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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How Do You Begin to Clean up a Century of Pollution on New Jersey’s Passaic River?

A mechanical dredge pulls contaminated sediment from the bottom of the Passaic River.

A mechanical dredge removes sediment from an area with high dioxin concentrations on the Passaic River, adjacent to the former Diamond Alkali facility in Newark, New Jersey. (NOAA)

Dozens of companies share responsibility for the industrial pollution on New Jersey’s Passaic River, and several Superfund sites dot the lower portion of the river. But one of the perhaps best-known of these companies (and Superfund sites) is Diamond Alkali.

In the mid-20th century, Diamond Alkali (later Diamond Shamrock Chemicals Company) and others manufactured pesticides and herbicides, including those constituting “Agent Orange,” along the Passaic. The toxic waste from these activities left an undeniable mark on the river, which winds about 80 miles through northern New Jersey until it meets the Hackensack River and forms Newark Bay.

Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with support from the natural resource trustees, including NOAA, U.S. Department of Interior, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the New York State Department of Environmental Protection, has released a plan to clean up the lower eight miles of the Passaic River, which passes through Newark.

Those lower eight miles are where 90 percent of the river’s contaminated sediments are located [PDF] and addressing contamination in this section of the river is an important first step.

A History of War

Ruins of an old railroad bridge end part way over the Passaic River.

Ruins of an old Central Railroad of New Jersey bridge along the Passaic River hint at a bustling era of industrialization gone by. (Credit: Joseph, Creative Commons)

A major contributor to that contamination came from what is known as Agent Orange, a mix of “tactical herbicides,” which the U.S. military sprayed from 1962 to 1971 during the Vietnam War. These herbicides removed tropical foliage hiding enemy soldiers.

However, an unwanted byproduct of manufacturing Agent Orange was the extremely toxic dioxin known as TCDD. Dioxins are commonly released into the environment from burning waste, diesel exhaust, chemical manufacturing, and other processes. The EPA classifies TCDD as a human carcinogen (cause of cancer).

Pollution on the Passaic River stretches back more than two centuries, but its 20th century industrial history has left traces of dioxins, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds in sediments of the Passaic River and surrounding the Diamond Alkali site. Testing in the early 1980s confirmed this contamination, and the area was added to the National Priorities List, becoming a Superfund site in 1984.

Many of these contaminants persist for a long time in the environment, meaning concentrations of them have declined very little in the last 20 years. As a result of this pollution, no one should eat fish or crab caught from the Lower Passaic River, a 17 mile stretch of river leading to Newark Bay.

Finding a Solution

But how do you clean up such a complex and toxic history? The federal and state trustees for the Lower Passaic River provided technical support as EPA grappled with this question, debating two possible cleanup options, or “remedies,” for the river. The cleanup option EPA ultimately settled on involves dredging 3.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments from the river bottom and removing those sediments from the site. Then, a two-foot-deep “cap” made of sand and stone will be placed over contaminated sediments remaining at the bottom of the river.

This will be an enormous effort—one cubic yard is roughly the size of a standard dishwasher. According to NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator Reyhan Mehran, it will be one of the largest dredging projects in Superfund history. While the entire project could take more than ten years, Judith Enck, EPA Regional Administrator for New York, has pointed out that the process involves “cleaning up over a century of toxic pollution.”

A Tale of Two Remedies

Aerial view of New York City skyline, Newark, and industrial river landscape.

Manhattan skyline from over Newark, New Jersey. The view is across the confluence of the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers and shows the industrial buildup in the area. (Credit: Doc Searls, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Mehran describes the alternatives analysis as a complicated one—choosing between two cleanup remedies, the one described above and an “in-water” disposal solution. This second approach called for removing the contaminated sediments from the riverbed and burying them in Newark Bay, in what is known as a “confined aquatic disposal cell.” That essentially involves digging a big hole in the bottom of the bay, removing the clean sediments for use elsewhere, filling it with the contaminated sediments, and capping it to keep everything in place.

While the less expensive of the two options, serious concerns were raised about the potential effect this in-water solution would have on the long-term ecosystem health of Newark Bay.

The chosen remedy, which calls for removing the contaminated sediment from the riverbed and transporting it away by rail to a remote site on land, was selected as the better solution for the long-term health of the ecosystem. Finding the best option incorporated the scientific support and analysis of NOAA and the trustees.

As NOAA’s Mehran explains, “The site, with some of the highest concentrations of dioxins in sediment, is in the middle of one of the most densely populated parts of our nation, which makes the threat to public resources tremendous.”

While the upper and middle segments of the Passaic River flow through forests and natural marshes, areas bordering the lower river are densely populated and industrial. Because of industrialization, habitat for wildlife within Newark Bay has already been severely altered, yet the bay’s shallow waters continue to provide critically needed habitat for fish such as winter flounder, migratory birds including herons and egrets, and numerous other species.

“The watershed of the Lower Passaic River and Newark Bay is highly developed,” emphasizes Mehran, “and the resulting scarcity of ecological habitat makes it all the more valuable and important to protect and restore.”

Learn more about the cleanup plan for the Lower Passaic River [PDF].

Photo of Jersey Central Ruins used courtesy of Joseph, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Photo of Manhattan skyline with Passaic and Hackensack Rivers used courtesy of Doc Searls, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


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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. Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Update: Oct, 20, 2016—Restoration for the Raritan River moved one step closer with the U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement of a settlement for the American Cyanamid Superfund Site. Details can be found here.

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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Working to Reverse the Legacy of Lead in New Jersey’s Raritan Bay

Person standing at a fenced-off beach closed to the public.

Some of the beach front at Old Bridge Waterfront Park in New Jersey’s Raritan Bay Slag Superfund site is closed to fishing, swimming, and sunbathing due to lead contamination leaching from metal slag used in the construction of a seawall and to fortify a jetty. (NOAA)

Once lined with reeds, oysters, and resort towns, New Jersey’s Raritan Bay, like many other bodies of water, today is feeling the effects of industrial transformation begun decades ago.

Around 1925, the National Lead Company became the largest lead company in the United States. The company is perhaps best known for their white-lead paints, sold under the Dutch Boy label. One of its many facilities was located in Perth Amboy, a town on the western edge of Raritan Bay, where it operated a lead smelter that generated wastes containing lead and other hazardous substances.

A Toxic Toll

Illustration of a little boy painting used in Dutch Boy paints logo.

This image was adopted by the National Lead Company in 1913 for its Dutch Boy paints. A version of it still is in use today. (New York Public Library Digital Collections/Public domain)

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, slag from National Lead’s lead smelter in Perth Amboy was used as building material to construct a seawall along the southern shoreline of Raritan Bay, several miles to the south of the facility.

Slag is a stony waste by-product of smelting or refining processes containing various metals. Slag, battery casings, and demolition debris were used to fill in some areas of a nearby marsh and littered the marsh and beaches along the bay.

In September 1972, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection received a tip that the slag being placed along Raritan Bay at the Laurence Harbor beachfront contained lead.

Over time, contamination from the slag and other wastes began leaching into the water, soil, and sediments of Raritan Bay, which is home to a variety of aquatic life, including flounder, clams, and horseshoe crabs, but evidence of the pollution only became available decades later.

Cleaner Futures

By 2007 the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had confirmed high levels of lead and other metals in soils of Old Bridge Waterfront Park on Raritan Bay’s south shore. State and local officials put up temporary fencing and warning signs and notified the public about health concerns stemming from the lead in the seawall.

The following year, New Jersey asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider cleaning up contaminated areas along the seawall because of the elevated levels of metals. By November 2009, the EPA confirmed the contamination and declared this polluted area in and near Old Bridge Waterfront Park a Superfund site (called Raritan Bay Slag Superfund site). They installed signs and fencing at a creek, marsh, and some beaches to restrict access and protect public health.

In May 2013 EPA selected a cleanup strategy, known as a “remedy,” to address risks to the public and environment from the pollution, and in January 2014 they ordered NL Industries, which in 1971 had changed its name from the National Lead Company, to conduct a $79 million cleanup along Raritan Bay.

Cleanup will involve digging up and dredging the slag, battery casings, associated waste, and sediment and soils where lead exceeds 400 parts per million. An EPA news release from January 2014 emphasizes the concern over lead:

“Lead is a toxic metal that is especially dangerous to children because their growing bodies can absorb more of it than adults. Lead in children can result in I.Q. deficiencies, reading and learning disabilities, reduced attention spans, hyperactivity and other behavioral disorders. The order requires the removal of lead-contaminated material and its replacement with clean material in order to reduce the risk to those who use the beach, particularly children.”

Identifying Impacts

Public health hazard sign about lead contamination on a beach and jetty.

A jetty and surrounding coastal area on Raritan Bay is contaminated with lead and other hazardous materials from slag originating at the National Lead Company’s Perth Amboy, New Jersey, facility. (NOAA)

After the Raritan Bay Slag site became a Superfund site in late 2009, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration worked with the EPA to determine the nature, extent, and effects of the contamination. Under a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program and our co-trustees, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, have been assessing and quantifying the likely impacts to the natural resources and the public’s use of those resources that may have occurred due to the contamination along Raritan Bay.

As part of this work, we are identifying opportunities for restoration projects that will compensate for the environmental harm as well as for people’s inability to use the affected natural resources, for example, due to beach closures and restricted access to fishing.

“The south shore of Raritan Bay is an important ecological, recreational, and economic resource for the New York-New Jersey Harbor metropolitan area,” said NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator Lisa Rosman. “Cleanup and restoration are key to improving conditions and allowing public access to this valuable resource.”

Watch for future updates on progress toward restoration on Raritan Bay.


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Orange Oil Is the New Black

Sorbent pads soaking up orange oil on the surface of a creek.

Even something as pleasant-smelling as orange peel oil can have potentially harmful effects on aquatic life. A view of the spill with some absorbent cleanup materials not far from Orange, New Jersey. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Orange is a common color in oil spill response.

Life jackets, rain gear, and the work vests worn by responders are often orange to make them easier to see. And don’t forget the bright orange U.S. Coast Guard helicopters that may be on scene. Floating booms are often orange for the same reason.

But generally the oil they are responding to is black or another dark color. But recently we had an orange oil spill.

No, the oil wasn’t orange colored; it was actually the oil extracted from orange peels. It is a byproduct of orange juice manufacturing and used as a flavoring and in a variety of fragrances and household cleaners.

On June 15, 2015, about 700 gallons of orange peel oil was spilled into a creek near the Passaic River, which flows into New York harbor. A large rain storm caused a wastewater pump to fail and water backed up into the facility producing the orange oil. The orange oil then was inadvertently pumped out of the facility into the creek.

Crews managed to temporarily dam the creek using sheets of plywood, keeping most of the oil from reaching the river. The spill happened in East Hanover, New Jersey, oddly not far from the city of Orange, New Jersey, (named for King William III of England, also known as William of Orange).

So why do we care about a seemingly harmless (and nice-smelling) product such as orange oil? Edible oils may be less toxic than crude oils, but spills of animal fats and vegetable oils can kill or injure wildlife. They also can end up suffocating aquatic life because microbes in the water take advantage of the temporary feast but in the process use up large amounts of the oxygen dissolved in water, leaving little oxygen for other aquatic creatures to use. This was the case when 1,400 tons of molasses were accidentally released into Honolulu Harbor in 2013, killing a number of fish.

Back to the scenario near Orange, New Jersey: a major compound in orange oil is limonene, which in very high concentrations can be toxic to fish and freshwater plankton. Fortunately, U.S. Coast Guard personnel overseeing the response reported that the responders were able to use absorbent pads to quickly sop up the released oil, which remained far below toxic levels.

Furthermore, any remaining orange oil would likely evaporate or disperse in the water over the course of several days to a couple weeks, leaving behind a sweet-smelling cleanup scene.


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Before Breaking Ground for Restoration, Digging for Signs of the Past

This is a post by Carl Alderson of NOAA’s Restoration Center.

Birds flying over a flooded field with a nuclear power plant in the distance.

Glossy Ibis flocking to an accidental wet meadow, left by the farmer’s plow in early spring 2003 at Mad Horse Creek. Salem Nuclear Power Plant in the distance. (NOAA)

Looking across the open fields of the surrounding farm community, I am reminded of the long history of both European and Native American settlement in this portion of southwest New Jersey. Before Europeans arrived in the 17th century, this area was part of Lenape Indian territory.

Today, however, it is the site of a future restoration project at Mad Horse Creek Fish and Wildlife Management Area.

In partnership with the State of New Jersey, I’m involved in an effort to restore nearly 200 acres of degraded marshland, wet meadow, and grassland in this part of Salem County.

The restored habitat will provide food as well as roosting and nesting habitat for birds. This is one of many projects NOAA and our partners have developed as part of the restoration plan in the wake of the 2004 Athos I oil spill, which killed nearly 12,000 birds along the nearby Delaware River.

The Artifacts of Nature

Numerous historical artifacts have been uncovered on lands surrounding Mad Horse Creek, so it’s important that before we begin restoring the natural habitat, we make sure we are preserving any colonial or Native American artifacts that might be hidden beneath these fields.

I’ve been working with Vincent Maresca, a Senior Historic Preservation Specialist with the State of New Jersey to develop plans for a Phase I archaeological investigation of the area. Using a disk cultivator (a machine typically used to cultivate soil between rows of plants), we will be disking all 200 acres of the restoration site, turning over the soil at a depth of 18 inches.

Once we get a rainstorm, we can expect any artifacts in the soil to be revealed. At that point, it will take a team of 12 people two weeks to walk the site, one person to a row, looking for exposed shards of pottery or other objects. Anything we find will be placed into collection bags and identified with the GPS location.

If we find historical artifacts at the Mad Horse Creek restoration area, we will begin a Phase II archaeological investigation. This likely would involve digging more extensive excavation pits in the immediate area of each find to uncover other potential artifacts.

The people who do this work are known as field archaeologists. They typically have a degree in anthropology or archaeology and receive specialized training in testing and excavating archaeological sites; screening the soil for evidence; washing, bagging, and labeling artifacts; and completing field inventories of their findings.

When Restoration Meets Preservation

No restoration work will begin until we complete this archaeological search. At all times, NOAA makes sure to consult with historic preservationists on each of our sites in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act.

In the first part of the process we ask for input from state experts like Vincent Maresca. Those experts determine whether we should do an archaeological evaluation of the site based on the likelihood of finding artifacts, as was the case at Mad Horse Creek. If the likelihood is high, we then seek input from the federal agency known as the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

I don’t know what we’re going to find at Mad Horse Creek, if anything, but as we near Thanksgiving, I am particularly thankful to be working on a project that is working to restore and preserve both our natural and cultural treasures.


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When the Dynamics of an Oil Spill Shut Down a Nuclear Power Plant

Yellow containment boom floats on a river next to a nuclear power plant.

Precautionary containment boom is visible around the water intake system at the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey on December 6, 2004. The nuclear plant was shut down for 11 days to prevent the heavy, submerged oil from the Athos spill from clogging the water intakes. (NOAA)

“I’ve never reopened a nuclear power plant,” thought NOAA’s Ed Levine. Despite that, Levine knew it was his job to get the right information to the people who ultimately would make that decision. This was his role as a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator during oil spills. However, most major oil spills do not affect nuclear power plants. This wintry day in 2004 was an exception.

Forty miles north of the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey, an oil tanker called the Athos I had struck an object hidden beneath the Delaware River. As it was preparing to dock at the CITGO refinery near Philadelphia on November 26, the ship began tilting to one side, the engine shut down, and oil started gushing out.

“Not your typical oil spill,” later reflected Jonathan Sarubbi, who served as U.S. Coast Guard Captain of the Port and led the federal response during this incident. Not only did no one immediately know what the ship had hit—or where that object was located in the river channel—but the Athos, now sitting too low in the water to reach the dock, was stuck where it was. And it was still leaking its cargo of heavy Venezuelan crude oil.

Capt. Sarubbi ordered vessel traffic through this busy East Coast shipping channel to stop until the object the Athos hit could be found. Little did Capt. Sarubbi, Levine, and the other responders know that even more challenges would be in store beneath the water and down the river.

Getting Mixed up

Most oils, most of the time, float on the surface of water. This was precisely what responders expected the oil coming out of the Athos to do. But within a couple days of the spill, they realized that was not the case. This oil was a little on the heavier side. As it shot out of the ship’s punctured bottom, some of the oil mixed with sediment from the river bottom. It didn’t have far to go; thanks to an extremely low tide pulling the river out to sea, the Athos was passing a mere 18 inches above the bottom of the river when it sprung a leak.

Now mixed with sediment, some of the spilled oil became as dense as or denser than water. Instead of rising to the river surface, it sank to the bottom or drifted in the water column. Even some of the oil that floated became mixed with sediment along the shoreline, later sinking below the surface. For the oil suspended in the water, the turbulence of the Delaware River kept it moving with the currents increasingly toward the Salem nuclear plant, perched on the river’s edge.

NOAA’s oil spill trajectory model GNOME forecasts the spread of oil by assuming the oil is floating on the water’s surface. Normally, our oceanographers can verify how well the forecasts are doing by calibrating the model against twice-a-day aerial surveys of the oil’s movement. The trouble with oil that does not float is that it is harder to see, especially in the murky waters of the Delaware River.

Responders were forced to improvise. To track oil underwater, they created new sampling methods, one of which involved dropping weighted ropes into the water column at various points along the river. The ropes were lined with what looked like cheerleader pom-poms made of oil-attracting plastic strips that would pick up oil as it passed by.

Nuclear Ambitions

Nuclear plants like the Salem facility rely on a steady flow of freshwater to cool their reactors. A thin layer of floating oil was nearing the plant by December 1, 2004, with predictions that the heavier, submerged oil would not be far behind. By December 3, small, sticky bits of oil began showing up in the screens on the plant’s cooling water intakes. To keep them from becoming clogged, the plant decided to shut down its two nuclear reactors the next day. That was when NOAA’s Ed Levine was tasked with figuring out when the significant threats due to the oil had passed.

Eleven days later, the Salem nuclear plant operators, the State of New Jersey, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed the plant to restart. A combination of our modeling and new sampling methods for detecting underwater oil had shown a clear and significant drop in the amount of oil around the plant. Closing this major electric generating facility cost $33.1 million out of more than $162 million in claims paid to parties affected by the Athos spill. But through our innovative modeling and sampling, we were able to reduce the time the plant was offline, minimizing the disruption to the power grid and reducing the economic loss.

Levine recalled this as an “eye-opening” experience, one yielding a number of lessons for working with nuclear power plants should an oil spill threaten one in the future. To learn more about the Athos oil spill, from response to restoration, visit response.restoration.noaa.gov/athos.

A special thanks to NOAA’s Ed Levine and Chris Barker, former U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jonathan Sarubbi, and Henry Font, Donna Hellberg, and Thomas Morrison of the Coast Guard National Pollution Funds Center for sharing information and data which contributed to this post.


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Out of Sandy, Lessons in Helping Coastal Marshes Recover from Storms

Cleanup workers scoop oil out of an oiled marsh with containment boom around the edges.

After Sandy’s flooding led to an oil spill at a Motiva refinery, Motiva cleanup workers extract oil from Smith Creek, a waterway connected to the Arthur Kill, in Woodbridge, New Jersey, on November 5, 2012. (NOAA)

Boats capsized in a sea of grass. Tall trees and power lines toppled over. A dark ring of oil rimming marsh grasses. This was the scene greeting NOAA’s Simeon Hahn and Carl Alderson a few days after Sandy’s floodwaters had pulled back from New Jersey in the fall of 2012.

They were surveying the extent of an oil spill in Woodbridge Creek, which is home to a NOAA restoration project and feeds into the Arthur Kill, a waterway separating New Jersey from New York’s Staten Island. When the massive storm known as Sandy passed through the area, its flooding lifted up a large oil storage tank at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, New Jersey. After the floodwaters set the tank back down, it caused roughly 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel to leak into the creek and surrounding wetlands.

That day, the NOAA team was there with Motiva and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to begin what can be a long and litigious process of determining environmental impacts, damages, and required restoration—the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

In this case, however, not only did the group reach a cooperative agreement—in less than six months—on a restoration plan for the oiled wetlands, but at another wetland affected by Sandy, NOAA gained insight into designing restoration projects better able to withstand the next big storm.

Cleaning up the Mess After a Hurricane

Hurricanes and other large storms cause a surprising number of oil and hazardous chemical spills along the coast. After Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Coast Guard began receiving reports of petroleum products, biodiesel, and other chemicals leaking into coastal waters from damaged refineries, breached petroleum storage tanks, and sunken and stranded vessels. The ruptured tank at the Motiva Refinery was just one of several oil spills after the storm, but the approach in the wake of the spill is what set it apart from many other oil spills.

“Early on we decided that we would work together,” reflected Hahn, Regional Resource Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. “There was a focus on doing the restoration rather than doing lengthy studies to quantify the injury.”

This approach was possible because Motiva agreed to pursue a cooperative Natural Resource Damage Assessment with New Jersey as the lead and with support from NOAA. This meant, for example, that up front, the company agreed to provide funding for assessing the environmental impacts and implementing the needed restoration, and agreed on and shared the data necessary to determine those impacts. This cooperative process resulted in a timely and cost-effective resolution, which allowed New Jersey and NOAA to transition to the restoration phase.

Reaching Restoration

Because of the early agreement with Motiva, NOAA and New Jersey DEP did not conduct exhaustive new studies detailing specific harm to these particular tidal wetlands. Instead, they turned to the wealth of data from the oil spill response and existing data from the Arthur Kill to make an accurate assessment of the oil’s impacts.

People driving small boats up a marshy river in winter.

A few days after the oil spill, Motiva’s contractors ferried the assessment team up Woodbridge Creek in New Jersey, looking for impacts from the oil. (NOAA)

From their shoreline, aerial, and boat surveys, they knew that the marsh itself had a bathtub ring of oil around the edge, affecting marsh grasses such as Spartina. No oiled wildlife turned up. However, the storm’s immediate impacts made it difficult to take water and sediment samples or directly examine potential effects to fish. Fortunately, the assessment team was able to use a lot of data from a nearby past oil spill and damage assessment in the Arthur Kill. In addition, they could rely on both general scientific research on oil spill toxicology and maps from the response team detailing the areas most heavily oiled.

Together, this created a picture of the environmental injuries the oil spill caused to Woodbridge Creek. Next, NOAA economists used the habitat equivalency analysis approach to calculate the amount of restoration needed to make up for these injuries: 1.23 acres of tidal wetlands. They then extrapolated how much it will cost to do this restoration based on seven restoration projects within a 50 mile radius, coming to $380,000 per acre. As a result, NOAA and New Jersey agreed that Motiva needed to provide $469,000 for saltwater marsh restoration and an additional $100,000 for monitoring, on top of Motiva’s cleanup costs for the spill itself.

To use this relatively small amount of money most efficiently, New Jersey DEP, as the lead agency, is planning to combine it with another, larger restoration project already in the works. While still negotiating which project that will be, the team has been eyeing a high-profile, 80-acre marsh restoration project practically in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Meanwhile, the monitoring project will take place upstream from the site of the Motiva oil spill at the 67-acre Woodbridge Creek Marsh, which received light to moderate oiling. NOAA already has data on the state of the animals and plants at this previously established restoration site, which will provide a rare comparison for before and after the oil spill.

Creating More Resilient Coasts

A storm as damaging as Sandy highlights the need for restoring wetlands. These natural buffers offer protection for human infrastructure, absorbing storm surge and shielding shorelines from wind and waves. Yet natural resource managers are still learning how to replicate nature’s designs, especially in urban areas where river channels often have been straightened and adjoining wetlands filled and replaced with shorelines armored by concrete riprap.

To the south in Philadelphia, Sandy contributed to significant erosion at a restored tidal marsh and shoreline at Lardner’s Point Park, located on the Delaware River. This storm revealed that shoreline restoration techniques which dampen wave energy before it hits the shore would help protect restored habitat and reduce erosion and scouring.

Out of this destructive storm, NOAA and our partners are trying to learn as much as possible—both about how to reach the restoration phase even more efficiently and how to make those restoration projects even more resilient. The wide range of coastal threats is not going away, but we at NOAA can help our communities and environment bounce back when they do show up on our shores.

Learn more about coastal resilience and how NOAA’s Ocean Service is helping our coasts and communities bounce back after storms, floods, and other disasters and follow #NOAAResilience on social media.