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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Incident Responses for June 2017

Close up of skimming device on side of a boat with oil and boom.

Skimmers come in various designs but all basically work by removing the oil layer from the surface of the water. Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Every month our Emergency Response Division provides scientific expertise and services to the U.S. Coast Guard. Our services include everything from running oil spill trajectories to possible effects on wildlife and fisheries, and estimates on how long the oil may stay in the environment.

Several calls in June required our help to determine areas that might be effected by possible chemical releases. In those incidents, we used our CAMEO Chemicals modeling software to identify areas at risk.

Our Incident News website has information on oil spills and other incidents where we provided scientific support.

Here are some of this month’s responses:


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Science of Oil Spills Training: Apply for Fall 2017

Two people closely examining rocks and seaweed on a shoreline. Image credit: NOAA.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills, and also include a field trip to a local beach to apply newly learned skills. Image credit: NOAA

We are now accepting applications for our next Science of Oil Spills class. The class will run the week of Nov. 13 in Anchorage, Alaska.

The Office of Response and Restoration is a leader in providing scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard in spill response and in training emergency responders.

Our Emergency Response Division created the Science of Oil Spills class –called SOS– for the new and mid-level spill responder to educate them on the fundamentals of spill response. We offer several classes a year and train about 160 students annually.

Science of Oil Spills class topics include:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

Throughout the training, an overarching theme will be answering the five key questions that help guide spill response:

  • What was spilled?
  • Where could it go?
  • What will it affect?
  • What harm could it cause?
  • What can be done to help?

To reinforce the classroom lectures and exercise, the students will also participate in field activities.

We will accept applications for the Anchorage class until Friday, Sept. 8. Applicants will be notified of their acceptance status by Friday, Sept. 29, via email.

To view the topics for the next class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB]. Please understand that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. We try to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences, to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


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Safe Boating and Prevention of Small Oil Spills

Marina with recreational boats. Image credit: NOAA.

Recreational boaters and other small vessel operators can help protect marine life with a few simple precautions aimed at preventing oil from getting into the water. Image credit: NOAA

What does wearing a life jacket have in common with preventing oil spills? Wearing life jackets can save people’s lives; preventing small oil spills helps protect marine life.

National Safe Boating Week is May 22-26. As part of the campaign launch, the National Safe Boating Council, in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard, is encouraging people to wear life jackets to work on May 19. The Coast Guard estimates that over 80 percent of the lives lost to drowning could have been preventing by wearing life jackets.

In addition to protecting themselves and their passengers, recreational boaters and other small vessel operators can help protect marine life with a few simple precautions aimed at preventing oil from getting into the water.

Though each one is small in volume, oil spills from small vessels add up. In Washington State, when you multiply this volume by the thousands of fishing and recreational boats on the water, they make up the largest source of oil pollution in Puget Sound, according to Washington Sea Grant.

“Small oils spills, whether a cup, a gallon or just a few drops, add up to a huge water quality problem; it is death by a thousand tiny cuts. Over time, it all adds up,” said Aaron Barnett, boating specialist at Washington Sea Grant.

Small Spills Prevention Checklist

It’s not difficult to prevent small-vessel oil spills, Washington Sea Grant has put together a checklist for simple maintenance and fueling tips.

Vessel maintenance

  • Tighten bolts on your engine to prevent oil leaks. Bolts can shake loose with engine use.
  • Replace cracked or worn hydraulic lines and fittings before they fail. Lines can wear out from sun and heat exposure or abrasion.
  • Outfit your engine with an oil tray or drip pan. You don’t need anything fancy or expensive; a cookie sheet or paint tray will do the trick.
  • Create your own bilge sock out of oil absorbent pads to prevent oily water discharge. Here’s a helpful how-to guide from Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor Mike Brough.

At the pump

  • Avoid overflows while refueling by knowing the capacity of your tank and leaving some room for fuel expansion.
  • Shut off your bilge pump while refueling – don’t forget to turn it back on when done.
  • Use an absorbent pad or a fuel collar to catch drips. Always keep a stash handy.

Even following these tips, accidents can still happen. When they do it’s important that boaters manage them effectively. Spills should immediately be contained and cleaned up with absorbent pads or boomed to prevent their spread. Notify the Coast Guard and your state spill response office, per federal law, and let the marina or fuel dock staff know about the incident, so they can assist.

To report an oil spill call the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center 800-424-8802.


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NOAA Adding Polar Projections to Arctic ERMA Mapping Tool

Two Steller sea lions. Image credit: NOAA.

Mapping where Steller sea lions gather out of the water is one of the layers that can be added to a map in Arctic ERMA. Image credit: NOAA

The Arctic is one of the most remote regions on the planet but that may change as the sea ice continues to shrink, allowing for more ships, tourism, fishing, and possible oil exploration in the region. More activity also brings the possibility of oil spills and other environmental disasters.

NOAA’s Arctic online environmental mapping tool, called Arctic ERMA, now has polar projection base maps. The new projection maps give a less distorted view than the standard Mercator flat-map perspective. On a flat map, distances near the pole look greater than they really are.

“The polar view/projection takes the distortion into account, and thus the measurement and view are more accurate,” according to Amy Merten, chief of the Spatial Data Branch of the Office of Response and Restoration and chair of the Arctic Council’s working group on emergency prevention, preparedness, and response.

For emergency responders trying to estimate how far an oil spill may be from landfall, the new polar projections are important for preparing response plans. Additionally, the polar projections improve the ability to look at all of the Arctic countries at once, helping with international perspectives and communications, Merten added.

Arctic ERMA’s polar projections make it easier to look at all of the countries and their respective data in a more realistic view, and in the same frame.  For example, in a Mercator map, you can move to Norway on the map but then you cannot see Barrow, Alaska and Vardo, Norway at the same time. With the new polar projections, an emergency responder can see equipment caches in both areas and compare them, as well as plan for moving equipment from one location to another with better accuracy and understanding.

There are more than 500 data layers that can be mapped in Arctic ERMA, including:

Arctic ERMA officially launched in 2009 and is one of eight regional ERMA online mapping tools. The mapping tools integrate both static and real-time data, such as ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, interactive map for environmental disaster response managers. NOAA and the University of New Hampshire developed ERMA with the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Interior. Artic ERMA’s polar projection maps were funded by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Arctic polar projection mao. Image credit: NOAA.

Polar projection map in Arctic ERMA. The ability to choose several polar projections will improve data and mapping accuracy and will increase communications and data sharing with other Arctic nations. Image credit: NOAA


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Clean up spilled oil at all costs? Not always

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Man holding hose spraying water on oiled rocks.

Cleanup worker spraying oiled rocks with high pressure hoses following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. (NOAA)

The images of an oil spill—brown water, blackened beaches, wildlife slicked and sticky—can create such an emotional response that it  leads to the myth that oil is so hazardous it’s worth any and all environmental trade-offs to get it cleaned up.

The outcry to rid oil from the rocky shoreline of Prince William Sound, Alaska, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill led to the use of high-pressure, hot-water washing. While the technique is successful at removing stranded oil, we now know it can damage plants and animals in the treated area directly and indirectly, short-term and long-term.

Activities to clean up oiled coastal salt marshes after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, like flushing with water or raking to remove oil, delayed marsh recovery and exacerbated the loss of oysters, though it was not always possible to separate effects of oiling from effects of response actions.

Lessons learned from decades of responding to oil spills have shown that a haste to clean up a spill may cause additional damage. Part of the job of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration emergency responders is to step back and objectively evaluate the situation.

The perception of potential environmental harm that a spill may cause may be worse than reality, making it critical for responders to communicate a science-based analysis of a spill’s possible harm with affected parties and organizations, according to Jerry Galt, physical oceanographer and pioneer in oil and chemical spill response and modeling.

Gathering accurate information on what natural resources are in the spill area and forecasting where the oil is likely to go, based on currents and weather conditions, will give a realistic picture of the situation, Galt said.

In an effort to improve spill response methods, NOAA Office of Response and Restoration is continually improving the accuracy of its trajectory models and other response tools. In addition, hundreds of emergency responders attend Science of Oil Spills and Science of Chemical Releases classes to learn the latest in spill response planning and analysis.

Spills are always a serious matter, but the coordinated efforts of multiple federal, state and local responders work to minimize the injury during the event, and then work to mitigate the effects after the spill. While images from news footage can paint a picture of huge and permanent devastation, the reality on the ground can be less dire.


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Restoration: The Other Part of Spill Response

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Grass and water at sunset with bridge in background.

From landfill to vibrant tidal marsh, the wetland restoration at Lincoln Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, was funded from multiple oil spill settlements and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This project restored a significant area of coastal wetlands in New York-New Jersey harbor’s Arthur Kill ecosystem. (NOAA)

Typically, during an oil spill or chemical release, media images show emergency responders dressed in protective gear, skimming oil off the ocean’s surface or combing coastal beaches for oiled animals.

As dramatic as they are, those images can leave the impression that cleaning up after a spill is the end of the story. Often the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues working on spills years after response efforts have ended, determining how to restore the environment.

OK, it’s not really a myth we’re busting here, maybe a misconception. Let’s chat about the less visible task of long term restoration after an oil spill.

When a spill happens, there are two tasks for those who caused the spill, clean up the spilled oil or chemical released, and restore the environment.

That first responsibility, cleaning up the mess, is the subject of those media photos. It’s the immediate actions taken to scoop up the oil, clear the beaches, and rescue wildlife. It was not long after the Exxon Valdez spill that a television commercial appeared featuring a liquid dish soap used to wash birds covered in oil. That commercial has become so identified with oil spills, it’s practically the first thing that comes to mind when people start talking about oil spills.

Now, what happens when I ask you to picture long-term restoration after an oil spill? What do you see? Having a hard time picturing it? That’s because restoring the environment takes time, often years. Restoration doesn’t lend itself to immediate imagery.

It may not be the subject of a soap commercial, or be very visible to the public, but it’s the second half of the story after the emergency crews are gone.

So what does restoring the environment after a spill look like? Well it can start with scientists taking samples of an oiled fish and conclude with the construction of new wetlands. The Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program restores natural resources injured during an oil spill, release of hazardous materials, or vessel grounding to fully compensate the public for losses.

To ensure that fish, wildlife, and critical habitats like beaches, wetlands and corals impacted by a spill are restored a specific process is followed that includes:

  • Assess the Injury: Quantify injuries to the environment, including lost recreational uses, by conducting scientific and economic studies
  • Plan the Restoration: Develop a restoration plan that identifies projects and outlines the best methods to restore the impacted environment
  • Hold Polluters Accountable: Ensure that responsible parties pay the costs of assessing injuries and restoring the environment
  • Restore the Environment: Implement projects to restore habitats and resources to the condition they would have been in had the pollution not occurred

NOAA’s job is to not only to restore the environment, but to also evaluate and restore the experience the public lost during an oil spill, like fishing or swimming at the beach. For example, after spilled oil washes on shore, people often can no longer swim, picnic, or play at that beach. Or, there may be fewer or no recreational fishers on a nearby pier. In order to compensate the public for these lost days of enjoying the outdoors NOAA and partners may build restoration projects that improve recreational access to waterways, install boat launches, fishing piers, and hiking trails.

During all this work, it’s important to keep the public informed and to ask for comments and ideas on how an injured area should be restored. Several restoration projects are currently open for public review and comment, read more here.


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Zoos and Aquariums Training for Oil Spill Emergency Response

Bird covered in oil on beach.

An oiled loon on Horseneck Beach from the 2003 Bouchard Barge 120 oil spill. (NOAA)

When an oil spill occurs and photos of injured birds and other wildlife start circulating, there is often an immediate desire to want to help impacted animals.

One group that feels that desire strongly are the people who work at the nation’s accredited zoos and aquariums. For instance, during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) was one of the largest organizations to mobilize volunteers in the Gulf of Mexico. Lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon experience, both good and bad, led the association to launch a large-scale training program to certify members in hazardous response training.

“By participating in a credentialed training program, it provides that extra expertise to our zoo and aquarium professionals that will enable AZA members to become more coordinated and more involved when future environmental disasters arise in their community and throughout the nation,” said Steve Olson, AZA’s vice president of federal relations. “AZA members are uniquely qualified to assist in an oil spill animal response and recovery. They bring a wealth of animal care experience that is unmatched. Not only do they have a passion for helping animals, they bring the practical handling, husbandry and medical experience that would make them invaluable to any response agency. “

The AZA spill response training, taught by the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska and the University of California Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network, includes certification in Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with specific standards for worker safety. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also recently presented information on oil spill response at one of AZA’s training sessions at the Detroit Zoo.

Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas, is one of the AZA accredited members, which has hosted oil spill response training in the past two years.  “As one of the first trainees I feel very strongly that we have the ability, and now the training, to make a difference,” said Diane Olsen, assistant curator at Moody Gardens.

To date, the AZA training program has credentialed over 90 AZA member professionals from over 50 accredited institutions. Those zoo and aquarium professionals are located throughout the country allowing for rapid local or national deployment if a spill occurs.