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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Assessing the Impacts from Deepwater Horizon

Beach with grass.

Beach habitat was part of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement. Image Credit: NOAA

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster spread spilled oil deep into the ocean’s depths and along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, compromising the complex ecosystem and local economies. The response and the natural resources damage assessment were the largest in the nation’s history.

Ecosystems are comprised of biological, physical, and chemical components, interconnected to form a community. What happens in one location has serious, cascading effects on organisms in other parts of the ecosystem. The Gulf’s coastal wetlands and estuaries support the entire Gulf ecosystem, providing food, shelter, and nursery grounds for a variety of animals. The open waters of the Gulf also provides habitat for fish, shrimp, shellfish, sea turtles, birds, and mammals.

Evaluating impacts from the spill

Considering these interdependencies during the assessment process was important. At the same time, it was impossible to test or examine every injured bird, every sickened dolphin, or every area contaminated with oil. That was cost prohibitive and scientifically impossible.

Instead, NOAA scientists evaluated representative samples of natural resources, habitats, ecological communities, ecosystem processes and linkages.

To do that, scientists made 20,000 trips to the field, to obtain 100,000 environmental samples that yielded 15 million records. This data collection and subsequent series of scientific studies formed the basis for the natural resources damage assessment that led to the largest civil settlement in federal history.

A short summary of the natural resource injuries:

Marshes injured

  • Plant cover and vegetation mass reduced along 350 to 720 miles of shoreline
  • Amphipods, periwinkles, shrimp, forage fish, red drum, fiddler crabs, insects killed

Harvestable oysters lost

  • 4 – 8.3 billion harvestable oysters lost

Birds, fish, shellfish, sea turtles, and dolphins killed

  • Between 51,000 to 84,000 birds killed
  • Between 56,000 to 166,000 small juvenile sea turtles killed
  • Up to 51% decrease in Barataria Bay dolphin population
  • An estimated 2 – 5 trillion newly hatched fish were killed

Rare corals and red crabs impacted

  • Throughout an area about 400 to 700 square miles around the wellhead

Recreational opportunities lost

  • About $527 – $859 million in lost recreation such as boating, fishing, and beach going
Top fish shows no oil bottom fish shows oil.

The top picture is a red drum control fish that was not exposed to oil, while the bottom red drum fish was exposed to Deepwater Horizon oil for 36 hours. The bottom fish developed excess fluid around the heart and other developmental deformities. This is an example of the many scientific studies conducted for the natural resources damage assessment. Image Credit: NOAA/Abt

What we shared

Those studies not only documented the injuries, but also helped the entire scientific community understand the effects of oil spills on nature and our communities. All of the scientific studies, including over 70 peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as all the data collected for the studies, are available to the public and the scientific community. Additionally, our environmental response management software allows anyone to download the data from a scientific study, and then see that data on a map.

We will be publishing new guidance documents regarding sea turtles and marine mammals by the end of 2017. These guides compile best practices and lessons learned and will expedite natural resources damage assessment procedures in the future.

Read more about Deepwater Horizon and the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and partners in responding to the spill, documenting the environmental damage, and holding BP accountable for restoring injured resources:

 

Tom Brosnan, Lisa DiPinto, and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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Deepwater Horizon: Response in the Midst of an Historic Crisis

Tractor with trailers on beach.

Cleanup crews in Pensacola Beach, Florida, try to remove oil from the sand in November 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that severely injured the environment also directly affected the seafood trade and tourism economies of five Gulf states. Image Credit: NOAA

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill began on April 20, 2010, with a blowout of BP’s Macondo drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the death of 11 men, the spill resulted in the largest mobilization of resources addressing an environmental emergency in the history of the United States.

The size of the spill required the Emergency Response Division to refine tracking subsurface oil, flowrate calculations, and long-term oil transport modeling. Data and information management became a paramount issue. NOAA’s web-based environmental management mapping tool proved invaluable in tracking and sharing data across the many teams and command posts.

With only 12 full time responders and about 120 NOAA staff nationally, the size and complexity of the incident taxed the spill team’s capacity to respond. NOAA recruited retired staff and contractors to provide additional emergency support, along with scientists from across the nation and internationally.

Other NOAA programs provided critical services in the field, on ships, aircraft, and in regional laboratories, weather forecast offices, and regional command posts. As the response grew, staffing the various missions required extraordinary interagency coordination.

Overall, several thousand NOAA staff worked on spill response and damage assessment activities. Seven NOAA ships—39 percent of the NOAA fleet—conducted cruises with missions as diverse as seafood safety monitoring, wellhead monitoring, and detecting subsurface oil. Five NOAA aircraft flew over 773 flight hours to track the oil spill and to measure air quality impacts.

Challenges faced with Deepwater Horizon

Forecasting the oil’s movement: How would the Loop Current effect the oil’s potential to spread to the Florida Keys and beyond? To answer that staff worked 24-7 modeling where the oil might spread in an effort to help defuse the public’s concern that oil would rapidly travel around Florida and oil shorelines along the Atlantic seaboard. After more than a month of daily mapping, overflights, and satellite analyses, our data showed no recoverable oil in the area, and the threat of oil spreading by the Loop Current diminished.

Calculating how much oil spilled and where it went:

Estimating the size of an oil spill is difficult, and determining the volume spilled from this leaking wellhead over a mile deep was even more challenging. Federal scientists and engineers worked with experts from universities on interagency teams to calculate the flow rate and total volume of oil spilled.

Another interagency team, led by the U. S. Geological Survey, NOAA, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology developed a tool called the Oil Budget Calculator to determine what happened to the oil. Working with these experts and agencies, NOAA was able to estimate the amount spilled, and how much oil was chemically dispersed, burned, and recovered by skimmers.

NOAA scientists also studied how much oil naturally evaporated and dispersed, sank to the sea floor, or trapped in shoreline sediments. Other studies determined how long it took the oil to degrade in those different environments.

While dispersant use reduced the amount of surface and shoreline oiling, and reduced marsh impacts, dispersants likely did increase impacts to some species during sensitive life stages that live in the water column and the deep ocean. The use of dispersants is under review.

Infographic about Deepwater Horizon.

Statistical information about Deepwater Horizon. Image Credit: NOAA

Quickly communicating the science of the situation including:

The public demanded answers fast, and social media rapidly took over as a primary tool to voice their concerns. We responded with continual updates through social media and on our website and blog. Still, keeping ahead of misconceptions and misinformation about the spill proved challenging. The lesson learned is that we can’t underestimate social media interest.

In addition to responding to the public’s need for accurate information, NOAA had to coordinate with universities and other academics to and quickly leverage existing research on an active oil spill. The size and multi-month aspect of the spill generated huge academic interest, but also meant that scientists were mobilizing and conducting field activities in the middle of an active response.

Lessons Learned

The list of lessons learned during the response continues to grow and those lessons are not limited to science. Organizational, administrative, policy, and outreach challenges were also significant considering the size, scope, and complexity of the response.

After nearly 30 years, the Exxon Valdez spill studies continue in an effort to understand the impacts and recovery in Prince William Sound. Given that timeline as a guide, NOAA expects Deepwater Horizon studies to continue for decades.

It will take that research and the perspective of time to understand the overall effects of the spill and response actions on the Gulf ecosystem and the communities that depend on a healthy coast.

 

Read more about Deepwater Horizon and the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and partners in responding to the spill, documenting the environmental damage, and holding BP accountable for restoring injured resources:

Doug Helton and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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Restoring an Urban Dump Near Baltimore

Brown reeds with creek.

Reeds cover large portions of the wetlands. These areas will be restored through proposed methods such as changing the water flow and using chemical control. (Credit: NOAA)

Baltimore can be defined as much by its waterways as its skyscrapers. It’s connected to water through the Inner Harbor, its famous crab cakes, cargo and cruise ships, and its prominent location in the Chesapeake Bay.

West of the city, well-preserved Patapsco Valley State Park extends along 32 miles of the Patapsco River, encompassing 16,043 acres and eight developed recreational areas. Now, in nearby Rosedale, there is an exciting project to reclaim hundreds of acres of a special coastal area formerly used as an urban industrial wasteland.

The 68th Street Dump Site is a 239-acre swath of land, 118 acres of which was once the site of seven landfills, where industrial solvents, paints, and automobile tires were among the polluting substances left behind. The landfills operated from the 1950s to the early 1970s before closing and leaving behind toxic waste. The Environmental Protection Agency designated the area a Superfund site in 2000.

In the summer of 2008, EPA removed contaminated surface soils, containers, gas cylinders, empty drums, and batteries from the site. The actions immediately reduced the human health and ecological risks posed by surface contamination and debris to on-site workers, trespassers, and wildlife.

Despite the contamination and degraded state of the land, federal and state governments, as well as the local community recognized the value in restoring the 118-acres because of its proximity to important local waterways.

The 68th Street Dump site is adjacent to the Back River, with several tributaries, partially tidal, that traverse the site, including Herring Run, Redhouse Run, and Moores Run. The low salinity upper reaches of the Chesapeak Bay, like the Back River, are critical areas for a healthy bay, according to Simeon Hahn, regional resource coordinator with the Office of Response and Restoration in the Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.

“Migratory fish like river herring, striped bass, and white and yellow perch require these habitats for spawning and juvenile development. As the name implies spawning still occurs in Herring Run,” Hahn said. “They also provide refuge for many other bay species like the important forage fish, killifish, and silversides that are eaten by striped bass, croaker, spot, weakfish and others. Even blue crabs and shrimp are there at times.”

Areas with large population centers, like Baltimore, present even bigger problems than just cleaning up and restoring contaminated sites. Blighted areas like the 68th Street Dump can lead to higher crime rates, lower property values, weakened local economies, and deny the public access to natural areas.

Aerial view of Baltimore with rivers.

68th Street Dump site was once the site of seven landfills. The blue outlined area shows the site. This aerial view was created using NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application® (Credit NOAA).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as its co-trustees—the Department of the Interior and the State of Maryland—have been involved in developing restoration projects to compensate for the natural resource injuries that occurred from hazardous substance releases at this site.

NOAA, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and EPA coordinated with the Urban Water Federal Partnership on site cleanup, restoration, and reuse of the 68th Street area. Reforestation, tidal wetland restoration, stream restoration, and potential public recreational access were incorporated into the cleanup plan for the site.

​That will provide direct benefits to local water quality and contribute regionally to Chesapeake Bay restoration objectives. The Urban Water Federal partners work together in the same way other local organizations have invested in the 68th Street restoration. The Back River Restoration Committee  has done a tremendous job of collecting the tons of trash that would enter the Bay from Herring Run, according to Hahn.

“Without this effort, the trash would move down the Chesapeake and into the oceans and cause the numerous negative impacts plastics and other debris cause to aquatic life and even to humans,” Hahn said.

NOAA worked with co-trustees and the responsible parties to include these activities in the cleanup and restoration plan.

 

ERMA® is an online mapping tool that integrates both static and real-time data, such as Environmental Sensitivity Index maps, ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision makers.

 


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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 assist in keeping the project moving forward and the vessel was eventually removed from the Florida Panhandle.


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Sea Urchins Battle to Save Hawaii Coral Reef

Tiny spikey sea urchins in palm of a hand.

Tiny sea urchin released in Kaneohe Bay to combat invasive algae. (NOAA)

Can tiny sea urchins save a Hawaiian coral reef? In Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay, with a little help from scientists, it appears they can.

Kaneohe Bay has been plagued for decades by two species of invasive algae that blanket the native coral reefs, blocking the sun. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and partners developed two methods to destroy the invaders, vacuuming them up, and releasing hungry native sea urchins to munch them away.

Since the urchin program started in 2011, hundreds of thousands of baby Hawaiian collector sea urchins (Tripneustes gratilla) have been released into targeted areas of the bay to gorge on the algae invaders. Although native to the bay, the collector sea urchin population was too low to battle the invasive algae. Using funds from a ship grounding a decade earlier, officials developed a sea urchin hatchery.

The State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, the Nature Conservancy, and NOAA created the Kaneohe Bay restoration plan from the settlement of the 2005 grounding of the ship M/V Cape Flattery on the coral reefs south of Oahu. The grounding, and response efforts to free the ship, injured 19.5 acres of coral.

Despite the injuries, the reef began recovering on its own. Rather than mess with that natural recovery, NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources began restoring the coral reefs in Kaneohe Bay.

NOAA Fisheries has a video on the creation of the sea urchin hatchery, as well as details on the success of the sea urchin releases.

Divers try to deposit 1-3 urchins per meter in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. (NOAA)

Divers try to deposit 1-3 urchins per meter in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. (NOAA)

NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000; however, this project fell under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damaged reefs in the following articles:

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?


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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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Restoration of an Injured Caribbean Coral Reef

Broken coral on ocean floor.

A coral cache location where fractured corals were protected prior to reef reattachment. NOAA

The waters surrounding the Puerto Rico archipelago are known for the diversity and beauty of the coral reefs. Those reefs are also under great pressure from population density, land uses, and shipping traffic.

On Oct.  27, 2009 the tanker Port Stewart grounded in coral reef habitat on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico near the entrance to Yabucoa Channel. The tanker was carrying 7 million gallons of oil. Local efforts freed the ship the same day it grounded without an oil spill but both the grounding and removal process caused extensive injury to the reef.

Nearly 93 percent of Puerto Rico’s coral reefs are rated as threatened, with 84 percent at high risk and among the most threatened in the Caribbean. The Port Stewart incident directly destroyed about 512 square meters (about 5,551 square feet) of the living coral reef. The injured habitat had a diverse community of soft corals (octocorals), sponges, and hard corals (scleractinian), including Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources officials have been working on a restoration plan for the area, which is now available for public comment. The period for comments ends Feb. 10, 2017.

When a reef is injured it’s important to take emergency restoration actions to salvage as many of the corals as possible. Following the grounding work began to triage corals and plan emergency restoration which lasted through 2010. This included surveying and mapping the area affected by the incident and salvaging as many living corals as possible. Emergency restoration efforts are designed to meet most of the actions needed to revive the injured reef.

Scuba diver underwater with string and plastic pipe grid.

Broken corals were draped on a floating coral array frame in order to grow bigger. Divers attached Acropora coral fragments, one of many coral types affected by the grounding. NOAA

In the Port Stewart case that included salvaging scleractinian corals, the hard reef-building animals that create skeletons under their skin. The skeletons are made from calcium carbonate and protect the coral animals and offer a base that other coral can attach themselves to, creating the reef community. The actions of emergency crews were able to save about 1,000 corals.

Scientists have monitored injured reef for the past six years and consider restoration efforts successful. According to monitoring reports, survivorship of reattached corals is comparable to that of naturally occurring corals in the area.

NOAA has the responsibility to conserve coral reef ecosystems under the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000. You can read more about how NOAA is working to restore damages reefs in the following articles:

Restoring a Coral Reef Hit by Tanker in Puerto Rico

NOAA and Partners Work Quickly to Save Corals Hit by Catamaran in Puerto Rico

How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs

How to Restore a Damaged Coral Reef

How Do Oil Spills Affect Coral Reefs?

The Ship M/V Jireh Runs Aground a Coral Reef in Puerto Rico