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Diving Deeper: Episode 31 (March 24, 2011) - Natural Resource Restoration

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I’m your host Kate Nielsen.

Today’s question is….How does NOAA protect and restore natural resources injured by oil spills and hazardous waste sites?

Restoration is defined as the process of reestablishing a self-sustaining habitat that closely resembles the natural condition both in terms of structure and function. To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Tom Brosnan on restoration. Tom is an environmental scientist and communications manager with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Hi Tom, welcome to our show.

TOM BROSNAN: Hi Kate, thanks for having me.

HOST: Tom, back in April of 2010, I talked with Amy Merten from your office on how NOAA responds to oil spills, so I think we’re all familiar with NOAA’s role there, but can you explain to us why NOAA is involved in the restoration efforts following an oil spill or following some type of release from a hazardous waste site?

TOM BROSNAN: NOAA is a trustee for public natural resources like marine fisheries, migratory fish like salmon, and protected species like sea turtles and dolphins. And as such, we are stewards charged with protecting and restoring those resources for present and future generations. And when those resources are injured by releases from hazardous waste sites or from oil spills, we are charged with protecting and restoring those resources, and holding those responsible for those discharges to restore them.

HOST: How can we protect natural resources from oil spills and waste sites?

TOM BROSNAN: Well generally we try to take actions that reduce the impacts from the spill or the release and that allows a more rapid recovery of those resources. So, for example, we provide scientific expertise to various cleanup agencies both during spills and waste site events. For spills, we provide information on the fate, the transport, the toxic properties of the oil, and also the resources at risk, and we also provide advice on the cleanup methods for sensitive areas like wetlands. 

For waste sites, we provide information to get a protective remedy. What that means is we try to minimize the remaining contamination and maximize the amount and quality of the habitat post remedy. And both of these activities are designed to protect the resources from ongoing and future injuries and to promote rapid recovery via clean and healthy habitat for those species to thrive.

HOST: OK. So a lot of data and information is needed for folks….

TOM BROSNAN: Yes, absolutely, it’s very data intensive and we do a very thorough assessment both before spills and waste sites happen by developing a variety of tools as well as implementing those tools once they occur.

HOST: How do we do restoration?

TOM BROSNAN: In terms of spills and waste sites, we conduct what’s known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment. And under the Oil Pollution Act and Superfund and other laws that requires us to calculate a balance, a balance between what has been injured by the waste sites and the oil releases and on the opposite side calculating the amount of restoration and the type of restoration needed to offset those injuries.

So to start with the restoration we have to first understand the injury side, so we start by collecting data on the type and severity, the spatial extent, and also the duration of the exposure of our resources to the release as well as information about baseline conditions.

Injury studies are conducted for lethal and sublethal effects, for example, the fitness of the resource, disease impacts, reproductive effects, and laboratory toxicity studies may be done as well as field studies. We attempt then to quantify the injury in terms of, for example, the number of fish affected, the number of acres of marsh or miles of stream degraded, and then, working with our experts in NOAA’s Restoration Center, we choose the type and amount of restoration needed to offset that loss.

We then work with our attorneys in the General Counsel, to require those responsible for the releases to implement those projects or to pay us to implement for the restoration. And using this process with our federal and state cotrustees, we’ve recovered over $500 million for restoration of thousands of acres of habitat since 1990.

HOST: Wow. So natural resource restoration, we’re looking at not only organisms that live there, you mentioned fish or maybe birds, but you’re also looking at the actual environment or habitat as well that they live in and all of that fits under that realm of restoration and restoring an area after an oil spill.

TOM BROSNAN: Yes, that’s correct. We actually are charged not only with assessing the resources themselves as you had mentioned the fish or protected species, but actually the habitats that support them.

HOST: OK, great. And you also just mentioned baseline measurements. What does that mean?

TOM BROSNAN: So, baseline simply means the condition of the resource or the habitat prior to or absent the release. And so we are required to measure the impact of a spill or release against what it would be without that occurring. 

HOST: OK, you also mentioned that we have to, for restoration, assess what has been injured and what services have been lost. What do you mean by services?

TOM BROSNAN: One way to think about restoration is to think about the type and amount of ecological and human use services that the natural resources provide. So for example, coastal wetlands provide storm buffering and filtering of pollutants, they also provide fish nursery services. Oysters can provide filtering of the water column and food for people, undersea grasses and corals can provide essential fish habitat, and beaches can provide services for nesting turtles.

And all of these resources can provide services for humans to enjoy them for fishing, for boating, for natural wildlife viewing, and other recreational activities.  

HOST: Tom, so focusing on oil spills again. What do you have to consider when restoring an area after a spill?

TOM BROSNAN: Well, it really depends on the type of resource that’s been injured, and what services they provide, and also what degree they’ve been impacted. And it also depends what feasible restoration opportunities might be out there. So for example, in 2004, the tanker Athos spilled approximately 265,000 gallons of crude oil into the Delaware River, which oiled thousands of acres of shoreline and aquatic habitats and impacted wildlife and curtailed recreation for many in the Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania region.

Restoration to offset those injuries include creating and enhancing wetland, stream, and shoreline habitats; creating oyster reefs; dam removals for fish passage; and also improving recreational amenities for improving access. In other cases, we have also done projects to improve beaches, seagrass beds, spawning habitats, and coral reefs. But there always has to be a nexus between what has been injured and the restoration that you’re providing.

HOST: How long after an event, something like an oil spill like we’ve mentioned a few times or other disasters, a hazardous waste spill, do you have to wait to begin restoring the area?

TOM BROSNAN: So ideally we like to provide restoration for spills and waste sites as quickly as possible, but that often depends on how quickly the oil or the hazardous waste can be reduced to less harmful levels that will actually allow active restoration to occur. So for example, if the site remains too contaminated, the restoration effort may fail, or it may create an attractive nuisance, that is, it may attract wildlife to contaminated habitat. And it also depends on how long it will take to assess the impacts, we want to make sure we understand the full degree of loss before we can craft the restoration for the gain.

HOST: Is the assessment of an area after an oil spill the same as after release from a hazardous waste site?

TOM BROSNAN: Actually, the principles are pretty similar in terms of understanding the extent of the exposure and injuries, but there are some differences. So, for example, oil spills, they tend to be acute events, sudden or short term, while waste sites are often chronic releases, sometimes over decades. So for a spill, there’s an initial push to ensure that we quickly capture the fate and the transport and the effect of the oil before it gets transported elsewhere – it might sink, it might evaporate, or otherwise be weathered. And so there’s an initial push to get out there quickly and document what’s going on with the oil. For a waste site, the contaminants often become bound in the sediments and in the habitats for longer periods of time, they can move through the food chain and require different strategies to understand their long-term impacts.

HOST: It’s hard to think of either process happening, fortunately, there’s ways we’re trying to go about it and make it as good as possible after something like this.

TOM BROSNAN: Yes, absolutely.

HOST: Tom, can you restore a waste site while you’re also cleaning it up at the same time and are there maybe benefits to doing something like this?

TOM BROSNAN: Yeah, absolutely. You can and you should and it’s something that NOAA promotes nationwide in the waste sites that we work on and that is including habitat restoration into the cleanup. We make recommendations for this. For example, a cleanup might require removal or dredging of sediments and habitats including submerged aquatic vegetation and wetlands. Restoration of these habitats once that contamination is removed will promote the rapid recovery of the resources, so rather than leaving the area scraped clean and denuded, we promote active restoration of habitats once they’ve been removed.

Similarly, shorelines might need to be stabilized during a remedy, and stabilizing shorelines with vegetation, also known as living shorelines versus doing a hardened shoreline, for example with rip rap or a bulkhead, is a much better choice for providing habitat that again promotes the long-term recovery of the system.  

HOST: Tom, can scientists track how successful a restoration project is?

TOM BROSNAN: Yes and we require monitoring for the restoration projects that we do. That’s monitoring that is done before, during, and after the implementation of a project. That’s primarily to ensure that the restoration project is installed correctly and that it’s achieving its objectives. So measures for monitoring might include structural metrics such as having the right sediment grain size, the correct hydrology and water flow, the correct bathymetry or depth, habitat features such as the density of the stems of a wetland, and also in addition to structural metrics we may measure functional metrics, for example, the productivity of a wetland, is it cycling nutrients and energy properly, is it providing a service for spawning and feeding habitats. And if the restoration isn’t providing the goals that were set out for it, corrections may be implemented.

HOST: I assume that there are probably more projects out there than what we actually have the resources for at any given time, more restoration needs. How do you determine which projects to move forward with?

TOM BROSNAN: There are indeed many more cleanup and restoration projects than we can possibly tackle, the demand is very great, especially for hazardous waste sites across the country. And what we do is try to prioritize our work on those projects which will benefit most from the expertise that we are going to provide and that will also provide the most benefit to NOAA’s trust resources, those marine fisheries and protected resources that we talked about earlier.

HOST: Do we know what the economic benefit is of restoring an area?

TOM BROSNAN: Yeah, economic benefits are varied and it of course depends on the type of project that is implemented, but it could include things like green jobs during construction or jobs associated with the increased use of the resources for recreation for example, fishing and boating, wildlife viewing; things like tourism; commercial fishing; and even commerce and ports all can benefit from cleanup and restoration of natural resources. Other benefits could include protection of properties from storms, erosion, and flooding. As I said, the exact economic benefits that flow from a project will depend on a variety of factors, including the type and size and location of the project.

So for the restoration that’s being conducted for the Athos spill that I mentioned earlier, there are direct and indirect economic benefits of projects like these that might include again increased use of the resources recreationally for fishing and hunting, harvesting, boating and diving and viewing; improved capacity for storm buffers, reducing erosion and flooding, and filtering of pollutants; and frankly improving the quality of life for coastal communities, which many will say is priceless.

HOST: The economic benefit then of restoring the area is kind of the benefit of the area in the first place, just getting it back.

TOM BROSNAN: Absolutely.

HOST: Tom, you’ve given us so much great information today, but I think one thing that our listeners would like to hear about is how they can help.

TOM BROSNAN: So one way that folks can get involved is to pay more attention to the cleanup and restoration activities that are actually happening in your local neighborhoods. Waste sites in particular are ubiquitous throughout the country and public input is very important both in the waste site and the spill cleanup and restoration process. And it can make a difference in terms of the timing and the amount and the type of cleanup that’s achieved, and also for the specific restoration projects that are implemented. So I encourage everybody to make your voices heard.

HOST: Thanks Tom. Do you have any final, closing words for our listeners today?

TOM BROSNAN: Sure, so in addition to providing input on the cleanup and restoration process, I’d encourage folks to get out and improve the resources that we all love by volunteering for hands-on activities in terms of trash cleanup as well as other local restoration activities.

And one good example of that for NOAA employees, at least in the Maryland area, is to participate in Restoration Day which focuses on a variety of environmental stewardship projects in the Chesapeake Bay watershed region. I’ve been involved in several of them in the past and it really is a lot of fun and a great way to go out and show your appreciation for the resource.

HOST: Thanks Tom for joining us on Diving Deeper and talking more NOAA’s restoration efforts. To learn more, please visit   

That’s all for today’s show. Please join us for our next episode in two weeks.