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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Post Hurricane Sandy, NOAA Aids Hazardous Spill Cleanup in New Jersey and New York

Oil sheen is visible on the waters of Arthur Kill on the border of New Jersey and New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Oil sheen is visible on the waters of Arthur Kill on the border of New Jersey and New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

[UPDATED NOVEMBER 6, 2012] Hurricane Sandy’s extreme weather conditions—80 to 90 mph winds and sea levels more than 14 feet above normal—spread oil, hazardous materials, and debris across waterways and industrial port areas along the Mid Atlantic. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is working with the U.S. Coast Guard and affected facilities to reduce the impacts of this pollution in coastal New York and New Jersey.

We have several Scientific Support Coordinators and information management specialists on scene at the incident command post on Staten Island, N.Y.

Since the pollution response began, we have been dispatching observers in helicopters with the Coast Guard to survey the resulting oil sheens on the water surface in Arthur Kill, N.J./N.Y. This is in support of the response to a significant spill at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, N.J., as well as for the cleanup and assessment of several small spills of diesel fuel, biodiesel, and various other petroleum products scattered throughout northern New Jersey’s refinery areas.

One of the challenges facing communities after a devastating weather event is information management. One tool we have developed for this purpose is ERMA, an online mapping tool which integrates and synthesizes various types of environmental, geographic, and operational data. This provides a central information hub for all individuals involved in an incident, improves communication and coordination among responders, and supplies resource managers with the information necessary to make faster and better informed decisions.

ERMA has now been adopted as the official common operational platform for the Hurricane Sandy pollution response, and we have sent additional GIS specialists to the command post.

Species and Habitats at Risk

The most sensitive habitats in the area are salt marshes, which are often highly productive and are important wildlife habitat and nursery areas for fish and shellfish. Though thin sheens contain little oil, wind and high water levels after the storm could push the diesel deep into the marsh, where it could persist and contaminate sediments. Because marshes are damaged easily during cleanup operations, spill response actions will have to take into account all of these considerations.

In addition, diesel spills can kill the many small invertebrates at the base of the food chain which live in tidal flats and salt marshes if they are exposed to a high enough concentration. Resident marsh fishes, which include bay anchovy, killifish, and silversides, are the fish most at risk because they are the least mobile and occupy shallow habitats. Many species of heron nest in the nearby inland marshes, some of the last remaining marshlands in Staten Island. Swimming and diving birds, such as Canada geese and cormorants, are also vulnerable to having their feathers coated by the floating oil, and all waterfowl have the potential to consume oil while feeding.

Based on the risks to species and habitats from both oil and cleanup, we weigh the science carefully before making spill response recommendations to the Coast Guard.

Tracking the Spilled Oil

Responders face an oily debris field in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy. Nov. 2, 2012.

Responders face an oily debris field in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy. Nov. 2, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Because no two oils are alike, we train aerial observers to evaluate the character and extent of oil spilled on the water. NOAA performs these aerial surveys, or overflights, of spilled oil like in Arthur Kill to determine the status of the oil’s source and to track where wind and waves are moving spilled oil while also weathering it. The movement of wind and waves, along with sunlight, works to break down oil into its chemical components. This changes the appearance, size, and location of oil, and in return, can change how animals and plants interact with the oil.

When spilled on water, diesel oil spreads very quickly to a thin film. However, diesel has high levels of toxic components which dissolve fairly readily into the water column, posing threats to the organisms living there. Biodiesel can coat animals that come into contact with it, but it breaks down up to four times more quickly than conventional diesel. At the same time, this biodegradation could cause potential fish kills by using up large amounts of oxygen in the water, especially in shallow areas.

Look for photos, maps, and updates on pollution-related response efforts at IncidentNews.

Check the Superstorm Sandy CrisisMap for aggregated information from NOAA, FEMA, and other sources on weather alerts and observations; storm surge and flood water data; aerial damage assessment imagery; and the locations of power outages, food and gas in New Jersey, and emergency shelters.


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A DDT Legacy and the Road to Recovery in California

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

Effects of DDT on bird eggs.

On display at the National Museum of American History, you can see the effects of DDT on a bird egg (right). Credit: Kari Bluff, Creative Commons.

If you ask the earlier Baby Boomer generation about DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), they might recall images of this chemical being sprayed in their neighborhoods right where they were playing.

DDT was first considered a wonder chemical by many for its use against disease-carrying insects and agricultural pests, prompting a Nobel Prize for its discovery. DDT was widely used as a pesticide beginning in the 1940s, until concerned biologists led by Rachel Carson, documented its harmful effects on birds, other wildlife, and possibly human health.

Another trait of DDT is that once released, it stays in the environment for a very long time.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally banned its use in 1972. However, releases of this chemical were widespread by the time it was banned.

The story in southern California, however, is a little different.  A DDT manufacturing company called the Montrose Chemical Corporation, located in Torrance, Calif., had a permit to release their DDT waste through an outfall pipe that led to the ocean nearby. Other factories in the area were manufacturing PCBs, another harmful chemical, and releasing their waste through the same outfall pipe at White Point.

Millions of pounds* later, local and federal governments determined that the release of these chemicals was a violation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation Liability Act (CERCLA), which is also known as Superfund. After 10 years of litigation and data collection, a settlement agreement was reached, and funds were made available to clean up the contamination site at the bottom of the ocean along Palos Verdes Shelf and to restore resources harmed from the pollution within the Southern California Bight.

One year after a settlement was reached, in 2001, the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP) was formed to oversee restoration of resources harmed by DDT and PCBs including Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, seabirds, fishing, and fish habitat. This year marks the 10 year anniversary for the restoration program, and there is plenty to celebrate. At www.montroserestoration.noaa.gov, you can find the program’s restoration accomplishments, photos, wildlife webcams, and the latest updates from the program’s trustee council. Relive some highlights of successful restoration milestones of the program over the last decade, and see what projects MSRP is proposing in the Draft Phase 2 Restoration Plan released for public comment this month.

A larger symbol of the hope for recovery here manifests itself in the film Return Flight: Restoring the Bald Eagle to the Channel Islands, directed by the Filmmakers Collaborative SF. This film captures the spirit of biologists, partners, volunteers, and concerned citizens working to secure a biological legacy for the Bald Eagle in southern California despite the chemical legacy of DDT.

You can watch the short film here:

*Correction: Previously, this incorrectly stated “hundreds of millions of tons,” not pounds, of PCBs and DDT waste.

Above photo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives license.

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr.

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.