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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Thanks, Oil Pollution Act: 25 Years of Enabling Environmental Restoration After Oil Spills

Oil coating rock and sand beach with palm trees.

While it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of oil spills, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 tells us who is responsible for cleaning up this oiled beach and what they have to do to restore the environment harmed by the spill. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Imagine yourself preparing for your next trip to the beach. The sun is shining and you drive with excitement to your favorite spot on the coast. But when you arrive, instead of being welcomed by clean sand and blue ocean waves, you see a thick black sludge washing over both beach and birds.

What happened? A ship just offshore has spilled oil that has made its way to your favorite beach. The spill is large enough to close the beach, halt fishing, and warrant advisories about eating local fish. Wildlife and their habitats are also fouled with oil.

You might wonder: Who caused this and who is going to clean this up? How badly is this harming the local wildlife and how will the environment be restored? Who is going to pay for it? How long will the beach and fisheries be closed? And how can a disaster like this be prevented?

Before 1990, there was no single law to deal with all these questions. A series of existing federal, state, and local laws contained general provisions about oil spill cleanup, liability, and compensation, but they were largely considered to be inadequate.

A New Decade, A New Law, A New Program

Close up of Athos I oil tanker.

The ship Athos I hit a submerged anchor in the Delaware River in 2004 and spilled more than 263,000 gallons of heavy crude oil. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Fortunately, on August 18, 1990, a little more than a year after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Oil Pollution Act was passed and signed into law. This historic and timely legislation gave NOAA and other agencies the authority to address impacts to natural resources caused by oil spills in navigable U.S. waters and shorelines.

The law is designed to prevent oil spills, ensure cleanup if they occur, and restore the natural resources impacted as a result of spills. Those responsible for the spill must restore the environment and compensate the public for its lost uses (like beach and recreational fishery closures), from the time of the incident until those natural resources fully recover.

NOAA has been working to protect and restore impacted natural resources at hazardous waste sites and oil spills since the early 1980s. In 1992, shortly after the Oil Pollution Act came into effect, NOAA created the Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP). The program was established as the central location for expertise in NOAA to assess, restore, and protect coastal environments damaged by oil spills, hazardous waste releases, and ship groundings. DARRP brings together scientific and legal experts from three parts of NOAA: the Office of Response and Restoration, Office of Habitat Conservation, and General Counsel for Natural Resources.

In DARRP’s 23 year history, our experts have assessed the environmental impacts of dozens of oil spills and recovered nearly $2 billion from those responsible for oil spills. These funds are being used to restore a variety of habitats—from tidal wetlands and coral reefs to sandy beaches and rocky coastlines—as well as the sea turtles, fish, birds, and other wildlife harmed by spills. This even extends to funding recreational improvement projects, such as boat launches and fishing piers, to make up for oil spills’ impacts on outdoor recreation.

Since then, DARRP staff have worked cooperatively with other agencies to assess and restore impacted natural resources resulting from oil spills on the coasts and Great Lakes. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Oil Pollution Act, we’re looking back on a few oil spills around the country and DARRP’s work to assess and restore the natural resources harmed by those spills.

A Pipeline Rupture in Washington State

On June 10, 1999, a rupture in a pipeline running through Bellingham, Washington, discharged approximately 236,000 gallons of gasoline into a tributary of Whatcom Creek. Fumes from the gasoline ignited a fire, which moved down Whatcom Creek and through a city park and residential neighborhoods, tragically taking the lives of three children.

DARRP worked with partner agencies to assess the impacted natural resources. The incident destroyed critical habitat for salmon, killed hundreds of thousands of fish and aquatic wildlife including crayfish and amphibians, and burned 42 acres of habitat and parkland. Fisheries were closed in Whatcom Creek and its tributaries for three months.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, a settlement with the Olympic Pipeline Company in 2004 provided more than $3.5 million for restoration. The funds were used to restore freshwater marsh and vegetation, creek channels and pools, and salmon habitat. In addition, the city park was expanded by 13.4 acres, and recreational enhancements, like trailheads and bathroom facilities, are expected to be completed this year.

A Thanksgiving Disaster on the Delaware River

On November 26, 2004, the M/T Athos I hit several submerged objects in the Delaware River while preparing to dock at a refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey, releasing nearly 265,000 gallons of crude oil.

Oil from the tanker spread 115 miles downriver, impacting 280 miles of shoreline in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. DARRP worked with partner agencies to identify impacts to shoreline and river-bottom habitats, birds, and recreational activities like fishing, boating, and hunting.

A settlement in 2010 provided $27.5 million for 10 restoration projects for the coastal environment and community. Projects include the restoration of shorelines, streams, marsh, meadows, and grasslands; recreational trail improvements; dam removals; boat ramp restoration; and oyster reef creation.

A Pipeline Failure on the Kalamazoo River

On July 25, 2010, a failure in an Enbridge pipeline released approximately 843,000 gallons of diluted bitumen, a diluted form of oil from oil sands (tar sands), into Michigan’s Talmadge Creek, spreading nearly 38 miles down the Kalamazoo River. This release of oil was one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history.

The oil impacted more than 1,560 acres of stream and river habitat, as well as floodplain and upland areas. The release impacted birds, mammals, reptiles, and other wildlife, and the river was immediately closed to the public, impacting recreational and other uses of the river.

On June 8, 2015, a settlement was reached with Enbridge, the responsible party, for nearly $4 million. The settlement will fund multiple restoration projects along the Kalamazoo River. NOAA and partner agencies released a Draft Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan/Environmental Assessment [PDF] for public comment in May 2015.

These cases represent just a small sample of the coastal environments and species impacted by oil spills that DARRP works to assess, restore, and protect. We’re thankful for the Oil Pollution Act and the ability to look back on the last 23 years of successful environmental restoration in its wake.

For a closer look at the other oil spills, hazardous waste sites, and ship grounding sites that DARRP has worked to restore, check out https://darrp.noaa.gov.


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A Major Spill in Tampa Bay—21 Years Ago this Month

Two barges next to one another; one with oil spilled on its deck.

An oil soaked barge, after the 1993 Tampa Bay spill. (NOAA)

August 10 is an anniversary of sorts.  21 years ago, I spent much of the month of August on the beaches of Pinellas County, Florida.  But not fishing and sunbathing. On August 10, 1993, three vessels, the freighter Balsa 37, the barge Ocean 255, and the barge Bouchard 155, collided near the entrance of Tampa Bay, Florida.

A barge on fire, with smoke coming form the deck.

The collision resulted in a fire on one of the barges and caused a major spill. (NOAA)

The collision resulted in a fire on one of the barges and caused a major oil spill. Over 32,000 gallons of jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline and about 330,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled from the barges. Despite emergency cleanup efforts, the oil fouled 13 miles of beaches and caused injury to birds, sea turtles, mangrove habitat, seagrasses, salt marshes, shellfish beds,  as well as closing many of the waterways to fishing and boating.

The prior year I had been hired by NOAA and tasked with developing a Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) to provide a quick response capability for oil and chemical spill damage assessments, focusing on the collection of perishable data and information, photographs, and videotape in a timely manner to determine the need for a natural resource damage assessment.

The emergency nature of spills requires that this type of information be collected within hours after the release. Time-sensitive data, photographs, and videotape are often critical when designing future assessment studies and initiating restoration planning—and are also used later as evidence in support of  Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) claims. The Tampa Bay spill was one of the first major responses for the RAP team.

The case was settled long ago and restoration projects have all been implemented to address the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of the spill. But some of the damage assessment approaches developed during that incident are still used today, and some of the then innovative restoration approaches are now more commonplace.

Sunset behind a bridge over a bay.

Tampa Bay, Skyway Bridge sunset, August 3, 2013. (Jeff Krause/Creative Commons)


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Deep Sea Ecosystem may take Decades to Recover from Deepwater Horizon spill

Sample Cylinders into Gulf

Sample Cylinders into Gulf – Multicorer sampling operation in Gulf of Mexico on the RV Gyre. (Credit – with permission from: Texas A&M-University Corpus Christi, Sandra Arismendez.)

Scientists publish first analysis of post-spill sediment ecosystem impacts surrounding well head

The deep-sea soft-sediment ecosystem in the immediate area of the 2010’s Deepwater Horizon well head blowout and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will likely take decades to recover from the spill’s impacts, according to a scientific paper reported in the online scientific journal PLoS One.

The paper is the first to give comprehensive results of the spill’s effect on deep-water communities at the base of the Gulf’s food chain, in its soft-bottom muddy habitats, specifically looking at biological composition and chemicals at the same time at the same location.

“This is not yet a complete picture,” said Cynthia Cooksey, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science lead scientist for the spring 2011 cruise to collect additional data from the sites sampled in fall 2010. “We are now in the process of analyzing data collected from a subsequent cruise in the spring of 2011. Those data will not be available for another year, but will also inform how we look at conditions over time.”

“As the principal investigators, we were tasked with determining what impacts might have occurred to the sea floor from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” said Paul Montagna, Ph.D., Endowed Chair for Ecosystems and Modeling at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. “We developed an innovative approach to combine tried and true classical

Processing Core Sample Cylinder from Gulf

Processing Core Sample Cylinder from Gulf – Rick Kalke Harte Research Institute processing multicorer sediment sample aboard the RV Gyre. (Credit – with permission from: Texas A&M-University Corpus Christi, Sandra Arismendez.)

statistical techniques with state of the art mapping technologies to create a map of the footprint of the oil spill.”

“Normally, when we investigate offshore drilling sites, we find pollution within 300 to 600 yards from the site,” said Montagna. “This time it was nearly two miles from the wellhead, with identifiable impacts more than ten miles away. The effect on bottom of the vast underwater plume is something, which until now, no one was able to map. This study shows the devastating effect the spill had on the sea floor itself, and demonstrates the damage to important natural resources.”

“The tremendous biodiversity of meiofauna in the deep-sea area of the Gulf of Mexico we studied has been reduced dramatically,” said Jeff Baguley, Ph.D., University of Nevada, Reno expert on meiofauna, small invertebrates that range in size from 0.042 to 0.300 millimeters in size that live in both marine and fresh water. “Nematode worms have become the dominant species at sites we sampled that were impacted by the oil. So though the overall number of meiofauna may not have changed much, it’s that we’ve lost the incredible biodiversity.”

The oil spill and plume covered almost 360 square miles with the most severe reduction of biological abundance and biodiversity impacting an area about 9 square miles around the wellhead, and moderate effects seen 57 square miles around the wellhead.

The research team, which included members from University of Nevada, Reno, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and representatives from BP, is conducting the research for the Technical Working Group of the NOAA-directed Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Others working on the study with Montagna, Baguley, and Cooksey were NOAA scientists, Ian Hartwell and Jeffrey Hyland.

The PLoS One paper can be found online.

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration supported parts of this study through both its spill response and Natural Resource Damage Assessment operations. 

Contacts:
Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, Cindy McCarrier, 361.825.2336/361.871.0837, Cynthia.McCarrier@tamucc.edu; Gloria Gallardo, 361.825.2427 or 361.331.5093 (cell); Cassandra Hinojosa, 361.825.2337 or 361.658.5829 (cell)

University of Nevada, Reno, Mike Wolterbeek, 775.784.4547, mwolterbeek@unr.edu

NOAA, Ben Sherman/Keeley Belva, 301.713.3066, Ben.Sherman@noaa.gov, Keeley.Belva@noaa.gov