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Pribilof Islands Cleanup

NOAA Restoration Portal Web Site

Contaminants in the Environment iconContaminants in the Environment

work at tulalip streambed

Researchers at the Tulalip restoration site, near Seattle, Washington, looked for and examined contamination in benthic invertebrates.

Contaminants can impact natural resources, public health, and the economy. Most contaminants enter the environment from industrial and commercial facilities; oil and chemical spills; non-point sources such as roads, parking lots, and storm drains; and wastewater treatment plants and sewage systems. Many hazardous waste sites and industrial facilities have been contaminated for decades and continue to impact the environment.

Pollutants that resist breakdown and accumulate in the food chain are of greatest concern because they are consumed or absorbed by fish and wildlife, which in turn are consumed by humans. The chemical contamination of sediments continues to affect large coastal areas, threaten human health, and reduce the economic well-being of regions that depend on a healthy coastal environment.

NOAA’s Trustee Role

Debris found at Wildcat Landfill

Trace metals leaching through groundwater from Wildcat Landfill (shown here) near Dover, Delaware, resulted in contaminated sediment and surface waters. NOAA worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and co-trustees beginning in 1988 to clean up this site. Injured wetlands along the St. Jones River are now restored as a result of these efforts.

NOAA acts as a trustee for coastal and marine resources under the authority of the Clean Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. In addition, the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP) identifies the Department of Commerce as the primary federal trustee for protecting and restoring coastal resources affected by oil or hazardous materials. The NCP also describes NOAA’s role in providing scientific support during response activities and participating in domestic and international planning and response activities.

Finally, the Estuary Restoration Act, the National Coastal Monitoring Act, the National Contaminated Sediment Assessment and Management Act, and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act authorize NOAA to conduct research, develop bioassessment techniques, assess contaminant status and trends, and monitor coastal environmental quality.

taking samples

Scientists take samples from the Delaware River in Philadelphia using a sediment grab sampler known as a "petit ponar."

As part of NOAA’s responsibilities as a natural resource trustee, NOS response and restoration experts evaluate and address contaminants in the coastal environment. When contaminants threaten or harm aquatic species, make them unsafe to eat, or degrade their habitat, NOS experts work with partners to evaluate risks and injuries, develop strategies to reduce contaminant loads, and reduce the risk to species. The experts also monitor the effectiveness of cleanup actions and design and implement projects to restore natural resources.

In some cases, NOS scientists and economists conduct natural resource damage assessments (NRDA) to determine the nature and extent of damage to natural resources and the level of restoration necessary to restore the resources to a healthier state. Often, NOS works with the parties responsible for the contamination to ensure that the damaged coastal and marine resources are restored.

NOS Clean-up and Restoration Tools

contaminated shellfish

Contaminated shellfish can have detrimental affects on human and animal health.

To build state and local capacities for evaluating coastal contamination and developing clean-up and restoration solutions, NOS has developed publicly accessible, site-specific geographic information system-based tools called Watershed Database and Mapping Projects. NOS also provides sediment screening tools and guidance to help coastal decision makers evaluate contaminated sediments. NOS scientists and experts conduct research and operate several assessment and monitoring programs to investigate the trends, biological effects, and toxicity of contamination in coastal waters. The marine ecotoxicology research program focuses on the coastal habitats of the Southeastern United States. The program aims to establish links between land use and the presence of chemical contaminants in the marine environment.

NOS's Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment manages the National Status and Trends Program (NS&T), which conducts long-term monitoring and documents the environmental quality of the nation’s coastal areas. The NS&T Mussel Watch Project annually collects mussels and oysters from more than 300 sites throughout the nation, analyzing these samples along with periodically collected sediment cores. A Bioeffects Team conducts studies to determine the incidence, severity, and breadth of contamination in living resources in coastal waters.

boom in a river

Booms attempt to contain oil from a punctured tanker in a river to prevent the oil from flowing downstream.

NOS addresses nonpoint source pollution through its Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program. Nonpoint source pollution occurs when untreated sewage from boats, pets, and failing septic systems and stormwater runoff that picks up fertilizers, lawn chemicals, herbicides, salt from roadways, oil and gasoline drain into streams and rivers that empty into estuaries and coastal waters. States and territories with approved coastal zone management programs are developing and implementing coastal programs that are designed to reduce the amount of nonpoint source pollution in our waterways.