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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Expanding a Washington River’s Floodplain to Protect Northwest Salmon and Communities

Bridge over industrial waterway in Tacoma and view of Mt. Rainier.

Mt. Rainier looms over the Thea Foss Waterway as it leads out to Commencement Bay, the industrial heart of Tacoma, Washington. Two new restoration projects will make up for the natural resource damages caused by organizations releasing hazardous substances into this and a neighboring waterway. (Photo: Kendrick Hang, Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

From the edge of the Emmons Glacier on Washington’s tallest peak, the scenic White River winds down the mountain, through forest, and joins the Puyallup River before finally reaching the sea at an industrial port in the city of Tacoma.

Here, in the salty waters of Puget Sound’s Commencement Bay, iconic Northwest salmon start their own journey in reverse. These fish head up waterways toward Mt. Rainier, where they were born, where they will spawn, and where they will die.

Recently NOAA and our partners announced a restoration project that will improve the floodplain of the White River for migrating fish. One of Mt. Rainier’s largest rivers and one of Puget Sound’s most important areas for imperiled salmon and steelhead, the White River has been re-routed and re-engineered for longer than a century.

This restoration was made possible by the U.S. Department of Justice’s August 6, 2015 announcement that more than 56 parties have agreed to restore key salmon habitat on the White River. The settlement will also permanently preserve intertidal habitat in Wheeler Osgood Waterway in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay. Fulfilling these restoration projects will resolve their liability for natural resource damages caused by releasing hazardous substances into the bay’s Thea Foss and Wheeler-Osgood Waterways.

Person along the wooded edge of a river in Washington.

One restoration project will set back levees on the White River and widen its previously re-engineered floodplain. This will create better habitat for migrating fish to feed, rest, and spawn, as well as offer improved flood protection for nearby homes and businesses. (NOAA)

The White River project will not only help protect the region’s salmon but also its communities as it sets back levees and widens the floodplain. By restoring fish habitat and providing slower-moving side channels on the river, the proposed project will reopen 121 acres of historic floodplain around the river. Allowing floodwaters more room to flow, this project will also help reduce the risk of flood damage for more than 200 nearby homes and businesses.

The latest project will continue a long legacy of ensuring those responsible for releasing hazardous materials—from industrial chemicals such as PCBs to heavy metals including lead and zinc—into Commencement Bay are held accountable for restoring public natural resources. This is the 20th natural resources settlement related to pollution in Commencement Bay, which is the industrial heart of Tacoma. Through these settlements, more than 350 acres of Puget Sound habitat will have been restored, offsetting impacts to salmon, other fish, and wildlife harmed by pollution in the bay.

Those responsible for the pollution will monitor and adaptively manage the project under a 10-year plan that ensures at least 32.5 acres of the restoration site are inundated by the river and thus accessible to fish. They also will pay more than $1 million toward the natural resource trustees’—including NOAA’s—assessment, oversight and the long-term stewardship costs of maintaining the project over the next 100 years and beyond.


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Opening up the Hudson River for Migrating Fish, One Dam at a Time

This is a post by Carl Alderson of NOAA’s Restoration Center and Lisa Rosman of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Creek passing over a dam in winter.

Water, both frozen and liquid, tumbles over the Orrs Mill Dam on Moodna Creek, a tributary of the Hudson River, in Cornwall, New York. NOAA scientists Lisa Rosman and Carl Alderson are investigating dams and other structures that are potentially preventing fish from migrating up these waterways. (NOAA)

One wintry day near the pre-Civil War–era town of Stockport, New York, NOAA scientists Lisa Rosman and Carl Alderson carefully edged their way down the snowy banks of Claverack Creek.

They pushed past the debris of a nearby maintenance yard, filled with old buses and cars and surrounded by junk covered in snow and ice. A roar of water could be heard just beyond this scene, tumbling out from the remains of a dam. The dam was framed by an assortment of large natural boulders and scattered concrete masses, everything partially blanketed in a snowy white ruin.

As the team surveyed this landscape, a seamless portrait of the Hudson River Valley emerged, making it easy to see how everything was connected. Cameras and video recorders, GPS units and notebooks came flying quickly in and out of warm pockets, with hands glad to be thrust back in after the duo collected the information they sought.

The scientists were scouting this particular creek for features they had spotted in satellite imagery. The purpose? To locate, verify, and catalog blockages to fish movement and migration.

­­They could see that this crumbling structure had been much higher at one time. Something, likely a storm, had sheared off the top portion of the dam. Even with the breach, the damage did not allow the river to flow freely past the dam’s base. So, the question for the team remained: Could migrating fish navigate past what was left of this dam?

Additional research revealed more about this remnant from another time. The Van De Carr Dam once powered a 19th century paper mill and a mattress factory, part of the national transition to water power and the start of the industrial age.

Today, however, NOAA has classified this dam as a barrier for fish trying to follow their instincts and migrate up this tributary of the Hudson River, as their parents and ancestors did before them.

Identifying Barriers

Rosman and Alderson are investigating potential habitat restoration opportunities along 69 tributaries to the Hudson River estuary. The Hudson River is a federal Superfund site spanning almost 200 miles from Hudson Falls in the north to the Battery in New York City.

Beginning in the late 1940s, two General Electric (GE) capacitor manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York, released industrial chemicals known as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) into the Hudson River environment over several decades. The PCB pollution has contaminated Hudson River fish and wildlife, their prey, and their habitats.

The investigation assesses the potential for removing dams and culverts that are preventing fish from migrating up and downstream within the Hudson River Valley. Removing abandoned dams and upgrading culverts will provide fish with access to habitat in tributaries of the Lower Hudson River, upstream of the river’s tidal influence.

Barrier after barrier, this scientific duo determines which dams on Hudson River tributaries still provide services, such as water supply, recreation, or hydroelectric power, and those which no longer serve any meaningful function. Back in the office, they enter the information collected in the field into a database that now includes more than 400 potential barriers to fish, both man-made and natural.

Dams and improperly sized or installed culverts have prevented important migratory fish, such as American shad and river herring, from swimming further upstream to spawn, as well as reducing the passage of the historically far-reaching American eel. In addition, NOAA catalogs the rivers’ natural barriers—steep gradients, rock ledges, waterfalls—to estimate the extent that most fish previously could travel upstream before the presence of dams.

Through a combination of advanced digital mapping software and scouting trips such as the one to Claverack Creek, Alderson and Rosman are identifying potential fish restoration projects. These projects will help make up for the decades when people were either not allowed to fish or retain catches along portions of the Hudson River and were advised against eating its highly polluted fish.

Opening up Rivers and New Opportunities for Collaboration

The data Rosman and Alderson are collecting help support other programs as well. NOAA and other government agencies prioritize removing or updating the barriers that provide the best opportunities for habitat improvement and fish passage. Dams that are not candidates for removal may still benefit from structures such as fish ladders, rock ramps, or bypass channels designed to enhance fish passage over or around the dam.

Already, their efforts have helped communicate the potential for habitat restoration in the region. In October 2014, they shared information about their database of fish barriers at a workshop co-hosted by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYSDEC) water, dam safety, and estuary programs.

Later, at an April 2015 summit in Poughkeepsie, New York, the Hudson River Estuary Program announced the official kick-off of a new grant program that will benefit the river and its migrating fish. The program will award $750,000 to restore tributaries of the Hudson River and improve their resilience (e.g., dam removal and culvert and bridge upgrades) and $800,000 for local stewardship planning.

The grant announcement and collaboration among NOAA, NYSDEC, and several key stakeholders, including the Hudson River Estuary Program, The Nature Conservancy, and Scenic Hudson, signals an era of growing cooperation and interest in bringing back migrating fish to their historic habitats and improving the vitality of the Hudson River and its tributaries.


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How Is an Oil Spill in a River Different Than One in the Ocean?

Boat with boom next to oil mixed with river bank vegetation.

The often complex, vegetated banks of rivers can complicate cleaning up oil spills. (NOAA)

Liquid asphalt in the Ohio River. Slurry oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Diesel in an Alaskan stream. Each of these oil spills was very different from each other, partly because they involved very different types of oils.

But even if the same type of oil were spilled in each case, the results would be just as distinct because of where they occurred—one in a large inland river, one in the open ocean, and one in a small coastal creek.

In many cases, oil tends to float. But just because an oil floats in the saltwater of the Atlantic Ocean doesn’t mean it will float in the constantly moving freshwater of the Mississippi River.

But why does that happen? And what else can we expect to be different when oil spills into a river and not the ocean?

Don’t Be Dense … Blame Density

To answer the first question: When oil floats, it is generally because the oil is less dense than the water it was spilled into. The more salt is dissolved in water, the greater the water’s density. This means that saltwater is denser than freshwater. Very light oils, such as diesel, have low densities and would float in both the salty ocean and freshwater rivers.

However, very heavy oils may sink in a river (but perhaps not on the ocean), which is what happened when an Enbridge pipeline carrying a diluted form of oil from oil sands (tar sands) leaked into Michigan’s flooded Kalamazoo River in 2010. The lighter components of the oil quickly evaporated into the air, leaving the heavier components to drift in the water column and sink to the river bottom. That created a whole slew of new challenges as responders tried new methods of first finding and then cleaning up the difficult-to-access oil.

Going with the Flow

In rivers, going with the flow usually means going downstream. Except when it doesn’t. When might a river’s currents carry spilled oil upstream?

At the mouth of a river, where it meets the ocean, a large incoming tide can enter the river and overwhelm the normal downstream currents. That could potentially carry oil floating on the surface back upstream.

In open areas, such as on the ocean surface, both winds and currents have the potential to direct where spilled oil goes. And along most coasts, wind is what brings spilled oil onto shore.

In rivers, however, the downstream currents usually dominate the overall movement of oil while wind direction often determines which side of the river oil ends up on.

Locks and Other Blocks

Unlike the ocean, rivers sometimes feature structures such as dams, locks, and other barriers that block or slow down the free flow of water. During an oil spill on a river, these structures can also slow down the movement of oil.

That’s a helpful feature for responders who are trying to catch up to and clean up that oil. Frequently, dams and locks cause oil to pool up on the surface next to them. Some of the tools responders use to collect oil from these areas include skimmers, which are devices that remove thin layers of oil from the surface, and sorbent pads and booms, which are large squares and long tubes of special material that absorb oil but not water.

In fact, the banks of the river can constrain spilled oil as well. Because the oil can’t spread as far or thin as in open water, oil slicks can be thicker on rivers, and recovery efforts can be more effective.

One exception is the case of flow-over dams, known as weirs. The water passing over weirs can be very turbulent, causing oil to disperse into the water column. If it is very light oil and there’s not very much, that oil tends not to resurface and form another slick. But sheens may resurface with heavier oils that might be broken up going over a weir but later resurface as the water it is traveling in becomes calmer downstream.

Vegging Out

Oil rings on trees next to a river with boom.

Flooding on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan during the Enbridge pipeline oil spill left a ring of oil around trees and other vegetation after the river returned to its normal level. (NOAA)

Often, plants grow in rivers and line their banks, whereas many parts of the coast are open sandy or rocky beaches, which tend to be easier to clean oil off of than vegetation. (Salt marshes and mangroves being notable oceanic exceptions.) If oil gets past booms, the long floating barriers responders use to prevent the spread of oil, and leaves a coating on plants, then plant cleanup options generally include cutting, burning, treating with chemical shoreline cleaners, or flushing vegetation with low-pressure water.

Plant life actually became an issue during the oil sands spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Because this river was flooded at the time of the spill and later returned to its normal level, oil on the river surface actually became stranded in tree branches along the riverbanks.

Muddying the Waters

Another issue for oil spills in rivers is sediment. Rivers often carry a lot of sediment in their currents. (How do you think the Mississippi got its nickname “Big Muddy”?) That means when oil droplets drift into the water column of a river, the sediment has the potential to stick to the oil droplets. Eventually (depending on how strong-flowing and full of sediment a river is) some of the oil-sediment combination may settle out to the bottom of the river, usually near the river mouth as the water slows down and reaches the ocean.

One notable example is related to an oil spill that happened on the Mississippi River in New Orleans in 2008. The tanker Tintomara collided with Barge DM932, ripping it in half and releasing all of the heavy fuel oil it was carrying. Downstream of where the responders were cleaning up oil, the Army Corps of Engineers was dredging the sediments that build up at the mouth of the Mississippi and an oily sheen appeared in the collected sediment.

Responders suspected the oil from Barge DM932 had mixed with the river sediment and fell to the bottom further downstream as the river neared the Gulf of Mexico.

Learn more about oil spills in rivers at http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/oil-and-chemical-spills/oil-spills/resources/oil-spills-rivers.html.


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Orange Oil Is the New Black

Sorbent pads soaking up orange oil on the surface of a creek.

Even something as pleasant-smelling as orange peel oil can have potentially harmful effects on aquatic life. A view of the spill with some absorbent cleanup materials not far from Orange, New Jersey. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Orange is a common color in oil spill response.

Life jackets, rain gear, and the work vests worn by responders are often orange to make them easier to see. And don’t forget the bright orange U.S. Coast Guard helicopters that may be on scene. Floating booms are often orange for the same reason.

But generally the oil they are responding to is black or another dark color. But recently we had an orange oil spill.

No, the oil wasn’t orange colored; it was actually the oil extracted from orange peels. It is a byproduct of orange juice manufacturing and used as a flavoring and in a variety of fragrances and household cleaners.

On June 15, 2015, about 700 gallons of orange peel oil was spilled into a creek near the Passaic River, which flows into New York harbor. A large rain storm caused a wastewater pump to fail and water backed up into the facility producing the orange oil. The orange oil then was inadvertently pumped out of the facility into the creek.

Crews managed to temporarily dam the creek using sheets of plywood, keeping most of the oil from reaching the river. The spill happened in East Hanover, New Jersey, oddly not far from the city of Orange, New Jersey, (named for King William III of England, also known as William of Orange).

So why do we care about a seemingly harmless (and nice-smelling) product such as orange oil? Edible oils may be less toxic than crude oils, but spills of animal fats and vegetable oils can kill or injure wildlife. They also can end up suffocating aquatic life because microbes in the water take advantage of the temporary feast but in the process use up large amounts of the oxygen dissolved in water, leaving little oxygen for other aquatic creatures to use. This was the case when 1,400 tons of molasses were accidentally released into Honolulu Harbor in 2013, killing a number of fish.

Back to the scenario near Orange, New Jersey: a major compound in orange oil is limonene, which in very high concentrations can be toxic to fish and freshwater plankton. Fortunately, U.S. Coast Guard personnel overseeing the response reported that the responders were able to use absorbent pads to quickly sop up the released oil, which remained far below toxic levels.

Furthermore, any remaining orange oil would likely evaporate or disperse in the water over the course of several days to a couple weeks, leaving behind a sweet-smelling cleanup scene.


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From Building B-17 Bombers to Building Habitat for Fish: The Reshaping of an Industrial Seattle River

Imagine living in as little as two percent of your home and trying to live a normal life. That might leave you with something the size of a half bathroom.

Now imagine it’s a dirty half bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned in years.

Gross, right? As Muckleshoot tribal member Louie Ungaro recently pointed out, that has been roughly the situation for young Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout for several decades as they pass through the Lower Duwamish River in south Seattle, Washington.

Salmon and Steelhead trout, born in freshwater streams and creeks in Washington forests, have to make their way to the Puget Sound and then the ocean through the Duwamish River. However, this section of river has been heavily industrialized and lacks the clean waters, fallen trees, huge boulders, and meandering side channels that would represent a spacious, healthy home for young fish.

Chair of his tribe’s fish commission, Ungaro sent a reminder that the health of this river and his tribe, which has a long history of fishing on the Duwamish and nearby rivers, are closely tied. “We’re no different than this river,” he implored. Yet he was encouraged by the Boeing Company’s recent cleanup and restoration of fish habitat along this Superfund site, a move that he hopes is “just a start.”

The Pace—and Price—of Industry

Starting as far back as the 1870s and stretching well into the twentieth century, the Lower Duwamish River was transformed by people as the burgeoning city of Seattle grew. The river was straightened and dredged, its banks cleared and hardened. Factories and other development lined its banks, while industrial pollution—particularly PCBs—poured into its waters.

More than 40 organizations are potentially responsible for this long-ago pollution that still haunts the river and the fish, birds, and wildlife that call it home. Yet most of those organizations have dragged their feet in cleaning it up and restoring the impacted lands and waters. However, the Boeing Company, a longtime resident of the Lower Duwamish River, has stepped up to collaborate in remaking the river.

Newly restored marsh and riverbank vegetation with protective ropes and fencing on the Duwamish River.

The former site of Boeing’s Plant 2 is now home to five acres of marsh and riverbank habitat, creating a much friendlier shoreline for fish and other wildlife. Protective fencing and ropes attempt to exclude geese from eating the young plants. (NOAA)

Boeing’s history there began in 1936 when it set up shop along 28 acres of the Duwamish. Here, the airplane manufacturer constructed a sprawling building known as Plant 2 where it—with the help of the women nicknamed “Rosie the Riveters”—would eventually assemble 7,000 B-17 bombers for the U.S. government during World War II. The Army Corps of Engineers even took pains to hide this factory from foreign spies by camouflaging its roof “to resemble a hillside neighborhood dotted with homes and trees,” according to Boeing.

But like many of its neighbors along the Duwamish, Boeing’s history left a mark on the river. At the end of 2011, Boeing tore down the aging Plant 2 to prepare for cleanup and restoration along the Duwamish. Working with the City of Seattle, Port of Seattle, and King County, Boeing has already removed the equivalent of thousands of railcars of contaminated sediment from the river bottom and is replacing it with clean sand.

From Rosie the Riveter to Rosie the Restorer

By 2013, a hundred years after the Army Corps of Engineers reshaped this section of the Duwamish from a nine mile estuary into a five mile industrial channel, Boeing had finished its latest transformation of the shoreline. It planted more than 170,000 native wetland plants and grasses here, which are interspersed with large piles of wood anchored to the shore.

Five acres of marsh and riverbank vegetation now line its shores, providing food, shelter, and calmer side channels for young fish to rest and grow as they transition from freshwater to the salty ocean.

Canada geese on an unrestored portion of the Duwamish River shoreline.

Protecting the newly restored shoreline, out of sight to the left, from Canada geese is a challenge to getting the young wetland plants established. Behind the geese, the artificial, rocky shoreline is a stark difference from the adjacent restored portion. (NOAA)

Now the challenge is to keep the Canada geese from eating all of the tender young plants before they have the chance to establish themselves. That is why protective ropes and fencing surround the restoration sites.

Already, biologists are beginning to see a change in the composition of the birds frequenting this portion of the river. Rather than the crows, starlings, and gulls typically associated with areas colonized by humans, birds such as herons and mergansers, a fish-eating duck, are showing up at the restoration sites. Those birds like to eat fish, which offers hope that fish such as salmon and trout are starting to make a comeback as well.

Of course, these efforts are only the beginning. Through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, NOAA looks forward to working with other responsible organizations along the Duwamish River to continue restoring its health, both for people and nature now and in the future.


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On the Chesapeake Bay, Turning Artillery Sites and Landfills into Places for Wildlife

Excavator removes metal debris from the shore of a coastal landfill.

Used from 1972 to 1974, this landfill at Naval Support Facility Indian Head’s site 36 saw more than 57,000 pounds of metal and other materials hauled away as part of its cleanup and restoration. (U.S. Navy)

Roughly 25 miles downstream of Washington, DC, on the Potomac River is a military base known as Naval Support Facility Indian Head. Established in 1890, it is the U.S. Navy’s oldest continuously running ordnance station (ordnance includes artillery and ammunition). In the course of its history, this sprawling 2,500 acre naval installation has served as a research facility, a testing site for artillery, and a manufacturing site for some of the explosive chemical powders used in weapons.

However, as is the case for many other military facilities scattered along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, the land and waters of the Indian Head base became so polluted by the range of military activities—at one point, the Navy used it to test large naval guns by firing projectiles into the Potomac River—that it was designated a Superfund site and slated for cleanup under CERCLA.

Aerial view of Naval Support Facility Indian Head surrounded by water.

Like many other military facilities along the Chesapeake Bay, the land and waters of the Indian Head base became so polluted by the range of military activities that it was designated a Superfund site and slated for cleanup. (U.S. Navy)

But tackling environmental cleanup and restoration in a place with such a long history of explosives makes for unusual challenges.

For example, when the cleanup team needed to take soil or water samples, they often had to call in ordnance clearance specialists to help deal with the dangerous chemicals, guns, rockets, missiles, ordnance, and explosives potentially littering the area.

Juxtaposed against this scene at the base is Mattawoman Creek, a beautiful freshwater tidal creek with abundant wetlands and wildlife adjacent to the military site. Migratory fish such as yellow perch, herring, and shad follow the creek as they travel further inland to reproduce. In addition, many fish use the wetlands as a nursery and source of food. Large, hungry birds such as bald eagles, herons, and egrets flock to the area, as well as recreational fishers eager to cast their lines to the plentiful fish.

Fortunately, a detailed investigation indicated that this natural area has not suffered widespread impacts from pollution at the nearby base. Instead, the investigation directed the base’s cleanup strategy to focus on key sections serving as major pollution sources.

Laying Waste

The Caffee Road Landfill at the base’s Site 11 was such a mix of soil, waste, and debris that it actually extended the shoreline up to 150 feet into Mattawoman Creek. In addition to serving as a landfill for Indian Head, the military used the site to burn waste, and munitions and explosives potentially lay buried in pockets along the shoreline.

Getting this landfill—an ongoing source of pollution—under control needed to accomplish three goals: block contact with the contaminated soil, prevent shoreline erosion, and avoid exposing potential ordnance.

The design for remediating this site included placing a protective soil cover over the landfill and stabilizing the shoreline. Historically, shoreline stabilization has been achieved by positioning large rocks and riprap on the edge of the water, which “hardens” the shoreline and would move the wave energy from the protected area to adjacent areas.

Instead, NOAA and the trustee agencies responsible for the area’s natural resources proposed what is called a “living shoreline.” These hybrid shorelines are constructed habitats designed to mimic the functions of natural shoreline habitats and which incorporate both natural habitat and built infrastructure. They aim to provide the same benefits as nature, such as shoreline stabilization, improved water quality, and wildlife habitat. The project was rounded out by planting marsh shrubs and trees along the shoreline and by seeding and mulching the soil cover on top of the landfill.

All the while during these construction operations, the cleanup team had a trained professional clearing the munitions and explosives to provide safe working conditions as they transformed this dump into a safe place for fish, birds, and wildlife.

The close partnership among several federal and state agencies, including the Navy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Maryland Department of the Environment, and the trustees, was instrumental in successfully and efficiently converting this former landfill into vibrant habitat, resulting in savings of more than $700,000.

Recycling for Wildlife

A similar transformation has occurred at a landfill on the base’s Site 36. This landfill, most likely originally part of Chickamuxen Creek and a nearby wetland, was used from 1972 to 1974 and has been inactive since that time. The fill material dumped into the creek was believed to contain metal casings from mines, bombs, and torpedoes—not exactly normal working conditions.

Cleanup focused on removing scrap metal and potential munitions items from the surface of the landfill and the shoreline. The multi-agency team hauled away more than 57,000 pounds of metal and other materials from the site, with much of it recycled rather than left under the existing soil cover. By taking a common-sense approach to removing this debris, the project managed risk and minimized environmental impacts by maintaining natural habitats, including forests and wetlands, whenever possible, while also ensuring the landfill’s soil cover would control pollution.

While there is still work to be done, progress abounds elsewhere on the naval facility. For example, the multi-agency cleanup team removed creek sediments contaminated with mercury and surrounding floodplain soils to protect and enhance restoration of habitat along a tributary to Mattawoman Creek. The tributary has been blocked off from the main channel to prevent mercury from getting to Mattawoman Creek, but with the mercury gone, there is now potential for opening up the tributary and reconnecting it with the creek.

Naval Support Facility Indian Head occupies a unique place in military history, and thanks to efficient collaboration among federal and state agencies working to clean it up, this locale again provides valuable and healthy habitat for fish, birds, and wildlife along the Chesapeake Bay.


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Five Years After Deepwater Horizon, How Is NOAA Preparing for Future Oil Spills?

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the ninth and final story in a series of stories over the past month looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil in a boat wake on the ocean surface.

Keeping up with emerging technologies and changing energy trends helps us become better prepared for the oil spills of tomorrow, no matter where that may take us. (NOAA)

When the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaska and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil in 1989, the world was a very different place. New laws, regulations, and technologies followed that spill, meaning future oil spills—though they undoubtedly would still occur—would do so in a fundamentally different context.

This was certainly the case by 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig suffered an explosion caused by a well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Tankers transporting oil have become generally safer since 1989 (thanks in part to now-required double hulls), and in 2010, the new frontier in oil production—along with new risks—was located at a wellhead nearly a mile under the ocean surface.

Since that fateful April day in 2010, NOAA has responded to another 400 oil and chemical incidents. Keeping up with emerging technologies and changing energy trends helps us become better prepared for the oil spills of tomorrow, whether they stem from a derailed train carrying particularly flammable oil, a transcontinental pipeline of diluted oil sands, or a cargo ship passing through the Arctic’s icy but increasingly accessible waters.

So how is NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration preparing for future oil spills?

The Bakken Boom

Crude oil production from North Dakota’s Bakken region has more than quadrupled [PDF] since 2010, and responders must be prepared for spills involving this lighter oil (note: not all oils are the same).

Bakken crude oil is highly flammable and evaporates quickly in the open air. Knowing the chemistry of this oil can help guide decisions about how to respond to spills of Bakken oil. As a result, we’ve added Bakken as one of the oil types in ADIOS, our software program which models what happens to spilled oil over time. Now, responders can predict how much oil naturally disperses, evaporates, or remains on the water’s surface using information customized for Bakken’s unique chemistry.

We’ve also been collaborating across the spill response community to boost preparedness for these types of oil spills. Earlier this year, NOAA worked with the National Response Team to teach responders about how to deal with Bakken crude oil spills, with a special emphasis on health and safety.

The increase of Bakken crude poses another challenge to the nation: spills from oil-hauling trains. There are few ways to move Bakken crude from wells in North Dakota to refiners and consumers across the country. To keep up with the demand, producers have turned to rail transport as a quick alternative. In 2010, rail moved less than five million tons of crude petroleum. By 2013, that number had jumped to nearly 40 million.

NOAA typically responds to marine spills, but our scientific experience also proves useful when oil spills into a navigable river, as can happen when a train derails. To help answer response questions for waterways at risk, we’re adding even more data to our tools for spill responders. Ongoing updates to the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), our online mapping tool for environmental response data, illustrate the intersection of railroads and sensitive habitats and species, which might be affected by a spill from a train carrying oil.

Our Neighbor to the North

Oil imports from Canada, where oil sands (also known as tar sands) account for almost all of the country’s oil, have surged. Since 2010 Canadian oil imports have increased more than 40 percent.

Oil sands present another set of unique challenges. This variety is a thick, heavy crude oil (bitumen), which has to be diluted with a thinner type of oil to allow it to flow through a pipeline for transport. The resulting product is known as diluted bitumen, or dilbit.

Because oil sands are a mixture of products, it’s not completely clear how they react in the environment. When this product is released into water, the oils can separate quickly between lighter and heavier parts. As such, responders might have to worry about both lighter components vaporizing into toxic fumes in the air and heavier oil components potentially sinking down into the water column or bottom sediments, becoming more difficult to clean up. This also means that bottom-dwelling organisms may be more vulnerable to spills of oil sands than other types of oils.

As our experts work to assess the impacts from oil sands spills (including the 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill in Michigan), their studies both inform restoration for past spills and help guide response for the next spill. We’ve been working with the response and restoration community around the country to incorporate these lessons into spill response, including at recent meetings of the West Coast Joint Assessment Team and the International Spill Control Organization.

Even Further North

As shrinking summer sea ice opens shipping routes and opportunities for oil and gas production in the Arctic, the risk of an oil spill increases for that region. By 2020, up to 40 million tons per year of oil and gas are expected to travel the Northern Sea route through the Arctic Ocean.

Responding to oil spills in the Arctic will not be easy. Weather can be harsh, even in August. Logistical support is limited, and so is baseline science. Yet in the last five years, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has made leaps in Arctic preparedness. For example, since 2010, we launched Arctic ERMA, a version of our interactive response data mapping tool customized for the region, and released Arctic Ephemeral Data Guidelines, a series of guidelines for collecting high-priority, time-sensitive data in the Arctic after an oil spill. But we still have plenty of work ahead of us.

Ship breaking ice in Arctic waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in Arctic waters. A ship like this would be the likely center of operations for an oil spill in this remote and harsh region. (NOAA)

During a spill, we predict where oil is going, but Arctic conditions change the way oil behaves compared with warmer waters. Cold temperatures make oil more viscous (thick and slow-flowing), and in a spill, oil may be trapped in, on, and under floating sea ice, further complicating predictions of its movement.

We’ve been working to overcome this challenge by improving our models of oil movement and weathering in icy waters and researching response techniques and oil behavior to close gaps in the science. This May, we also find ourselves in a new role as the United States takes chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Amy Merten of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration will chair the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group, where we hope to continue international efforts to boost Arctic spill preparedness.

Expecting the Unexpected

After decades of dealing with oil spills, we know one thing for certain—we have to be ready for anything.

In the last five years, we’ve responded to spills from the mangroves of Bangladesh to the banks of the Ohio River. These spills have involved Bakken crude, oil sands, and hazardous chemicals. They have resulted from well blowouts, leaking pipelines, derailed trains, grounded ships, storms, and more. In fact, one of the largest spills we’ve responded to since Deepwater Horizon involved 224,000 gallons of molasses released into a Hawaiian harbor.

Whatever the situation, it’s our job to provide the best available science for decisions. NOAA has more than 25 years of experience responding to oil spills. Over that time, we have continued to fine-tune our scientific understanding to better protect our coasts from this kind of pollution, a commitment that extends to whatever the next challenge may bring.

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