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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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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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.