Thousands of oil spills happen every year, and most pollution cases don’t make the news. But when there’s a major oil spill or pollutant found in the water, you hear about it. Local, state, and federal government agencies rush to clean up the mess. In many cases, after a few days or weeks, it’s out of the spotlight. This is just the beginning of the story, however. It can take years or decades for waterways to recover from pollution. NOAA is just one of the federal government agencies tasked with settling in for the long haul. Its role is to use science to figure out exactly what damage has been done so that ecosystems can be restored.
Cleaning Up Urban Coastal Waterways
Protecting the health of the ocean often starts on land. Plastic trash and other garbage that isn’t properly disposed often makes its way to the ocean. Fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals can be released from industrial sites into rivers and the ocean. Pollution that starts on land can have significant and lasting impacts not only on the environment but also on the fish, wildlife, and people who live in and along affected waterways. Pollution makes humans less healthy, decreases their quality of life, lowers property values, and weakens local economies.
As an example, urban pollution in Baltimore, Maryland, has been tough on the Chesapeake Bay and on the humans who live nearby. One place in the Chesapeake Bay region where harmful debris and pollution comes from is a former landfill site outside of the city. From the 1950s to the 1970s, commercial and industrial waste, including solvents, paints, waste oils, and tires, were dumped in seven former landfills close to wetlands and streams in Rosedale, Maryland. These streams empty into rivers that end in the Chesapeake Bay.
Cleanup at the site started in 2008, and it’s still ongoing. NOAA research helped secure $3.1 million in a legal settlement to fund these projects. Scientists studied the site and helped develop projects to restore contaminated soil and water like racks that will collect trash floating downstream. Other initiatives include invasive species control, wetlands enhancement, and stream restoration.
Cleaning Up Great Lakes Superfund Sites
The Great Lakes are sometimes called America’s “Third Coast,” and NOAA works to promote the health of this coast, too. Just as they do in coastal waters that feed into the ocean, NOAA scientists work to understand and repair damages to waters that feed into the Great Lakes.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated sites outside of Duluth, Minnesota, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as Superfund sites because of hazardous waste flowing through the St. Louis and Sheboygan rivers, respectively. A Superfund designation lets the EPA oversee clean up of these sites with funding from those responsible for the damage to the environment.
High levels of industrial chemicals in the Sheboygan mean residents can’t eat fish from the river, keeping local recreational fishers away. In the waters of the St. Louis River, outside of Duluth, fishers are put off by visible chemical sheen and oil blooms on the water. Swimming and boating are also discouraged.
NOAA science is helping to change that, getting boaters, fishers, and swimmers back in healthier waters. Testing for contaminants and abnormalities in water quality, sediments, fish, and wildlife in the Sheboygan River, in part, led to a settlement. The settlement, in turns, provides millions of dollars in funds for restoration projects to preserve fish habitat and increase recreational access to Lake Michigan.
NOAA also collaborated with Minnesota to develop restoration plans for the St. Louis River site. These plans will improve habitat, remove invasive species, promote native species, and increase access for fishers and boaters. Part of the plan is to restore wild rice to the site, which will also provide cultural education opportunities for local communities in and around Duluth that communicate both the importance of wild rice to the health of the St. Louis River estuary and the cultural traditions of the native people.
Cleaning Up Ocean & Coastal Waters
Images of oiled ocean waters and coasts — and the animal and human communities living there — are, sadly, familiar to many. Immediate response in the wake of a large oil spill brings many state and federal agencies together to minimize the impact. But the ecological effects of a spill are lasting, and the needed restoration work can take years. NOAA scientists record damages when a spill happens to inform long-term restoration efforts.
In 2003, a barge hit a shoal in Buzzards Bay, offshore of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The collision tore a gash in the barge’s hull that released nearly 100 thousand gallons of heating fuel, which spread along 100 miles of coastline. Thousands of birds died, and shellfish beds were closed for up to six months. NOAA surveyed the coast and its wildlife to measure the damage after the spill.
In 2016, a pipe transporting oil from the seafloor to the surface off the coast of Louisiana leaked more than 80 thousand gallons into the Gulf of Mexico. This time, NOAA scientists used satellite and observations from aircraft to document the spread of the oil and its impacts on fish, invertebrates, birds, and dolphins in the open ocean.
Both of these oil spill cases reached settlements in 2018 — $13.3 million for Buzzards Bay and $3.6 million for the Gulf of Mexico spill. These funds are used to restore the environment to its state before the spill. For example, in Buzzards Bay, protection of nesting habitat is planned to increase populations of affected birds. Projects to restore shellfish and increase recreational access for the public are underway.
Restoring Ocean and Coastal Waters
Ocean and coastal waters face many threats, including marine debris, industrial pollution, and oil spills. Pollution means that fish can’t be eaten, people can’t enjoy the beach, and local economies take a hit. NOAA scientists help make sure that damage to these invaluable resources is understood so that effective plans to restore their health can be carried out, even when it takes years or decades. From East to Gulf Coast and West to “Third” Coast, NOAA science leads to cleaner and safer ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters.