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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Accidents on a Flooded Lower Mississippi River Keep NOAA Busy with a Rash of Spills

Damaged barge on the Mississippi River.

A barge carrying slurry oil being pushed by the towing vessel Amy Francis hit the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge, Jan. 21, 2016. The barge reportedly has a maximum potential of more than 1 million gallons of slurry oil on board. (U.S. Coast Guard)

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Donna Roberts.

Did you know that oil spills occur every day in U.S. waters? Rivers bustling with ship traffic, such as the Mississippi, are no exception to this rule.

In the past few weeks, we’ve been involved with quite a few accidents involving vessels carrying oil and chemicals on the Lower Mississippi River.

These river accidents coincided with high water and swift currents. Despite safeguards for vessel traffic put in place by the U.S. Coast Guard, the river conditions resulted in ships colliding, hitting bridges and ground, and breaking away from their towing vessels. One unlucky railroad bridge in Vicksburg, Mississippi, has been hit by vessels five times already this year.

Even now, the NOAA River Forecast Center reports that the Lower Mississippi is experiencing moderate flood conditions. It’s difficult to navigate a river with a tow of barges at any flow—and extremely challenging when the flow is high and fast. In spite of everyone’s best efforts, under conditions like these, accidents can and do still happen, and investigations are ongoing into the precise causes.

Luckily, most of the incidents that have occurred were relatively minor, resulted in no injuries to vessel crews, and all spills received immediate responses from state and federal agencies. Still, when oil or chemicals spill into rivers, we know that they differ from spills in the ocean or along coasts, and therefore present different challenges for spill responders.

Here are just a few of the dozen or so spills and near-spills we know of and which have been keeping our spill modelers, chemists, and Scientific Support Coordinators busy over the past few weeks.

January 21, 2016: A barge being towed by the UTV Amy Frances struck the Natchez Bridge, where Highway 84 crosses over the Lower Mississippi River between Mississippi and Louisiana, in the vicinity of Mile Marker 363. As a result, two of the barge’s tanks were damaged, spilling slurry oil, which our chemical lab confirmed was denser than water. That means this oil sinks.

In the wake of this oil spill, one of our Scientific Support Coordinators helped survey the river to detect sunken oil. Given the river’s very fast and turbulent water at the time, we think any oil released from the damaged tanks was immediately broken into small droplets and carried downstream while also sinking below the river surface. Any oil that reached the bottom was probably mixed with or buried by the sand moving downstream near the river bottom. This is because rivers that move a lot of water also move a lot of sediment.

In addition, we provided information on the expected fate and effects of the barge’s spilled slurry oil and on the animals and habitats that could be at risk.

Workers on a river edge pump oil from a damaged barge.

Response crews remove oil from the damaged MM-46 barge, Jan. 23, 2016, on the Mississippi River. Crews estimate that approximately 76,000 gallons of clarified oil mixture is still unaccounted for. Crews continue to take soundings of the damaged barge tank to determine the amount spilled while assessment teams work to locate missing product. (U.S. Coast Guard)

January 25, 2016: Just a few days later, the Coast Guard called on us for advice related to a barge containing liquid urea ammonium nitrate (liquid fertilizer), which sank south of Valewood, Mississippi, at Mile Marker 501 on the Mississippi River. Side-scan sonar indicates the barge is upside-down on the river bottom, approximately 80 feet down.

Given the position and water pressure, we believe the chemical cargo stored on the barge was likely released into the river. The chemical is heavier than water and will mix quickly into the water column. Because elevated levels of ammonia can affect aquatic life, our focus was on predicting and tracking where the chemical would go downriver and what would happen to it. Salvage efforts for the barge itself continue.

January 26, 2016: The next day, two vessel tows collided upriver of New Orleans, Louisiana, near Mile Marker 130 on the Lower Mississippi River. The collision capsized one of two barges carrying caustic soda, or sodium hydroxide. We provided the Coast Guard with an initial chemical hazard assessment for this chemical, which is a strong base. The release of a large enough quantity of sodium hydroxide could raise the pH of the water around it, posing a risk to local fish and other aquatic life nearby. The barge is secure, but righting it is difficult in the swift currents. No pollution release has been reported to date.

Science for Spills of All Kinds

During these kinds of spills, we have to be ready to provide the same round-the-clock, science-based support to the Coast Guard and other agencies as big spills like the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

For example, if a chemical has spilled into a river, we need to know where it’s going to go, what’s going to happen to it, and what, if any, species will be harmed by it. To help answer the “where’s it going?” question, our response specialists use the spill trajectory tool, GNOME, to predict the possible route the pollutant might follow.

To better understand the pollutant and its possible effects, we use software tools such as CAMEO Chemicals to provide information about the chemical’s properties, toxicity, and behavior as it is diluted by the river water. Our Chemical Aquatic Fate and Effects (CAFE) database contains information on the effects of thousands of chemicals, oils, and dispersants on aquatic life.

The Mississippi River and its floodplain are home to a diverse population of living things. On the Lower Mississippi, there may be as many as 60 separate species of mussel. To protect vulnerable species, we use our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps and data to report what animals or habitats could be at risk, particularly those that are threatened or endangered. Keeping responders and the public safe and minimizing environmental harm are two of our top priorities during any spill, no matter the size.

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts is a writer for the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Her work supports the OR&R website and the Environmental Sensitivity Index mapping program.


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What Do We Know Today About Microbeads and Microplastics in the Ocean?

Plastic microbeads visible in toothpaste on a toothbrush.

Microbeads are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic added to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. They can pass through wastewater treatment processes and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life. (NOAA)

Almost four years ago, I was surprised to find out about the presence of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products, such as exfoliating face cleansers and some types of toothpaste.

The problem with these tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic is that once they are washed down the drain, they escape being filtered by wastewater treatment processes, allowing them to enter the ocean and Great Lakes where they could absorb toxic chemicals in the environment and be ingested by animal life.

Microbeads are actually not a recent problem; according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about fifty years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients with the same purpose in these products. But even in 2012, this issue was still relatively unknown, with an abundance of products containing plastic microbeads on the market and not a lot of awareness on the part of consumers.

Microbeads, Macro-attention

For several years, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been working with researchers that are investigating issues relating to microbeads in our marine environment. In recent years, the issue has received a fair amount of attention in the media and elsewhere.

As a result of increasing overall awareness of the problem, many companies that use microbeads in their products have been phasing them out voluntarily. On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 [PDF], banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.

The law was met with a lot of support, including from the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group who commented during the act’s approval process, which said:

“Solid, plastic microbeads are used in personal care cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties. Research by independent scientists and nongovernmental organizations show that microbeads from all types of industrial uses are miniscule contributors to marine plastic debris; cosmetic microbeads are a tiny fraction of that. At the same time, our member companies take very seriously their role as environmental stewards of their products. As a result, companies have voluntarily committed to replace solid plastic microbeads. We look forward to this important bipartisan legislation making its way to President Obama’s desk and being signed into law.”

Under the Microscope

Tiny bits of microplastics litter a sandy patch of beach.

Microplastics, which include microbeads, are less than 5 millimeters long (roughly the size of a sesame seed). Most microplastic in the ocean actually ends up there after breaking down from bigger pieces of plastic on beaches. (NOAA)

After I originally learned about microbeads in cosmetic products, I discussed the issue with Dr. Joel Baker, Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science at the University of Washington Tacoma and the Science Director of the Center for Urban Waters.

At the time, he was leading a project for the NOAA Marine Debris Program focused on detecting microplastics in the marine environment. Microplastics, which include microbeads, are minute pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long, or about the size of a sesame seed. More recently, he has conducted a study, “Quantification of Marine Microplastics in the Surface Waters of the Gulf of Alaska,” that examined the quantity and distribution of microplastics at specific locations in Alaskan waters over time.

Following the signing of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, I checked back in with Dr. Baker to get his thoughts on the issue now. Four years ago, he had told me, “While we don’t yet understand the impacts of microplastics to aquatic organisms, we do know that releasing persistent materials into the ocean will result in ever-increasing concentrations of marine debris.”

Speaking to him now, while Dr. Baker sees the attention given to microbeads in health and beauty products over the last few years as a good way to raise awareness about plastics in the ocean, he cautions that there still is not enough known about the damage that these extremely small particles cause. He further points out that while certainly not insignificant, they represent a very small percentage of total microplastic debris in the ocean.

We need more research to be able to measure accurately the presence of smaller microplastics, including microbeads, in the ocean. While Dr. Baker and his colleagues have developed a manual on laboratory methods for extracting microplastics from water samples, the methods do not yet detect the smallest particles such as the microbeads that exist in some health and beauty products.

Breaking Down the Issues

In addition, Dr. Baker pointed out to me that microbeads are not the largest source of marine plastic or even microplastics. “Most plastic in the ocean is from beach plastics that break down and improper disposal of trash,” he said. Cosmetic microbeads are much smaller, and are considered primary microplastics [PDF], as opposed to secondary microplastics, which are the result of larger pieces of plastic breaking down into smaller pieces.

While Dr. Baker found encouraging the news that we’ll be stopping one of the many ways plastic reaches the ocean, he emphasized there are plenty more that will require a lot of effort. He suggested that more attention needs to be paid to the abundance of plastic bags that end up in the ocean, which he feels represents a larger part of the plastic marine debris problem.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program strives to learn more about the impacts of marine microplastics. In addition to Dr. Baker’s work, the program currently is supporting microplastic research projects that include, but aren’t limited to, measuring microplastics in the marine environment; the presence of microplastics in different geographical regions, such as the coastal mid-Atlantic region and national park beaches; examining juvenile fishes to determine if they are ingesting microplastic; and the effects of microplastics in aquatic food chains.

For more information on these issues, you also can refer to a UNEP 2014 update on plastic debris in the ocean [PDF].


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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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When Boats Don’t Float: From Sunken Wrecks to Abandoned Ships

Derelict boat in a Gulf marsh.

Ships end up wrecked or abandoned for many reasons and can cause a variety of environmental and economic issues. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands of vessels like this one needed to be scrapped or salvaged in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

The waterways and coastlines of the United States are an important national resource, supporting jobs and providing views and recreation. However, the past century of maritime commerce, recreation, and even warfare has left a legacy of thousands of sunken, abandoned, and derelict vessels along our coasts, rivers, and lakes.

Some of these sunken shipwrecks are large commercial and military vessels such as the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; the Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes; and the recent tragic loss of the 790 foot cargo ship El Faro and its crew off the Bahamas.

These large vessels may be environmental threats because of their cargoes, munitions, and fuel, but many also are designated as submerged cultural resources—part of our maritime heritage. Some even serve as memorials or national historic landmarks. Unless they are pollution hazards, or shallow enough to be threats to navigation or become dive sites, most are largely forgotten and left undisturbed in their deep, watery resting sites.

But another class of wrecks, abandoned and derelict boats, are a highly visible problem in almost every U.S. port and waterway. Some vessels are dilapidated but still afloat, while others are left stranded on shorelines, or hidden just below the surface of the water. These vessels can have significant impacts on the coastal environment and economy, including oil pollution, marine debris, and wildlife entrapment. They become hazards to navigation, illegal release points for waste oils and hazardous materials, and general threats to public health and safety.

Large rusted out ship in shallow water surrounded by corals.

Some shipwrecks, like this one stranded among coral in American Samoa, can become threats to marine life and people. (NOAA)

Most derelict and abandoned vessels are the result of chronic processes—rot and rust and deterioration from lack of maintenance or economic obsolescence—with vessels slowly worsening until they sink or become too expensive to repair, and around that point are abandoned.

Others are mothballed or are awaiting repair or dismantling. If the owners can’t afford moorage and repairs, or if the costs to dismantle the ship exceed the value of the scrap, the owners often dump the boat and disappear. Many vessels end up sinking at moorings, becoming partially submerged in intertidal areas, or stranding on shorelines after their moorings fail. These vessels typically lack insurance, have little value, and have insolvent or absentee owners, a problematic and expensive combination.

Another source of abandoned vessels comes from major natural disasters. After large hurricanes, coastal storms, and tsunamis, a large number of vessels of varying sizes, conditions, and types may be damaged or set adrift in coastal waters. For example, approximately 3,500 commercial vessels and countless recreational vessels needed to be salvaged or scrapped after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. And remember the empty squid boat that drifted across the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami?

NOAA’s interests in this wide range of lost or neglected ships include our roles as scientific advisers to the U.S. Coast Guard, as stewards of marine living and cultural resources (which extends to when these resources are threatened by pollution as well), and as the nation’s chart maker to ensure that wrecks are properly marked for safe navigation.

This week we’re taking a deeper dive into the many, varied, and, at times, overlooked issues surrounding the wrecks and abandoned vessels dotting U.S. waters. As recent events have shown, such as in a recently discovered leaking wreck in Lake Erie and a rusted tugboat left to rot in Seattle, this issue isn’t going away.

First, check out our infographic below exploring the different threats from wrecked and abandoned ships and a gallery of photos highlighting some examples of these ships, both famous and ordinary. UPDATE 11/16/2015: Take a look at the stories featured during this deep dive:

Illustration showing a sunken, abandonedship sticking out of the water close to shore, leaking oil, damaging habitat, posing a hazard to navigation, and creating marine debris on shore.

Sunken and abandoned ships can cause a lot of potential damage to the environment and the economy. (NOAA)


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Stepping on Board the Most Eerie, Neglected Ship I Had Ever Seen

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s LTJG Rachel Pryor, Northwest Regional Response Officer.

Before Friday, October 9, 2015, I had never set foot on an abandoned ship. Or for that matter, any other manmade structure so neglected that trees were growing out of it.

But on that day, I was invited to accompany three members of the U.S. Coast Guard here in Seattle, Washington, to investigate a tugboat which was reported to be abandoned and only four inches away from sinking. After a quick glance at the rusting, eerie hulk barely afloat in a ship canal, my bets were on it being abandoned too.

Once at the docks, we met pollution responders from the State of Washington and a local salvage company. After taking stock of the neglected vessel and its surrounding conditions, we boarded the vessel and began conducting an investigation. The Coast Guard inspected the engine room first, where they measured how much water currently was flooding the tug’s engine room. Then, they made note of any hazardous materials nested in cupboards and on shelves—large industrial batteries, paint cans, or lubricants—that would require special disposal.

My favorite part was rummaging through the galley, captain’s quarters, and the bridge. The living areas on board the vessel appeared ransacked. For starters, the helm had been removed and copper wires from the fire panel were missing.

However, we were looking for any information on the layout of the vessel in order to answer a number of questions. How many fuel tanks were on board and how large were they? Where were the ballast tanks? Who was the last owner or when was the last log entry in the book recording the engine’s oil changes?

Unfortunately, our search that day turned up empty, aside from a cluttered mess of clothes, a half-used bottle of aspirin, some books, and a pile of empty beer cans resembling bones in an open graveyard.

Our only clues leading to who owned this boat were a chalkboard message left to the owner by a shipmate and a left-behind DVD from the movie rental kiosk company Redbox. The movie was Couples Retreat, which was released in 2009, suggesting someone previously on board had a soft spot for romantic comedies and now owes Redbox a sizable bill for this dollar-per-day rental.

The last moorage payment the dock facility received for this boat was in 2008. Since then, the vessel has been slowly withering away and nature is creeping in. Trees and moss grow freely in cracks and crevices, eating away at the ship’s structure.

While the Coast Guard will pay for the salvage company to pump the water out of the engine room and fix the leak to keep the vessel from sinking, they do not have the funds or jurisdiction to get rid of the derelict tug. The problem of abandoned vessels is a recurring, expensive, and polluting one, which a NOAA colleague also learned firsthand:

“These neglected ships often pose significant threats to fish, wildlife, and nearby habitat, in addition to becoming eyesores and hazards to navigation. Derelict vessels are a challenge to deal with properly because of ownership accountability issues, potential chemical and oil contamination, and the high cost of salvage and disposal. Only limited funds are available to deal with these types of vessels before they start sinking.”

And, tied to a pier in Seattle, yet another decaying vessel will remain haunted by the remnants of those who abandoned it and will continue to haunt our waterways as well.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for a special series in early November when we’ll be diving deeper into the issues of sunken, abandoned, and derelict vessels—covering everything from when they become maritime heritage sites to how we deal with those that turn into polluting eyesores.

Woman in hard hat next to a tree on a boat.

LTJG Rachel Pryor and a tree (right) growing on a derelict vessel.

NOAA Corps Officer LTJG Rachel Pryor has been with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division as an Assistant Scientific Support Coordinator since the start of 2015. Her primary role is to support the West Coast Scientific Support Coordinators in responding to oil discharge and hazardous material spills.


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Who Pays for Oil Spills?

This is a post by Kate Clark, Acting Chief of Staff with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Oiled boom and marsh in Louisiana.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 states that those responsible for releasing oil and other hazardous materials pay for all costs associated with the cleanup operations, as well as the assessment of environmental impacts and necessary restoration. (U.S. Coast Guard)

After every major oil spill, one question comes up again and again: Who is going to pay for this mess?

While the American public and the environment pay the ultimate price (metaphorically speaking), the polluter most often foots the bill for cleanup, response, and restoration after oil spills.

In sum: You break it, you buy it. But our unspoiled coasts are priceless, and we would rather protect—or at least minimize impacts to—them as much as possible. Which means federal dollars are invested in ensuring top-notch experts are ready to act when oil spills do strike. (Stay tuned for more on that.)

So, Who Pays to Clean up an Oil Spill?

When an oil spill occurs, there are very clear rules about who pays for the direct response activities, the cost of assessing environmental damages, and implementing the necessary restoration.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, one legacy of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, spells out that those responsible for the pollution pay for all costs associated with the cleanup operations. However, similar to a car accident, insurance companies aren’t going to start writing checks without first looking at the circumstances.

But time is of the essence when oil hits the water, so oil companies and transporting vessels are required to have plans in place to respond immediately. In the rare instances when insurance companies investigate the details of legal (and hence, monetary) responsibility and hesitate to pay additional costs, the U.S. Coast Guard is able to set up an immediate source of funding for federal and state agencies and tribes who support the oil spill cleanup, which pays for their contributions to the response.

If the polluter is ultimately deemed liable for the spill, then they reimburse all expenses to the U.S. Coast Guard. Meaning the polluter pays for the cost of the oil spilled.

What About Restoration After Oil Spills?

Well, what about the environmental impacts left behind after the cleanup ends and everyone goes home? Does the American public pay to restore the animals and plants harmed by the spill?

Scientist leans over a boat to retrieve a dead Kemp's ridley sea turtle from the water.

It takes an average of four years to reach a settlement for environmental damages and then begin restoration after an oil spill. As a result, our job is not only to enforce pollution regulations but to ensure the right type and amount of restoration is achieved. (NOAA)

Nope. Again, the Oil Pollution Act states that parties that release hazardous materials and oil into the environment are responsible not only for the cost of cleaning up the release, but also for restoring any “injuries” (harm) to natural resources that result.

As the primary federal steward (“trustee”) for coastal animals and habitat, NOAA is responsible for ensuring the restoration of coastal resources in at least two specific cases.

First, for coastal resources harmed by releases of hazardous materials (e.g., oil and chemicals) and second, for national marine sanctuary resources harmed by physical impacts (e.g., when a ship grounds on coral reefs in a marine sanctuary).

But What if Polluters Don’t Have to Pay for Everything?

It is possible, though extremely rare, that a polluter can be found not to be liable (e.g., the pollution was caused by an act of war) or the polluter can reach its limit of liability under the law.

So, does the money for cleanup and restoration then come from American taxpayers?

Nope. In these cases, the costs are then covered by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. This fund accrues from taxes on most domestically produced and imported oil. The oil companies, often those responsible for spills, are paying into this fund.

When a spill occurs, those involved in the response, cleanup, and damage assessment can access these funds if the polluter is unknown, unwilling, unable, or not liable for paying the spill’s full costs. For response activities, the fund will cover costs associated with preventing (in the case of a grounded ship that hasn’t released oil yet), minimizing, mitigating, or cleaning up an oil spill.

For natural resource damage assessment, the fund will cover costs associated with assessing an area’s natural resource damages, restoring the natural resources, and compensating the public for the lost use of the affected resources.

Of course, polluters aren’t always eager to accept liability, and accurately assessing environmental damages can take time. In fact, it takes an average of four years to reach a settlement for these damages and then begin restoration after an oil spill. As a result, our job is not only to enforce pollution regulations but to ensure the right type and amount of restoration is achieved.

That means, once again, dollars from polluters are essentially paying for oil spills.

So, the Public Doesn’t Pay for Anything?

Well, okay. The same as with your local fire department, public tax dollars are spent developing a highly trained group of professional emergency response and restoration experts. The more prepared we are to respond when an oil spill happens, the sooner a community can recover, environmentally and economically, from these unfortunate events.

When we aren’t providing direct support to an oil spill (or other marine pollution event), NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is hard at work training ourselves (and others) and developing tools and best practices for emergency response and assessment of impacts to natural resources.

Better Safe (and Prepared) Than Sorry

Oil spills can happen at any time of day and any time of year (including holidays). We have to be ready at any time to bring our scientific understanding of how oil behaves in the environment, where it might go, what it might impact, what can be done to address it, and what restoration may be needed.

And we think being prepared before a spill happens is a worthy investment.

Kate Clark is the Acting Chief of Staff for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. For nearly 12 years she has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has also managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.


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Restoration Efforts Hatch Hope for Endangered Seabirds on California’s Channel Islands

This is a post by Jennifer Boyce, biologist with NOAA’s Restoration Center and Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

Santa Barbara Island is a world apart. Only one square mile in area, it is the smallest island in the Channel Islands National Park, located off the coast of Southern California and lone dwelling place for some unique species of animals and plants.

The island has no land predators, which makes it a haven for seabirds. But human threats to seabirds, including industrial pollution and introduced species, have left their mark even on this haven. Seabird populations began dropping as pollution thinned their eggshells to the breaking point and exotic plants replaced their native nesting habitat.

So imagine the excitement when biologists recently discovered the first ever nests of the rare and threatened Scripps’s Murrelet among two areas restored on the island for their benefit.

A petite, black-and-white seabird, the Scripps’s Murrelet also is threatened by predators introduced to its breeding colonies and by oil spills. While Santa Barbara Island has the largest colony of Scripps’s Murrelet in the United States, the State of California listed this bird as a threatened species [PDF] in 2004 and it currently is a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (under a previous name, Xantus’s Murrelet).

Hatching a Better Home

Close up of a murrelet chick's head.

This newly hatched chick was born at Landing Cove, a habitat restoration area on Santa Barbara Island. Its birth gives hope to a threatened species of seabird, the Scripps’s Murrelet. (Andrew Yamagiwa, California Institute of Environmental Studies)

Each spring, murrelets lay one or two eggs in crevices and burrows beneath Santa Barbara Island’s native shrubs. They need the structure and cover provided by native plant communities to protect their nests. Unfortunately, the native shrubs on Santa Barbara Island have been decimated for decades by introduced grazers. Ranchers used to graze sheep on the island, inadvertently bringing non-native plants with them. These and other grazers allowed the non-native plants to proliferate and prevent the few remaining patches of native vegetation from recolonizing the island.

Since 2006, NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program has been restoring this habitat for murrelets and other seabirds on Santa Barbara Island, caring for the thousands of native plants they have placed along its dry slopes. Uncovering two nests in two different restoration plots this spring means the project has reached a major milestone.

The older of the two restoration plots where eggs were found, Landing Cove was first planted with native shrubs in December 2008. It can take several years for the shrubs to mature enough to become suitable seabird nesting habitat. One egg was discovered there—on Earth Day, of all days—under a large native shrub planted during restoration efforts. Then, just this week, biologists confirmed that this egg had in fact hatched into a healthy murrelet chick.

The second restored area, Beacon Hill, was planted more recently in 2012, giving biologists both a thrill and surprise to find a second murrelet nest under a native bush planted as part of the project. These nests are a testament to all of the hard work of scientists, restoration experts, and volunteers over the last ten years.

More Than One Way to Break an Egg

Funding to restore these threatened seabirds actually originates in events dating more than half a century earlier.

From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, millions of pounds of the pesticide DDT and the industrial chemicals known as PCBs were discharged into ocean waters off the southern California coast. Most of the DDT originated from the Montrose Chemical Corporation manufacturing plant located in Torrance, California.

DDT released into the ocean near California’s Palos Verdes shelf spread through the food chain, eventually reaching seabirds and causing thinning in their eggs laid on the Channel Islands. The eggshells became so thin that when the adults would sit on the eggs to warm them they would break.

In 2001, following a lengthy period of litigation, NOAA and other federal and state agencies reached a settlement with the responsible parties, establishing the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program. The program is working to restore populations of these rare seabirds and their habitat in the Channel Islands.

Restoration Efforts Taking Flight

Adult murrelet with a chick.

Scripps’s Murrelets only breed on islands off California and Mexico, and their limited time on land creates a short window of opportunity for restoration efforts. (Gaby Keeler, California Institute of Environmental Studies)

A member of the auk family (which includes Puffins), Scripps’s Murrelets take the term “seabird” to new limits. Murrelets spend almost their entire lives at sea, only coming to land to lay their eggs and hatch their young. Their chicks live up to being a seabird as well, spending only two days on the island before tumbling into the ocean to join their parents—leaving before they can even fly.

These small birds only breed on islands off California and Mexico, and their limited time on land creates a short window of opportunity for restoration efforts.

One of the goals of the Santa Barbara Island restoration project is to remove the non-native plants at selected areas identified as high quality nesting habitat. Biologists are restoring these areas by then planting native species with the help of lots of volunteers.

This work is by no means easy. To date, over 30,000 plants have been put into the ground. All of the native plants in the project are grown from seed on the island, and growing a mature plant takes six to eight months. One of the challenges to growing these plants is that Santa Barbara is a desert island with no natural water source. All the water needed for raising the native plants must be transported by a National Park Service boat, and moved onto the island by crane in large 400 gallon tanks.

A permanent nursery, which employs water-saving techniques, was constructed on the island to reduce the amount of water that needs to be sent to the island. Recently a drip irrigation system also has been installed at the restoration sites and is greatly improving plant survivorship while reducing water needs.

The two nests found this spring are great signs that the restoration efforts are successful and helping to restore this endangered seabird and others to this unique island. We look forward to finding many more nests in the future. In the meantime, check out this video detailing our efforts to restore seabird habitat on Santa Barbara Island:

Jennifer BoyceJennifer Boyce works for the NOAA Restoration Center, based in Long Beach, California. Jennifer serves as the NOAA trustee on several oil spill restoration Trustee Councils throughout California and is the Program Manager for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

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