For aspiring interns with an interest in science, policy, or media relations, OR&R has a list of student internship opportunities. My advice? Apply. You won’t regret it!

Christina PhangChristina Phang is a rising junior at the College of William and Mary and is pursuing a double major in Environmental Science and Policy and Economics. On campus she is involved in Chi Omega women’s fraternity, William and Mary Students for Belize Education, and is a health outreach peer educator. Outside of the classroom, Christina loves traveling, going for runs, and sipping a good latte.

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Oil Spills and the Holidays, Act II: Black Friday Takes a New Meaning

In the last post, Doug Helton talked about the M/V Kuroshima spill in Alaska. The next Thanksgiving story comes to us from Ed Levine, the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for Connecticut to Delaware.

After a wonderful family Thanksgiving seven years ago, what we in the response business refer to as the “Usual Notification”—a call in the middle of the night during a long holiday weekend—came true. At 9:30 p.m. on November 26, 2004, the (Black) Friday after Thanksgiving, the tanker Athos I was damaged while docking at the CITGO refinery on the Delaware River and began spilling its cargo of Venezuelan crude oil. By 2:00 a.m., I was requested to go on-scene and support the Coast Guard’s response in Philadelphia.

My sons and wife were used to this scrambling to pack and run out the door. Little did we know how complicated this response would be and how long it would last!

When I arrived, prior to first light, many details were still unknown or just unfolding. We knew the ship was leaking oil, it was leaning to one side, but it was secure at anchor. At that time we didn’t know how much oil was leaking, where it was going, how far it would spread, the cause of the damage, the environmental and economic impacts it would have, or the duration of the clean up.

Athos I

Tanker Athos I anchored in the Delaware River. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

At daylight, the first helicopter surveys found some oil along the Pennsylvania shoreline, but the first reports were not too alarming. But I knew it was important to get some calibrated eyes on the spill, someone with experience spotting oil from the air. It’s not as easy as it sounds to conduct an aerial survey.

After a few hours in the command post, I had a chance to fly.

During my overflight (aerial survey), it was clear that the ship was still leaking. I observed oil many miles up river and in larger concentrations than previously reported. Upon returning to the command post, I told the Captain of the Port, “we need a bigger boat!” This was a major oil spill, and we were going to be here a long time cleaning it up.

Little did I know how right I was.

Oiled Diver

Commercial diver covered in oil after a bottom survey. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

The ship’s crew was eventually able to transfer cargo around the tanks to stop the outflow of oil, but over 240,000 gallons of heavy crude oil were released from the ship. The cleanup took a full year until all the shorelines were signed off as clean. A nuclear power plant even shut down for over a week. Vessel traffic into the port stopped for eight days until the mysterious object that the vessel struck could be located. Hundreds of birds were oiled. Hundreds of miles of shoreline in three states had to be inspected and the oiled areas cleaned up.

Winter operations became brutal, the river eventually froze over and operations ceased for a couple months. In the early weeks of the response, a boat overturned with five people on board. Luckily for them a NOAA ship was nearby and able to rescue all of them.

Shoreline clean up

Shoreline clean up, Tinicum Island, Delaware River. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

The spilled oil was nearly neutrally buoyant in the brackish waters of the Delaware Estuary, meaning the oil was just as likely to sink as it was to float, complicating cleanup operations. Eventually, the shorelines were cleaned, and damages to natural resources were assessed and restored [leaves this blog].

Because of this accident, the response community has become more prepared and new legislation was passed (President Signs Oil Spill Legislation) [leaves this blog]. It was historic at the time, and I was glad I had given a little piece to the success of the response. It’s a thought that helps me be prepared for the next “Usual Notification” I will receive, whenever it comes.