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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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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Opening up the Hudson River for Migrating Fish, One Dam at a Time

This is a post by Carl Alderson of NOAA’s Restoration Center and Lisa Rosman of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Creek passing over a dam in winter.

Water, both frozen and liquid, tumbles over the Orrs Mill Dam on Moodna Creek, a tributary of the Hudson River, in Cornwall, New York. NOAA scientists Lisa Rosman and Carl Alderson are investigating dams and other structures that are potentially preventing fish from migrating up these waterways. (NOAA)

One wintry day near the pre-Civil War–era town of Stockport, New York, NOAA scientists Lisa Rosman and Carl Alderson carefully edged their way down the snowy banks of Claverack Creek.

They pushed past the debris of a nearby maintenance yard, filled with old buses and cars and surrounded by junk covered in snow and ice. A roar of water could be heard just beyond this scene, tumbling out from the remains of a dam. The dam was framed by an assortment of large natural boulders and scattered concrete masses, everything partially blanketed in a snowy white ruin.

As the team surveyed this landscape, a seamless portrait of the Hudson River Valley emerged, making it easy to see how everything was connected. Cameras and video recorders, GPS units and notebooks came flying quickly in and out of warm pockets, with hands glad to be thrust back in after the duo collected the information they sought.

The scientists were scouting this particular creek for features they had spotted in satellite imagery. The purpose? To locate, verify, and catalog blockages to fish movement and migration.

­­They could see that this crumbling structure had been much higher at one time. Something, likely a storm, had sheared off the top portion of the dam. Even with the breach, the damage did not allow the river to flow freely past the dam’s base. So, the question for the team remained: Could migrating fish navigate past what was left of this dam?

Additional research revealed more about this remnant from another time. The Van De Carr Dam once powered a 19th century paper mill and a mattress factory, part of the national transition to water power and the start of the industrial age.

Today, however, NOAA has classified this dam as a barrier for fish trying to follow their instincts and migrate up this tributary of the Hudson River, as their parents and ancestors did before them.

Identifying Barriers

Rosman and Alderson are investigating potential habitat restoration opportunities along 69 tributaries to the Hudson River estuary. The Hudson River is a federal Superfund site spanning almost 200 miles from Hudson Falls in the north to the Battery in New York City.

Beginning in the late 1940s, two General Electric (GE) capacitor manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York, released industrial chemicals known as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) into the Hudson River environment over several decades. The PCB pollution has contaminated Hudson River fish and wildlife, their prey, and their habitats.

The investigation assesses the potential for removing dams and culverts that are preventing fish from migrating up and downstream within the Hudson River Valley. Removing abandoned dams and upgrading culverts will provide fish with access to habitat in tributaries of the Lower Hudson River, upstream of the river’s tidal influence.

Barrier after barrier, this scientific duo determines which dams on Hudson River tributaries still provide services, such as water supply, recreation, or hydroelectric power, and those which no longer serve any meaningful function. Back in the office, they enter the information collected in the field into a database that now includes more than 400 potential barriers to fish, both man-made and natural.

Dams and improperly sized or installed culverts have prevented important migratory fish, such as American shad and river herring, from swimming further upstream to spawn, as well as reducing the passage of the historically far-reaching American eel. In addition, NOAA catalogs the rivers’ natural barriers—steep gradients, rock ledges, waterfalls—to estimate the extent that most fish previously could travel upstream before the presence of dams.

Through a combination of advanced digital mapping software and scouting trips such as the one to Claverack Creek, Alderson and Rosman are identifying potential fish restoration projects. These projects will help make up for the decades when people were either not allowed to fish or retain catches along portions of the Hudson River and were advised against eating its highly polluted fish.

Opening up Rivers and New Opportunities for Collaboration

The data Rosman and Alderson are collecting help support other programs as well. NOAA and other government agencies prioritize removing or updating the barriers that provide the best opportunities for habitat improvement and fish passage. Dams that are not candidates for removal may still benefit from structures such as fish ladders, rock ramps, or bypass channels designed to enhance fish passage over or around the dam.

Already, their efforts have helped communicate the potential for habitat restoration in the region. In October 2014, they shared information about their database of fish barriers at a workshop co-hosted by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYSDEC) water, dam safety, and estuary programs.

Later, at an April 2015 summit in Poughkeepsie, New York, the Hudson River Estuary Program announced the official kick-off of a new grant program that will benefit the river and its migrating fish. The program will award $750,000 to restore tributaries of the Hudson River and improve their resilience (e.g., dam removal and culvert and bridge upgrades) and $800,000 for local stewardship planning.

The grant announcement and collaboration among NOAA, NYSDEC, and several key stakeholders, including the Hudson River Estuary Program, The Nature Conservancy, and Scenic Hudson, signals an era of growing cooperation and interest in bringing back migrating fish to their historic habitats and improving the vitality of the Hudson River and its tributaries.


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NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Correct GE’s Misinformation in Latest Hudson River Pollution Report

A manufacturing facility on the banks of a dammed river.

General Electric plant on the Hudson River in New York. (Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees)

The Federal Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees sent a letter to General Electric (GE) today, addressing misinformation and correcting the public record in regard to the recently released Hudson River Project Report, submitted by GE to the New York Office of the State Comptroller. Trustees are engaged in a natural resource damage assessment and restoration (NRDAR) of the Hudson River, which is extensively contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) released by GE.

“We take our responsibility to keep the public informed throughout the damage assessment process seriously,” said Wendi Weber, Northeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the Trustees engaged in the NRDAR process. “An informed public is key to the conservation and restoration of our treasured natural resources.”

“The extensive PCB contamination of the Hudson River by General Electric has clearly injured natural resources and the services those resources provide to the people of New York State,” said Robert Haddad, Assessment and Restoration Division Chief of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a Federal Trustee in the Hudson River NRDAR process.

The Federal Trustees affirm these five facts in the letter [PDF]:

(1) Trustees have documented injuries to natural resources that the Report does not acknowledge.

Trustees have published injury determination reports for three categories of the Hudson River’s natural resources that GE does not mention in the report. Trustees anticipate that GE will be liable for the restoration of these injured natural resources.

  • Fishery injury: For more than 30 years, PCB levels in fish throughout the 200 mile Hudson River Superfund Site have exceeded the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) limit for PCBs in fish. Fish consumption advisories for PCB-contaminated fish have existed since 1975.
  • Waterfowl injury: In the upper Hudson River, over 90 percent of the mallard ducks tested had PCB levels higher than the FDA limit for PCBs in poultry. The bodies of mallard ducks in the Upper Hudson River have PCB levels approximately 100 times greater than those from a reference area.
  • Surface and ground water injury: Both surface water in the Hudson River itself and groundwater in the Towns of Fort Edward, Hudson Falls and Stillwater have PCB contamination in excess of New York’s water quality criteria. PCBs levels higher than these standards count as injuries. Additionally, the injuries to surface water have resulted in a loss of navigational services on the Hudson River.

(2) GE has been advised that additional dredging would reduce their NRD liability.

Federal trustees have urged GE to remove additional contaminated sediments to lessen the injuries caused by GE’s PCB contamination. Federal trustees publicly released maps showing hot spots that could be targeted for sediment removal over and above that called for in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remedy, and calculated the acreage to be dredged based on specific surface cleanup triggers. Information on these recommendations is publicly and explicitly available. Therefore, GE’s statement that they have “no basis to guess how much additional dredging the trustee agencies might want, in which locations, and applying which engineering or other performance standards” is incorrect.

(3) GE’s very large discharges of PCBs prior to 1975 were not authorized by any permit.

Two GE manufacturing facilities began discharging PCBs into the river in the late 1940s, resulting in extensive contamination of the Hudson River environment. In its report, GE states that “GE held the proper government permits to discharge PCBs to the river at all times required,” suggesting that all of GE’s PCB releases were made pursuant to a permit.

The implication that all of GE’s PCB releases were permitted is inaccurate. In fact, the company had no permit to discharge PCBs between 1947 and the mid-1970s, and thus GE discharged and released massive, unpermitted amounts of PCBs to the Hudson River from point sources (engineered wastewater outfalls) and non-point sources (soil and groundwater) at the Fort Edward and Hudson Falls facilities. After GE obtained discharge permits in the mid-1970s, the company at times released PCBs directly to the River in violation of the permits that it did hold. Not all of GE’s releases were permitted, and regardless, GE is not absolved of natural resource damage liability for their PCB releases.

(4) GE’s characterization of inconclusive studies on belted kingfisher and spotted sandpiper is misleading.

Trustees hold the scientific process in high regard. In its report, GE inaccurately states that studies on spotted sandpiper and belted kingfisher demonstrate no harm to those species from exposure to PCBs. In truth, those studies were simply unable to show an association between PCBs and impacts to these species. Both studies make a point of stating that the lack of association may have resulted from the sample size being too small. The studies are therefore inconclusive.

(5) The Trustees value public input and seek to ensure the public is informed and engaged.

The Trustees are stewards of the public’s natural resources and place high value in engaging with the public. GE incorrectly implies in the report that the Trustees have been secretive with respect to their NRDAR assessment. The Trustees strive to keep the public informed of progress by presenting at Hudson River Community Advisory Group meetings and at events organized by scientific, educational, and nonprofit organizations, as well as releasing documents for public review and providing information through web sites and a list serve.

To access the letter to GE and for more information, visit the Hudson River NRDAR Trustee websites:

www.fws.gov/contaminants/restorationplans/hudsonriver/index.html

www.darrp.noaa.gov/northeast/hudson/index.html

www.dec.ny.gov/lands/25609.html

The Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees agencies are the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and the state of New York. These entities have each designated representatives that possess the technical knowledge and authority to perform Natural Resource Damage Assessments. For the Hudson River, the designees are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which represents DOC; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which represents DOI bureaus (FWS and the National Park Service) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which represents the State of New York.


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Sandy, One Year Later: Where Are We Now?

Boats and other debris were out of place in Brigantine, N.J., Oct. 30, 2012, after Sandy made landfall on the southern New Jersey coastline Oct. 29, 2012.

Boats and other debris were out of place in Brigantine, N.J., Oct. 30, 2012, after Sandy made landfall on the southern New Jersey coastline Oct. 29, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy raced toward the East Coast. Although the hurricane became a post-tropical cyclone before making landfall, it still caused extensive damage. Its forceful winds and flooding swept waves of oil, hazardous chemicals, and debris into the waters along New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

Both before and after Sandy hit, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) was bracing for the repercussions of this massive storm. In the year since, we have been working with federal, state, and local agencies to reduce the environmental impacts, restore coastal habitats, and improve the tools needed to prepare for the next disaster.

Restoring Tidal Wetlands in New Jersey

Oil mixed with vegetation and organic debris in the tidal marshes affected by the Motiva refinery's diesel spill as a result of the storm.

Oil mixed with vegetation and organic debris in the tidal marshes affected by the Motiva refinery’s diesel spill as a result of the storm. (NOAA)

As water levels receded, the U.S. Coast Guard began receiving reports of pollution in the areas of coastal New Jersey and New York. Petroleum products, biodiesel, and other chemicals were leaking into the waters from pollution sources such as damaged coastal industries, ruptured petroleum storage tanks, and sunken and stranded vessels. The area of Arthur Kill, a waterway that borders New York and New Jersey, was hit particularly hard. One such spill occurred when a tank holding diesel broke open at the Motiva refinery in Sewaren, N.J., releasing an estimated 336,000 gallons of diesel into several creeks.

The week following Sandy, our Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) staff ventured into storm-ravaged areas to gather data on impacts to coastal habitats and other natural resources, including those potentially affected by the Motiva oil spill. NOAA, along with representatives from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Motiva, surveyed affected sites both by land and by boat and coordinated with these groups to determine whether to pursue a natural resource damage assessment and implement environmental restoration.

Early in this process, the trustees, NOAA and New Jersey, and Motiva agreed to focus on restoration, rather than conducting new studies and debating legal issues. This meant using observations from the surveys, past damage assessments in the area, and previous scientific studies to determine the amount of restoration required to offset the resulting injuries to natural resources.  As a result, NOAA and New Jersey reached consensus on a cooperative settlement in less than 6 months with the Motiva refinery in Sewaren for the release of oil during the storm. This successful agreement will provide funds to restore and monitor recovery of tidal wetlands in the Arthur Kill watershed, which will begin before the end of 2013.

Identifying Remaining Debris Along the Coasts

Drums and other debris were washed away into the ocean and surrounding waters following Sandy and in some cases continue to be a threat to safety and the environment.

Drums and other debris were washed away into the ocean and surrounding waters following Sandy and in some cases continue to be a threat to safety and the environment. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Even when drums, tanks, and other debris swept into the waters after a storm are free of oil and chemicals, they can still pose a threat to navigation, commercial and recreational fishing grounds, and sensitive habitats. This was a considerable problem after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Sandy was no exception in 2012.

In the months following this storm, the NOAA Marine Debris Program coordinated debris response activities and initial assessments with agencies in impacted states. Using aerial, underwater, and shoreline surveys, today we continue working with federal and state agencies to identify the amount and location of remaining debris that Sandy littered up and down Mid-Atlantic coastal waters.

In addition, we are using a computer model we developed with NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey after Hurricane Katrina to predict probabilities of finding debris generated by Sandy in the nearshore waters of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. These and other analyses, along with support from the rest of the Marine Debris Program and OR&R’s Atlantic ERMA mapping tool, will inform how states prioritize cleanup efforts.

Due to the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, the Marine Debris Program received $4.75 million for activities related to finding and clearing debris from Sandy.  Through the end of 2013 and into 2014, we will continue our work identifying priority items for removal and supporting limited removal efforts. The program is also using what we learned from Sandy to establish long-term debris recovery plans for future storms.

Adapting to a Changing Shoreline

In addition to damaging buildings, roller coasters, and vessels, Sandy’s strong winds and waves caused considerable change to shorelines on the East Coast. The areas most affected were metropolitan New York, northern Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

As a result, OR&R’s Emergency Response Division received funding through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 to update our Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps for northeast states. These updated maps will reflect the shoreline changes caused by the storm but will be developed with a broad range of potential disasters in mind.

Additionally, they will expand the coastal information offered to better inform planning and response efforts for the next disaster. Such information may include flood inundation and storm surge areas, environmental monitoring stations, tide stations, and offshore renewable energy sites. Long Island Sound is first on our list for updates, but the Hudson River, Chesapeake Bay, and affected shorelines from South Carolina north to Maine eventually will follow suit.

While it has already been a year since Sandy left its mark on the U.S., the work of recovery and rebuilding is not yet complete. You can read more about these efforts in support of healing our coasts and communities on NOAA’s Ocean Service website.


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After Sandy, Adapting NOAA’s Tools for a Changing Shoreline

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. NOAA and our partners are making sure that we have the most up-to-date tools and resources for whenever the next disaster strikes. To learn more about how you can be prepared for all types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Vicki Loe and Jill Petersen.

While the beach season has come to an end for the East Coast, communities of the northeast continue to repair remaining damage from last fall’s Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy and prepare for future storms. As beachgoers arrived at the shore this past summer, they found a lot of repaired structures and beautiful beaches. But this was side-by-side with reconstruction projects, damaged buildings, and altered shorelines.

In addition to damaging manmade structures, Sandy’s strong winds and waves caused considerable change to shorelines, particularly in the metropolitan New York area, northern Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Tools for Coastal Disasters

In the wake of Sandy, under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, funds were allocated to update the Office of Response and Restoration’s existing northeast Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps to reflect changes caused by the storm and to add information that would enhance the maps’ value when another disaster strikes. Historically used mostly for oil and chemical spills, these maps have also proved to be effective tools in preparing for and responding to storms and hurricanes.

ESI maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that could be at risk in a disaster. Examples include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks). They are used by both disaster responders during a disaster and planners before a disaster.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast. Used in conjunction with a key, this map provides valuable information to planners and responders on the wildlife, habitats, and geographical features of the area.

In the region affected by Sandy, maps will be updated from Maine to South Carolina. The ESI maps are produced on a state or regional basis. They typically extend offshore to include all state waters, and go inland far enough to include coastal biology and human use resources. In addition to the outer coastal regions, navigable rivers, bays, and estuaries are included. In the northeast, these include the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay, which are among those maps being updated with the Sandy funding, as well as Delaware Bay, which was already in progress before the storm hit.

The first region to be updated will be Long Island Sound. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is partnering with the Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA) in NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science to develop the biological and human use information for this region. This partnership will take advantage of studies CCMA currently has underway, as well as contacts they have made with the biological experts in the area.

Keeping up with a Changing Shoreline

A large wildlife conservation area that is managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

You can see representative coastal habitat in a large wildlife conservation area managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

The coastal environment is constantly changing and ESI maps need to be updated periodically to reflect not just storm damage, but changes to resources caused by human use, erosion, and climate change. The new maps will be created with a broad range of potential disasters in mind. To support this goal, some additional data elements and layers are being considered for the ESI maps developed as part of our post-Sandy effort. These may include such things as flood inundation and storm surge areas, environmental monitoring stations, tide stations, and offshore renewable energy sites.

The end products will provide emergency planners and responders with a better tool for protecting the northeast and mid-Atlantic shoreline when the next coastal disaster occurs.

You can learn more about our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps in our blog post “Mapping How Sensitive the Coasts Are to Oil Spills,” and find more technical insights into our work with ESI maps and data on the NOAA ESI blog at noaaesi.wordpress.com.

Jill PetersenJill Petersen began working with the NOAA spill response group in 1988. Originally a programmer and on-scene responder, in 1991 her focus switched to mapping support, a major component of which is the ESI program. Throughout the years, Jill has worked to broaden the ESI audience by providing ESIs in a variety of formats and developing appropriate mapping tools. Jill has been the ESI program manager since 2001.


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Baby Mink Jeopardized by Toxic Chemicals in New York’s Hudson River

This is a guest post by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kathryn Jahn, case manager for the Hudson River Natural Resource Damage Assessment. This originally appeared in full on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region blog.

Mink at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

Mink at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. (Don Cooper)

In the early 1970s, toxic compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were discovered in the water, fish, and sediment of the Hudson River below General Electric Company’s plants at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward in New York.

Those PCBs have contaminated the surface water, groundwater, sediments, and floodplains of the Hudson River. We find that living resources at every level of the Hudson River’s food chains are contaminated with PCBs. We believe that serious adverse effects are likely to be occurring to wildlife exposed to this PCB contamination in the Hudson River.

A whole team of people are using their individual and collective expertise to address the problem of PCB contamination in the Hudson River and its effect on wildlife. My favorite part of this job is the teamwork among all the people working on this issue, and the interactions with our experts and the public.

We know that PCBs can cause serious harm to wildlife and other natural resources. Although a cleanup funded by GE is underway for certain sections of the Hudson River, the dredging GE is doing will leave some areas still contaminated with PCBs.

The dredging also cannot compensate for past effects of this PCB contamination on the Hudson River’s natural resources. For example, dredging will not make up for all the years that public use of the Hudson River fishery has been impaired by fish consumption advisories. Dredging will not return that lost use to the public.

In our planning to determine the effects of PCBs on wildlife, we identified mink health as one area to investigate. Mink are vulnerable to the effects of PCBs. Hudson River mink eat PCB-contaminated fish and other small creatures, and they ingest contaminated water, soil, and sediments as they look for food and build their dens. This led us to suspect that Hudson River mink might be harmed by PCBs in their environment.

Read more to find out how PCB contamination might be affecting mink offspring.

[Editor’s note: And learn about a past report from the Hudson River Natural Resource Trustees, including NOAA, which found that PCBs permeate nearly every part of the Hudson River.]


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

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

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

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

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

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

A History of Pollution on the St. Lawrence

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

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

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

Moving Toward Environmental Restoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconnecting to the Natural World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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