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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Oil Spills, Seeps, and the Early Days of Drilling Oil Along California’s Coast

Black and white photo of early oil derricks and piers at Summerland, California, 1902

Some of the earliest offshore oil wells were located at Summerland in Santa Barbara County, California. Shown here in 1902, you can see the early wharves that extended from the shore out to derricks over the wells. (U.S. Geological Survey)

One of the challenges of the 2015 pipeline oil spill near Santa Barbara, California, was distinguishing between oil released from the pipeline and oil released naturally from the many seeps in the area. This challenge could become even more complicated when you consider the history of oil drilling in southern California [PDF] that dates back to the 1860s.

Unless you are a history buff or study environmental pollution, you probably didn’t realize that the beautiful sand beaches of southern California were once home to some of the earliest offshore oil rigs.

Oil seeps both on the shore and in the ocean were clues to the underground oil reservoirs in the Santa Barbara Channel. Even today, natural seeps in Santa Barbara’s Coal Oil Point area release an estimated 6,500-7,000 gallons of oil per day (Lorenson et al., 2011).

Drilling into History

The first offshore wells in the United States were drilled in 1896 in the Summerland region just east of Santa Barbara. Initial wells were built on piers sticking several hundred feet out into the ocean. Over the years, many more wells and offshore platforms were built in the region.

However, oil exploration and drilling was virtually unregulated at the time, and spills were common. California’s first out-of-control oil gusher occurred in February 1892 near Santa Paula, but since no one had a way to store so much oil (1,500 barrels were released per day), much of it eventually flowed into the ocean via the Santa Clara River.

Black and white photo of men building a pier over the ocean to reach oil derricks drilling offshore at Summerland, California, 1900.

A view looking down the Treadwell wharf toward shore and the central portion of the Summerland oil field in Santa Barbara County, California, in 1900. These early oil fields were essentially unregulated, resulting in spills and leaks back then as well as today. (U.S. Geological Survey)

In addition, many of these first flimsy piers and oil platforms at Summerland were destroyed by storms or fires or later abandoned without much thought about preventing spills in the future. The state’s first laws governing oil well abandonment came into place in 1915, in part to protect the oil and gas wells on neighboring properties. (Fortunately, the old and leaky Summerland wells were far enough away from the 2015 pipeline spill location that they didn’t add yet another possible source of oil in the area of the spill.)

By the 1960s offshore oil production began to take off in California, particularly along Santa Barbara County. That is, until January 1969, when Union Oil’s Platform A suffered a blowout six miles off the coast. The result was more than 3.2 million gallons of crude oil were released into the Santa Barbara Channel and on surrounding shorelines.

Public outcry was so great that not only did California ban new leases for offshore drilling in state-owned waters, but it helped catalyze a broader movement to protect the environment and prevent pollution in the United States. Still, natural seeps serve as a reminder of the area’s “Wild West” days of oil exploration.

Seep vs. Spill

Today, the region is much cleaner, but, as we saw after the 2015 pipeline spill at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara, that doesn’t mean it’s free of oil, either naturally released or spilled during extraction. While telling the two apart can be complicated, it isn’t impossible.

One clue for distinguishing seep oil from oil coming from production platforms is looking at how “weathered” the oil is. Oil being drilled by a platform is extracted directly from a deep underground reservoir and thus appears “fresher,” that is, less weathered by environmental processes.

The seep oil, on the other hand, generally appears more weathered, having migrated up through the seafloor and ocean depths. Seep oil is more weathered because many of its less stable compounds have been dissolved into the water column, oxidized by sunlight or evaporated into the atmosphere at the surface, or broken down by microbes that naturally metabolize hydrocarbon molecules.

Another method for distinguishing among oils is a process known as “fingerprinting,” which uses analytical chemistry to compare the relative quantities of hydrocarbons unique to petroleum in the spilled oil versus another oil.

Even though seeps release a lot of oil into the ocean, oil spills such as the 2015 pipeline spill near Santa Barbara have different and more significant impacts on the nearshore environment than the slower, steadier release of natural oil seeps. Spills often release relatively large volumes of oil suddenly into an area, which can overwhelm the ability of the environment (such as its oil-eating microbes) to adapt to the influx of oil.

That doesn’t mean seeps don’t have any environmental impacts themselves. Oil from seeps can be toxic to marine life, including fish, sea stars, shrimp, and seabirds, with impacts largely concentrated in the immediate area around a seep. While our job is to use science to minimize and evaluate potential environmental impacts during oil spills (and not seeps), knowing the history of an area like Santa Barbara can go a long way to helping us do just that.

NOAA environmental scientist Greg Baker also contributed to this post.


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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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Restoration on the Way for New Jersey’s Raritan River, Long Polluted by Industrial Waste

The Raritan River as it runs through a wooded area.

A draft restoration plan and environmental assessment is now available for the American Cyanamid Superfund Site which affected the Raritan River in northern New Jersey. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Following years of intensive cleanup and assessment at the American Cyanamid Superfund Site, NOAA and our partners are now accepting public comment on a draft restoration plan and environmental assessment [PDF] for this northern New Jersey site.

For many years, the 575 acre site located along the Raritan River in Bridgewater Township was used by the American Cyanamid Company for chemical manufacturing and coal tar distillation.

However, chemical wastes released during manufacturing at the facility harmed natural resources in the sediments and surface waters of the Raritan River and its tributaries. The facility was designated a Superfund site in 1983 due to contamination by a variety of toxic substances including mercury, chromium, arsenic, lead, and PCBs.

The area affected by the contamination provides habitat for a variety of migratory fish, such as alewife, blueback herring, striped bass, rainbow smelt, American shad, American eel, and other aquatic life. In addition, large numbers of birds nest, forage, and migrate along the Raritan River, from raptors and songbirds to waterfowl and shorebirds.

Over the years, NOAA has worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ensure a thorough cleanup to protect natural resources in the Raritan River watershed. NOAA and our co-trustees, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, evaluated the extent of injury in the river and determined the best path toward restoration.

An Industrial History

Factories and trains at the American Cyanamid chemical manufacturing site, 1940.

The American Cyanamid Company, shown here circa 1940, produced fertilizers, cyanide, and other chemical products whose wastes were released directly into the Raritan River for decades. (Photographer unknown)

The American Cyanamid Company got its start in the early 1900s by developing an effective fertilizer ingredient, a compound of nitrogen, lime, and carbide called cyanamid. By the early 1920s, the company, whose focus had been primarily agricultural products, began producing cyanide for use in gold and silver extraction and hydrocyanic acid, important to rubber production.

Over the next several decades, the American Cyanamid Company diversified, adding chemicals, plastics, dyes, and resins to their growing line of products. Further expanding into pharmaceuticals, the company provided valuable medical products to the World War II effort.

Starting in the 1920s and continuing up to the 1980s, chemical waste associated with the company’s manufacturing practices became an issue. For decades, chemical waste was released directly into the Raritan River.

Waste treatment began in 1940, which meant it was buried at the site or stored in unlined “impoundments,” or reservoirs. That practice stopped in 1979 and dye manufacturing ended three years later. By 1985 there was no more direct discharge into the Raritan River and manufacturing at the site ceased in 1999. It is estimated that over time, 800,000 tons of chemical wastes were buried at the site.

A New Chapter for the Raritan River

The American Cyanamid site on the Raritan River in New Jersey.

The draft restoration plan for the Raritan River aims to restore passage for migratory fish while improving water quality and habitat due to years of industrial pollution at the American Cyanamid manufacturing site. (NOAA)

The restoration plan and environmental assessment were created by NOAA in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The plan proposes restoration actions that will compensate for any injuries to the river and related natural resources.

A major component of the restoration would be the removal of the Weston Mill Dam, near the confluence of the Millstone and Raritan Rivers. The original dam, a barrier to migratory fish, is thought to have been built around 1700 to power a mill. Removal of the current dam, a 1930s-era concrete replacement of the original, will help to achieve the restoration goals of restoring passage for migratory fish while improving water quality and habitat.

As explained in the plan, removing this dam will return the flow of the Raritan River and the streams it feeds closer to their natural states and do so without negative impacts to endangered species or cultural, sociological, or archaeological resources.

Long situated in an area of industrial activity, the American Cyanamid Superfund Site is only one of several contaminated sites along the Raritan River and its tributaries. Many of these sites are now being remediated, and the watershed is being restored.

According to NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator, Reyhan Mehran, “While it’s likely that this site is among those that contributed to the general degradation of the Raritan River over the last century, the site’s cleanup and compensatory projects will be important parts of the story of restoring the Raritan.”

Learn how to comment on the draft restoration plan and environmental assessment.


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Using a NOAA Tool to Evaluate Toxic Doses of Pollution at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation

This is a post by Troy Baker, an environmental scientist in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Salmon swimming in a river.

NOAA and partners are examining whether chromium released at Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation has affected Chinook salmon eggs and young fishes in the Columbia River. (Department of Energy)

Chromium, manganese, zinc.

Elements like these may show up in a daily multivitamin, but when found in a certain form and concentration in water and soil, these elements can cause serious problems for fish, birds, and wildlife. As assessors of environmental harm from pollution, we see this scenario being played out at hazardous waste sites around the country.

Take chromium, for example, which is an element found in some multivitamins and also naturally in rocks, plants, soil, and animals (and thus at very low concentrations in meat, eggs, and cheese). At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington, we are evaluating how historical discharges of chromium resulting from nuclear fuel production may have affected soils, river sediments, groundwater, and surface waters along the Columbia River bordering this property.

Of particular concern is whether discharged chromium affected Chinook salmon eggs and young fishes. Hanford’s nuclear reactors, first constructed as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II, required huge amounts of river water to keep the reactor’s nuclear core cool, and chromium compounds were added to keep this essential equipment from corroding.

A little bit of chromium in the environment is considered part of a baseline condition, but if animals and plants are exposed to elevated amounts during sensitive periods, such as when very young, they may receive harmful doses.

How Much Is Too Much?

Have you heard the saying, “the dose makes the poison?” I wanted to find out how my evaluation of what chemicals may cause harm to aquatic species at Hanford matches up to toxicity data from one of NOAA’s software tools, the Chemical Aquatic Fate and Effects (CAFE) database.

I already knew that chromium in surface waters at the level of parts per billion (ppb) has the potential to cause harm at Hanford, including to migratory Chinook salmon and steelhead. But what does that concentration look like?

A helpful analogy from the Washington State Department of Ecology shows just how small that concentration is: One part per billion would be one kernel of corn sitting in a 45-foot high, 16-foot diameter silo.

Digging Through Data

Government scientists set standards called “injury thresholds” to indicate the pollution concentrations when harm reliably occurs to a certain species of animal or type of habitat. It’s my job to see if we can trace a particular contaminant such as chromium back to a source at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and then document whether aquatic species were exposed to that contaminant for a certain area and time period and harmed as a result.

I’m currently working with my colleagues to set injury thresholds for the amount of chromium and other harmful materials in soils, sediments, and surface waters at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

What’s different in this case is that we are evaluating what short-term harm might have occurred to fishes and other animals from either historical pollution mixtures or existing contamination in the Columbia River. To do that, we need large amounts of toxicity data for aquatic species presented in an easy-to-digest format. That’s where NOAA’s CAFE database comes in.

Graph from the CAFE database showing the level of toxic effects for chromium exposure to a range of fish and aquatic invertebrates.

Example data output from NOAA’s CAFE database showing aquatic invertebrates as the most sensitive freshwater aquatic organism after exposure to chromium for 48 hours in laboratory tests. One microgram per liter (µg/L) is equivalent to one part per billion. (NOAA)

Using this toxicity database for aquatic species, I was able to generate multiple scenarios for chromium exposure to a range of freshwater fish and invertebrates found in the database. I could compare at what concentration chromium becomes toxic to these species and easily see which life stage, from egg to adult, is most affected after 24, 48, and 96 hours of exposure.

The results from CAFE confirmed that setting an injury threshold for chromium somewhere within the “very highly toxic” range of exposure (less than 100 parts per billion of chromium) would be appropriate to protect a wide range of aquatic invertebrates and fish. With the help of CAFE, I was able to quickly double-check whether there is any scientific reason to lower or raise the injury thresholds I’m discussing with my Hanford colleagues.

More Contamination, More Work Ahead

hanford-h-reactor-cocooned-columbia-river_noaa_1946

View of Cocooned H reactor at Hanford Nuclear Facility from Locke Island, Columbia River, Washington. The reactor operated for 15 years and was one of nine along the river. (NOAA)

My colleagues and I have a lot more environmental assessment work to do at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Home to nine former nuclear reactors plus processing facilities, that site is one of the nation’s most complex pollution cases.

Part of my work at NOAA is to collaborate with my agency and tribal colleagues through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process to understand whether harm occurred and ultimately restore the environment in a way that’s equivalent to the scale of the injuries.

We are concerned about more than 40 contaminants at Hanford, but that shouldn’t be a problem for CAFE. This database holds information on environmental fate and effects for about 40,000 chemicals.

The next version of CAFE, due out in 2016, will be able to display information on longer-term effects of chemicals beyond 96 hours, increasing to 28 days if laboratory test data are available. Having toxicity data available for longer durations will be a huge help to my work as it gets translated into decisions about environmental restoration in the future.

Learn more about our environmental assessment and restoration work at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.


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After Pollution Strikes, Restoring the Lost Cultural Bond Between Tribes and the Environment

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the range of values and benefits that coastal areas offer people—including what we stand to lose when oil spills and chemical pollution harm nature and how we work to restore our lost uses of nature afterward. Read all the stories.

A young boy hangs humpback whitefish on a drying rack next to a river.

Restoring the deep cultural ties between native communities and the environment is an important and challenging part of restoration after oil spills and chemical releases. Here, a boy from the Alaska Native village of Shungnak learns to hang dry humpback whitefish. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

When I’ve heard residents of the Alaskan Arctic speak about the potential impacts of an oil spill, I don’t hear any lines of separation between the oil spill causing injury to the environment and injury to the community.

Their discussions about the potential harm to walrus or seals inevitably include how this will impact the community’s ability to hunt for food, which affects both their food security and traditions. The cultures of these communities are inextricably tied to the land and sea.

So I ask myself, in the wake of an oil spill in the Arctic, how would we begin to restore that bond between the environment and the communities who live there? How can we even begin to make up for the lost hunting trips between grandparents and grandkids that don’t happen because of an oil spill? Furthermore, how could we help restore the lost knowledge that gets passed down between generations during such activities?

We know nothing can truly replace those vital cultural exchanges and activities that don’t occur because of pollution, but we have to try. Thanks to our federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment laws, polluters are made accountable for these lost cultural uses of natural resources, as well as for the harm to affected lands, waters, plants, and animals.

An Alaska Native expert teaches two boys how to cut and prepare pike for drying.

Many ideas for cultural restoration after pollution center around the concept of teaching youth the traditional ways of using natural resources. Here, students from the Alaska Native village of Selawik learn to cut a pike for drying from a local expert. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Here are a few examples of our efforts to restore these cultural uses of coastal resources after they’ve been harmed by oil and chemical spills, as well as some ideas for the future.

Community Camps in Alaska

When the M/V Kuroshima ran around on Unalaska Island, Alaska, in November 1997, approximately 39,000 gallons of heavy oil spilled into Summer Bay, Unalaska’s prime recreational beach. As a result of the spill, access to the bay and its beach was closed off or restricted for several months.

In an effort to restore the lost use of their beach, the local Qawalangin Tribe received funding for an outdoor summer recreational camp, which focuses on tribal and cultural projects such as traditional subsistence harvesting techniques for shellfish and activities with Unangan elders in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. To ensure the safety of local seafoods eaten by the tribe, NOAA also arranged for further chemical analysis of shellfish tissues and educated the community about the results.

Cultural Apprenticeships in New York

Years of aluminum and hydraulic fluid manufacturing released toxic substances such as PCBs into New York’s St. Lawrence River, near the Canadian border. This history of pollution robbed the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, whose Mohawk name is Akwesasne, of the full ability to practice numerous culturally important activities, such as fishing. Legal settlements with those responsible for the pollution have provided funding for the tribe to implement cultural programs to help make up for those losses.

But first, representatives from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe conducted oral history research, hosted community outreach meetings, and solicited restoration project ideas from the community. As a result of these efforts, they determined that two main components of restoration [PDF] were necessary: an apprenticeship program and funding for cultural institutions and programs.

The long-term, master-apprentice relationship program focuses on the four areas of traditional cultural practices that were harmed by the release of hazardous contaminants into the St. Lawrence River and surrounding area. This program also promotes and supports the regeneration of practices associated with traditions in these four areas:

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

Hands-on experience and Mohawk language training are also integral parts of the apprenticeship program.

In addition to this program, resources have been provided to a number of existing Akwesasne-based programs that have already begun the work of responding to the cultural harm caused by this contamination. One example is providing opportunities for Akwesasne youth and surrounding communities to receive outdoor educational experience in a natural and safe location for traditional teachings, such as respect for the land and survival skills.

Planning for the Worst and Hoping for the Best in the Arctic

Whales, polar bears, and walrus carved into a bowhead whale jawbone.

We need to work closely with each tribe affected by an oil spill or chemical release to help them achieve the cultural connection with nature affected by pollution. You can see this connection in action at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska, where local artists carve traditional icons into the jawbone of a bowhead whale. (NOAA)

Discussions with Alaskan Arctic communities have yielded similar suggestions of potential forms of cultural restoration after pollution. A 2012 multi-day workshop with communities in Kotzebue, Alaska, generated an initial list of ideas, including:

  • Teaching traditional celebrations (e.g., foot races and dances).
  • Teaching subsistence practices and survival techniques.
  • Supporting science fairs with an environmental restoration focus.
  • Maintaining and transferring hunting knowledge by educating youth on proper whale, seal, and walrus hunting methods.

This last idea is particularly intriguing and would involve preparing a “virtual hunt” curriculum on how to shoot whales so they can be recovered, how to butcher an animal, and sharing the results of the hunt with others.

After working here at NOAA since 2008, I can rattle off plenty of restoration ideas for an oiled beach, or oiled birds. But when it comes to restoring lost cultural uses of the environment, there are no off-the-shelf project ideas.

Each tribe is unique and how one tribe’s members interact with their natural environment may not be the same as another tribe’s. While there may be similar themes we can build upon, such as teaching language and harvesting skills, we need to work closely with each tribe affected by an oil or chemical spill to help them achieve once again what pollution has taken away.


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How Do We Measure What We Lose When an Oil Spill Harms Nature?

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the range of values and benefits that coastal areas offer people—including what we stand to lose when oil spills and chemical pollution harm nature and how we work to restore our lost uses of nature afterward. Read all the stories.

This is a post by economist Adam Domanski of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

A beach closed sign on a fence in front of an ocean beach at Coal Point.

When an oil spill closes a beach, economists will count how many trips to the coast were affected by that spill and use information on where those trips were originating to measure the lost value per lost trip. This informs the amount of restoration that needs to make up for those losses. (Used with permission of Chris Leggett)

After oil spills into the ocean, NOAA studies the impacts to animals and plants, but we also make sure to measure the direct impacts to people’s use of nature. This is all part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which makes up for those impacts.

Humans can value environmental quality just for its existence (think of remote mountains and pristine beaches). In the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, this “non-use value” is most often compensated for by replacing the natural resources or services that were lost.

Oil and Fun Don’t Mix

However, people can also value the environment because they use it for recreational or cultural purposes. For example, people may be affected if they can’t go fishing, boating, or walking along the beach because of an oil spill.

When oil or another contaminant comes near shore, sometimes people will cancel their planned trip, sometimes they’ll change where they’re going, and other times they’ll still take a trip but will enjoy it less. Trustees of the affected resources, like NOAA, apply different tools to measure these recreational use losses (we’ll talk about cultural losses in an upcoming blog post).

However, people may make one of these changes even if there isn’t any oil present on the beach. Sometimes beaches or fishing areas may be closed because cleanup crews or environmental assessment teams are present. Other times, people may hear about an oil spill in the news and may change their trip based on their reasonable expectation that the oil spill will affect their trip in some way.

Infographic showing three scenarios for how people react to an oil spill: some people stay home from the beach, some people go to a beach farther from the oil spill, and some people go to the same beach but have a less enjoyable experience.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, any one of these changes is an impact than we can quantify in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

Counting How Much Less Fun

Under the Oil Pollution Act, people generally can file legal claims for two types of economic losses related to recreational use due to a spill. Lost revenue to local businesses, such as stores, restaurants, and hotels, is a private loss and is reserved for those businesses to claim. On the other hand, the lost value to the would-be hikers, boaters, anglers, and swimmers is considered a public loss and is the responsibility of trustees, that is, local, state, and federal agencies and tribes acting as stewards of the affected public natural resources.

People walking on a developed portion of white sand beach at the ocean.

Pollution makes for a bad day at the beach, which is why NOAA also measures the impact of oil spills and chemical releases on people’s use of natural resources. (NOAA)

To measure these public damages, trustee economists will count how many trips to the coast were affected by that particular oil spill and use information on where those trips were originating to measure the lost value per lost trip. Together, these two pieces make up the trustee claim for lost recreational use after an oil spill.

To measure lost trips, trustees will often use on-site, telephone, or mail surveys in combination with on-site or aerial counts of people on the coast. Sometimes, we can take advantage of other data sources that already tell us how many people visit the coast, such as existing beach attendance data, parking meter counts, or recreational fishing surveys.

For example, after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay, trustees performed on-site counts of people at some beaches, used a telephone survey to estimate the levels of use at others, and relied on the California Recreational Fisheries Survey to estimate trips taken by anglers. This information was combined with weather data in a statistical model to predict the number of people that would have taken trips if the oil spill hadn’t occurred. The assessment estimated that there had been over 1 million lost trips.

The lost value per lost trip is measured using economic models that combine information on where people live and which recreational sites they can choose from. Just like shopping at the grocery store (where you choose from lots of different products at different prices), recreators choose between lots of different access points, each of which has a different “price” (in terms of gas and travel time).

People standing around a pier fishing.

When pollution affects people’s ability to use and enjoy natural resources, such as fishing, we use money from the entity responsible for the pollution to fund projects that will benefit the very same users who were affected. (NOAA)

Using many observations of how many people choose which sites at which prices, economists can measure the recreational demand for each site. When a site is affected by an oil spill, this model can be used to determine the lost value to recreators. For the Cosco Busan oil spill, this approach estimated that the average lost value per lost trip was $18.25 (as measured in 2007 dollars).

The goal of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process is to compensate the public for the harm caused by a spill. After we calculate the lost value, the trustees aren’t done yet. Using money from the entity responsible for the oil spill, we spend restoration dollars on projects that will benefit the very same users who were affected. A few examples of projects we have built include fishing piers, boat ramps, parks, and artificial reefs.

Survey Says

So, how important are lost recreational use claims to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process? Here are a few approximate numbers from past oil spill cases:

As you can see, surveying how people use the environment is a critical part of this process. And although taking surveys can be annoying, they often times generate really useful data that economists get super excited about—and from which you can directly benefit. So, the next time you get asked if you want to take a survey, take the opportunity to make an economist happy and say yes.

Learn more about the economics of Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the value of a good day at the beach (video).

adam-domanski_150Adam Domanski is an economist who specializes in non-market valuation with the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. He received his PhD in Economics from North Carolina State University and has worked on numerous oil spill and hazardous waste site cases. In his spare time he enjoys traveling and spending time outside.

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