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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5 Ways the Coast Guard and NOAA Partner

Large ship on reef with small boat beside it.

On September 18, 2003, M/V Kent Reliant grounded at the entrance to San Juan Harbor, Puerto Rico. USCG and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration responded to the incident. (NOAA)

How do the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration work together? There are many ways the two government organizations partner to keep the nation’s coasts and waterways safe for maritime commerce, recreational activities, and wildlife. Here are five:

1. It all began with surveyors and smugglers

Actually, it was an effort to suppress smuggling and collect tariffs that prompted President George Washington to create the Coast Guard Revenue Cutter Service in 1790, launching what would become the U.S. Coast Guard known today. It was President Jefferson’s approval of the surveying of the nation’s coasts in 1807 to promote “lives of our seamen, the interest of our merchants and the benefits to revenue,” that created the nation’s first science agency, which evolved into NOAA.

2. Coast Guard responds to spills; we supply the scientific support

The Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for managing oil and chemical spill clean-up activities. NOAA Office of Response and Restoration provides the science-based expertise and support needed to make informed decisions during emergency responses. Scientific Support Coordinators provide response information for each incident that spill’s characteristics, working closely with the Coast Guard’s federal On-Scene Coordinator. The scientific coordinator can offer models that forecast the movement and behavior of spilled oil, evaluation of the risk to resources, and suggest appropriate clean-up actions.

3. Coast Guard and NOAA Marine Debris Program keep waters clear for navigation

The Coast Guard sits on the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee, of which NOAA is the chair. The committee is a multi-agency body responsible for streamlining the federal government’s efforts to address marine debris. In some circumstances, the Coast Guard helps to locate reported marine debris or address larger items that are hazardous to navigation. For instance, in certain circumstances, the Coast Guard may destroy or sink a hazard to navigation at sea, as was the case with a Japanese vessel in the Gulf of Alaska in March 2011.

4. NOAA and Coast Guard train for oil spills in the Arctic

As Arctic ice contracts, shipping within and across the Arctic, oil and gas exploration, and tourism likely will increase, as will fishing, if fisheries continue migrating north to cooler waters. With more oil-powered activity in the Arctic and potentially out-of-date nautical charts, the region has an increased risk of oil spills. Although the Arctic may have “ice-free” summers, it will remain a difficult place to respond to spills, still facing conditions such as low visibility, mobilized icebergs, and extreme cold. The Office of Response and Restoration typically participates in oil spill response exercises with the Coast Guard.

5. It’s not just spills we partner on, sometimes it’s about birds

The Coast Guard as well as state and local agencies and organizations have been working to address potential pollution threats from a number of abandoned and derelict boats in the Florida. Vessels like these often still have oils and other hazardous materials on board, which can leak into the surrounding waters, posing a threat to public and environmental health and safety. In 2016, the Coast Guard called Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis with an unusual complication in their efforts: A pair of osprey had taken up residence on one of these abandoned vessels. The Coast Guard needed to know what kind of impacts might result from assessing the vessel’s pollution potential and what might be involved in potentially moving the osprey nest, or the vessel, if needed. Davis was able to help save the nest and the planned vessel removal.


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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.

 


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Science of Oil Spills Training: Apply for Summer 2017

Two men talking shoreline in background.

Science of Oil Spills classes help new and mid-level spill responders better understand the scientific principles underlying oil’s fate, behavior, and movement, and how that relates to various aspects of cleanup. The classes also inform responders of considerations to minimize environmental harm and promote recovery during an oil spill. (NOAA)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a summer Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class in Seattle, Washington, June 19-23, 2017.

OR&R will accept applications for the Seattle class until Friday, April 7, 2017. We will notify applicants regarding their application status no later than Friday, April 14, via email.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

SOS training covers:

  • 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.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS 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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Emergency Response and Assessment 40 Years after Argo Merchant

Ship sinking in ocean.

The Argo Merchant spilling its heavy fuel oil southeast of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. (NOAA)

By Robin Garcia

On Dec. 15, 1976, the tanker Argo Merchant ran aground off the coast of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Despite attempts to refloat the tanker, the Argo Merchant split in half in strong winds and high waves, spilling more than 7.5 million gallons of oil. It was the largest oil spill in United States history at the time.

In responding to the grounding and oil spill, the U. S. Coast Guard (USCG) was overwhelmed with competing, and often conflicting, scientific recommendations. The Coast Guard asked NOAA’s recently formed Spilled Oil Research Team to serve as its scientific advisor and unofficial liaison with the scientific community.

As a result of that collaboration, NOAA formed the Hazardous Material Response Division, now the Emergency Response Division (ERD) of the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Scientific Support Coordinators were strategically located across the country. ERD now represents NOAA as the primary scientific support during oil and hazardous chemical spills as indicated in the National Contingency Plan. ERD also provides annual trainings to prepare government and industry responders and planners for future spills.

In the wake of Argo Merchant, trajectory and fate modeling programs were developed to further assist USCG with spill response. OR&R currently has a suite of preparedness, response and assessment tools for oil spills and chemical spills to support responders and planners.

NOAA also created standard methods for damage assessment after oil spills following the Argo Merchant; this activity is now carried out by OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division (ARD). Today, ARD provides environmental protection during cleanup and conducts Natural Resource Damage Assessments. ARD is also a partner in Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program (DARRP) a collaboration among OR&R, NOAA General Counsel, and the National Marine Fisheries Restoration Center.

The sinking of the Argo Merchant was NOAA’s first coordinated oil spill response. Today, the Office of Response and Restoration is a center of expertise in preparing for, responding to, and evaluating threats to coastal environments including oil spills. OR&R is looking back on the 40 years following Argo Merchant this week, highlighting the history of emergency oil spill response and assessment, the advances that have been made and what a response would look like if Argo Merchant ran aground today.

Robin Garcia is the Policy Analyst for the Office of Response and Restoration. She supports congressional and partner outreach for the Emergency Response Division, the Assessment and Restoration Division, and NOAA’s Disaster Response Center.


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Transportation of Crude Oil Along the West Coast

Boats on water

Oil spill cleanup demonstration at Clean Pacific 2015, Vancouver B.C. Credit Pacific States/B.C. Oil Spill Task Force.

By Sarah Brace

The Pacific States/B.C. Oil Spill Task Force has updated its West Coast crude oil transport map. The map depicts the routes of crude traveling by rail, tanker vessel, pipeline and barge across the western states and British Columbia. It also captures the locations of current and proposed facilities, refineries and terminals. The rapid growth in crude by rail transport has highlighted response and preparedness gaps along the rail line.

The task force also tracks the volumes of crude transported across the region. This data is collected on an annual basis and summarized in a report available to the public. The task force continues to track the volumes of crude movement annually to assist in oil spill prevention, preparedness and response across the West Coast.

Map drawing of crude oil routes.

Map of current rail routes, interstate
pipelines and barges transporting crude across the West Coast.

Recently, the task force partnered with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to incorporate its oil spill data into NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps, ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers.

Since 2002, the task force has been collecting data on oil spills in Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii, providing information on the size of spill, location, type of material and substrate (on land or water).

The Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force was formed in 1988 by the governor of Washington and premier of British Columbia, after the oil barge Nestucca collided with its tug along the Washington coast. The following year, the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound led to Alaska, California, and Oregon joining the Task Force. Hawaii became a member in 2001, creating a broad coalition of western Pacific states and British Columbia, united in their efforts to prevent and respond to oil spills across the West Coast.

Sarah Brace is the Executive Coordinator of the Task Force. She leads the Task Force projects, studies and outreach activities focused on spill prevention, preparedness and response across the western States of AK, CA, HI, OR and WA and British Columbia.


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Mallows Bay by Kayak: A Tour of Maryland’s Proposed National Marine Sanctuary, the First in Chesapeake Bay

Parts of wooden ships visible above the water line.

Mallows Bay fleet visible on the water in Mallows Bay. (NOAA)

On the Maryland side of the Potomac River, just east of Washington D.C. and west of Chesapeake Bay, the largest shipwreck fleet in the Western Hemisphere sits partially sunken and decomposing. Following World War I, hundreds of U.S. vessels were sent to Mallows Bay to be scrapped—and to this day, the remains of dozens can still be seen in the shallow waters.

The story of the ships at Mallows Bay begins when the U.S. entered World War I. In April 1917, the country had an adequate number of warships but a shortage of transport vessels, which led President Woodrow Wilson to approve the greatest shipbuilding program in history, with an order for a thousand 300-foot wooden steamships to be built in only 18 months!

Germany would surrender on November 11, 1918.  At this time, the government had already approved funding and paid for 731 of these wooden transport vessels. Despite the war being over, the ship building continued. By September 1919, contractors had delivered 264 steamships to the government but only 195 had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. By this time, the war had ended and the U. S. had no use for the ships.

Four old vessels in water listing.

Wooden ships owned by Western Marine & Salvage tied together in 1925, likely on the Potomac or at Mallows Bay. (Library of Congress: National Photo Company Collection)

In September of 1922, 233 vessels (representing the bulk of the fleet) were sold for $750,000 to the Western Marine and Salvage Company. This was a remarkable price, considering the cost of constructing just one ship had been $1,000,000. The company towed the fleet to an authorized mooring area near Widewater, Virginia to recover the scrap metal.

Poster showing an eagle, ships, and "send the eagle's answer--more ships."

U.S. government poster from World War I time period.

As described by John H. Lienhard in The Wooden Ships of Mallows Bay (University of Houston, College of Engineering):  “By late 1919, 264 wooden steamers were in operation. Most had crossed the Atlantic, but they were slow and leaky. They’d been made obsolete by the new Diesel engines. The idea was to strip them of hardware, burn them down to the waterline, haul them off to a nearby marsh, then burn what was left. Once more it all went wrong—civic protests, problems with blocked shipping lanes, and finally the Great Depression.”

As World War II approached, the threat of war saw the price for scrap metal skyrocket. The U.S. government allocated $200,000 to Bethlehem Steel in the early 1940s to recover over 20,000 tons of iron thought to still be in the wrecks of Mallows Bay. The effort turned out to be cost ineffective. By 1943, Bethlehem Steel terminated the program with little iron recovered and over 100 ship hulks languishing in the bay. So there the vessels sat, rotting away for decades.

In March of 1993, the State of Maryland awarded a grant to a group of researchers to study the effects of these derelict vessels on the environment, and to inventory what vessels remained for historical and archaeological purposes. Over the next two years, the researchers identified 88 wooden ships left over from the original program. Researchers also discovered that the bay was used by Western Marine for more than just these wooden steamships; twelve barges were discovered, as well as a Revolutionary War-era longboat, several 18th century schooners, miscellaneous workboats, and even automobile ferries like the S.S. Accomac. The researchers also discovered that the vessels had created a unique ecosystem in the Bay that supported numerous fish and birds species.

In 2014, Mallows Bay, including the derelict vessels, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Mallows Bay-Widewater Historical and Archaeological District. A community partnership committee was formed to draft the national marine sanctuary nomination when the nomination process was revitalized. The Mallows Bay nomination included support from nearly 150 organizations, agencies, and private citizens. The nomination to have the bay designated as the first National Marine Sanctuary in 20 years was announced by President Obama in 2015.

On July 19, 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sector Maryland North Capitol Region hosted a kayak tour of Mallows Bay in anticipation of its Sanctuary designation. Dr. Susan Langley, the State of Maryland’s Historical Preservation Officer, led the tour. Prior to the start of the tour, Dr. Langley provided an overview of the history of Mallows Bay and explained its unique features and ecological importance.

The primary purpose of the event was to give the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA staff an opportunity to see firsthand how sensitive the environment is, and the risk a potential oil spill could pose to the site. For example, how and where would booms be deployed, where is there access to this site, where could a staging area be established, what would the response priorities be, and how could wildlife be protected?

Brendan Bray and Sammy (Paul) Orlando of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Frank Csulak from the Office of Response and Restoration accompanied the Coast Guard and Dr. Langley on the tour. According to Csulak, “Being able to see these derelict vessels up close and actually touch them was impressive. In addition to the vessels, we enjoyed viewing the large diversity of wildlife, including adult and juvenile American Bald Eagles, herons, egrets, hawks, osprey, turtles, snakes, fish, crabs and submerged aquatic vegetation. Who would have thought such a unique ecological area was just a few river miles downstream of the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C.? Hopefully, there will never be an oil spill that would impact Mallows Bay, but as a result of our tour, the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA are better prepared to respond to such an event.”

ruins of aship above the surface of the water with a kayak passing by.

NOAA’s Frank Csulak and LT David Ruhlig from USCG Sector Maryland North Capitol Region (NCR) kayak near one of the Mallows Bay vessels. (NOAA)

Frank Csulak is a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration. Based in New Jersey, he is the primary scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard for oil and chemical spill planning and response in the Mid-Atlantic region, covering New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.

 


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Abandoned Vessels of Florida’s Forgotten Coast

This is a post by NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis of the Office of Response and Restoration.

Derelict vessel with osprey nest on top of broken mast.

Along Florida’s Forgotten Coast, a pair of osprey had built a nest on an abandoned vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard called in NOAA for assistance as they were trying to remove fuel from that boat with minimal impact to wildlife. (NOAA)

There is a stretch of the Florida Panhandle east of the more heavily developed beach destinations of Destin and Panama City that some refer to as the “Forgotten Coast.” This area has vast tracts of pine forest including large stands of longleaf pine and savanna, towering dunes and nearly undeveloped barrier islands, seemingly endless coastal marsh, and miles and miles of winding shoreline along its expansive bays and coastal rivers.

It is no coincidence that much of the area is undeveloped; reserves, wildlife refuges, and other federal and state protected lands and waters occupy a large percentage of the area.

However, this flattened landscape of wild greens and blues is occasionally punctuated by the unnatural texture of human influence of a certain type: rusting hulls, broken masts, boats half-submerged in the muddy waters. It was one of these abandoned and decaying vessels that brought me to Florida’s Forgotten Coast.

Birds-Eye View of a Problem

The U.S. Coast Guard as well as state and local agencies and organizations have been working to address potential pollution threats from a number of abandoned and derelict boats sprinkled throughout this region. Vessels like these often still have oils and other hazardous materials on board, which can leak into the surrounding waters, posing a threat to public and environmental health and safety.

Half-sunken boat surrounded by oil containment boom.

Even a small release of marine fuel in sensitive environmental areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Many abandoned vessels still have fuel and other hazardous materials on board. (NOAA)

As a Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, I provide assistance to the Coast Guard in their pollution response efforts. This support often involves analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment.

In this case, the Coast Guard called me with an unusual complication in their efforts: A pair of osprey had taken up residence on one of these abandoned vessels. Their nest of sticks was perched atop the ship’s mast, now bent at a precarious 45 degree angle. The Coast Guard needed to know what kind of impacts might result from assessing the vessel’s pollution potential and what might be involved in potentially moving the osprey nest, or the vessel, if needed.

As a federal agency, the Coast Guard must adhere to federal statutes that protect wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Essentially, these statutes require the Coast Guard (or other person or organization) to consider what effect their actions might have on protected species, in this case, osprey.

This is where we Scientific Support Coordinators often can provide some assistance.  A large part of our support in this area involves coordinating with the “trustee” agencies responsible for the stewardship of the relevant natural resources.

My challenge is evaluating the scientific and technical aspects of the planned action (disturbing the chicks and their parents or possibly moving the osprey nest in order to remove the vessel), weighing possible effects of those actions against threats posed by no action, and communicating all of that in an intelligible way to trustees, stakeholders, and the agency undertaking the action in question.

Fortunately, the pollution assessment and removal in the case of the osprey-inhabited vessel proved very straightforward and the abandoned vessels project got off to a good start.

Abandoned But Not Forgotten

Aerial view of abandoned vessels with osprey nest on mast, located in Florida waterway.

NOAA’s Adam Davis helped the U.S. Coast Guard with a project spanning more than 230 miles of Florida coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. (NOAA)

Over the course of eight weeks, I was fortunate to contribute in a number of ways to this project. For example, I joined several aerial overflights of the coast from Panama City to St. Marks, Florida, and participated in numerous boat rides throughout the Apalachicola Bay watershed to identify, assess, and craft strategies for pollution removal from abandoned vessels.

Ultimately, the project spanned more than 230 miles of coastline and resulted in the removal of hundreds of gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials from six abandoned vessels and one shoreline facility. Most of the fuel was removed from vessels located in highly sensitive and valuable habitats, such as those located along the Jackson and Brother’s Rivers.

Portions of both of these rivers are located within the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve and are designated as critical habitat for Gulf sturgeon, a federally threatened species of fish that, like salmon, migrates between rivers and the ocean.

Even a small release of marine fuel in areas like this can have significant negative environmental consequences. Impacts can be even more severe if they occur during a time when species are most vulnerable, such as when actively spawning, breeding, or nesting.  In addition, spills in these otherwise pristine, protected areas can have negative consequences for important commercial and recreational activities that rely upon the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

People on boats on a Florida coastal river.

When NOAA supports the Coast Guard with abandoned vessels work, our efforts often involve analyzing which natural resources are vulnerable to pollution and the potential fate and effects of oil or chemicals released into the environment. These Coast Guard boats are equipped to remove fuel from abandoned vessels. (NOAA)

While we’d like to be able to remove the entire vessels every time, which can be navigation hazards and create marine debris, funding options are often limited for abandoned vessels. However, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 enables us to remove the hazardous materials on board and reduce that environmental threat.

I find working in the field directly alongside my Coast Guard colleagues to be invaluable. Inevitably, I come away from these experiences having learned a bit more and increased my appreciation for the uniqueness of both the people and the place. Hopefully, that makes me even better prepared to work with them in the future—and in the beautiful and remote wilds of the Forgotten Coast.

NOAA's Adam Davis, left, on a Coast Guard boat removing oil from a derelict vessel.Adam Davis serves as NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for U.S. Coast Guard District 8 and NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. He graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham before entering the United States Army where he served as a nuclear, biological, and chemical operations specialist. Upon completing his tour in the Army, Adam returned home and completed a second degree in environmental science at the University of West Florida. He comes with a strong background in federal emergency and disaster response and has worked on a wide range of contaminant and environmental issues. He considers himself very fortunate to be a part of NOAA and a resident of the Gulf Coast, where he and his family enjoy the great food, culture, and natural beauty of the coast.