Host: You're listening to the NOAA Ocean podcast! I'm Kate Nielsen. For more than a century, industrial activities have released hazardous chemicals and heavy metals into the environment. Both accidental spills and intentional discharges from chemical manufacturing, oil storage and transfer, ship building, and port operations have contaminated many of America's rivers and coastal resources. Joining us today by phone is Reyhan Mehran, NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator, to talk about moving towards restoration at industrial sites.
Host: Hi Reyhan—welcome to our show!
Reyhan Mehran: Hi Kate.
Host: Reyhan, can you start by explaining what a hazardous waste site is and how they occur?
Reyhan Mehran: Hazardous waste sites are places where people are working to clean up harmful wastes. If they're added to the National Priority List, we often refer to them as “Superfund Sites.” You know, we've always had manufacturing in this country—and the Northeastern part of the United States, where I work, was historically the industrial engine for our country—facilities in this area produced everything families commonly depend on from paper to house paint. Over the years, we've learned that the by-products from the manufacture of lots of commonly used products need to be properly managed. For many years they weren't, or, sometimes, they were accidentally released and ended up in sensitive places like rivers or streams where they can cause problems. So, they need to be cleaned up.
The cleanup of hazardous waste sites is usually led by a federal or state environmental agency. The Natural Resource Trustees—that typically includes NOAA, the U.S. Department of Interior, and the state—those agencies are responsible for figuring out whether the hazardous waste released at these sites injured any natural resources and if they did, what can be done to compensate the public for those injuries.
Host: What are the impacts to the environment from hazardous waste releases?
Reyhan Mehran: It depends on the type of hazardous materials. If the materials are toxic chemicals, for example, and if they're released onto land or into the water, they can cause habitat loss, things like the direct destruction or degradation of places like wetlands or coral reefs, or they can make those areas dangerous for those of us who depend on them. Some hazardous constituents, like mercury or PCBs, they can accumulate in fish and make those fish unsafe for people to eat. Sometimes, waterways can be so contaminated that they need to be designated “off limits” to recreational activities until they can be cleaned up and the area can become safe again.
Host: And how about the plants and animals in an area, what are the impacts to them?
Reyhan Mehran: Some chemicals can cause adverse health effects in plants or in animals. Things like tumors or lesions. They could reduce the growth. They could negatively affect their ability to reproduce, ultimately affecting their populations. And some pollutants are so toxic that they can cause plants or animals to die.
Host: Can you measure these impacts to the marine environment?
Reyhan Mehran: We can and we do. Staff in NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration look to specific tests to figure out the effects that chemicals are having on the plants or animals that should be thriving in those areas. We can evaluate the animals that have been living there to see if they are unhealthy. We can also take samples of other media like contaminated sediments from those areas and evaluate how toxic they are to organisms that should be living in those coastal habitats.
Host: Reyhan, after a site is closed and it's designated a Superfund site, are human activities like fishing for example, are they banned in these areas?
Reyhan Mehran: Sometimes, yeah. If contaminants in the environment are accumulating in fish or in shellfish to levels that are dangerous for people to eat, those areas can be closed to activities like fishing. Or the chemicals at a hazardous waste site might not be the type that accumulated in fish or in shellfish, so there might not be a fishing closure, but they could still be harmful to fish and wildlife or to people in other ways. For example, they could be directly toxic to fish or wildlife or the chemicals could degrade supporting habitats for a variety of species. Having a healthy, robust fishery in an ecosystem provides so many economic and quality of life benefits for the people who depend on those resources, which is a lot of us. Coastal communities contribute over 7 trillion dollars towards the Gross Domestic Product and coastal tourism alone generates over 1.4 trillion dollars in economic activity. Making sure those areas are healthy and resilient it's so important. People are depending on our coastal areas for jobs, for food, recreation, for our health, maritime transportation, military security, and for the strength of our economy.
Host: How do you quantify the loss to the public from banned activities and damaged resources?
Reyhan Mehran: NOAA and the other natural resource trustees first assess which resources were injured or which services weren't being provided to the public because of the contamination. Like in the case of a closed fishery, we might determine how many people would have fished in that area, how much money was lost because those people had to fish somewhere else or instead chose some other activity. And then we look at the number of years that the fishery had closed and how long it would take before it’s going to be open again. And based on the cumulative lost, we'd calculate damages associated with that closure.
Host: And what is NOAA's role in restoration at one of these sites?
Reyhan Mehran: NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration has staff who work on all aspects of a case from assessing injury and quantifying losses to estimating either the damages or the amount of restoration that's needed to compensate the public for those losses and then overseeing the restoration and evaluating the monitoring data to make sure that the projects are functioning as designed. We ask parties who are potentially responsible for the releases of hazardous chemicals to participate in developing the assessments and, when possible, we work together with them to identify appropriate restoration projects—things like enhancing a wetland that might improve fish stocks or providing people with better fishing access to make up for all those years when they couldn't fish at all in a nearby river.
OR&R's toxicologists and economists conduct the assessment and determine how much and what kind of restoration is needed. NOAA's Restoration Center's ecologists work on planning and implementing appropriate restoration projects. And then we all work together to monitor the projects and make sure that they're successfully providing all the benefits they should.
Host: I imagine this varies from site to site, but generally how do you determine when to begin restoration?
Reyhan Mehran: That can depend on the site and also on the kinds of opportunities available. When it's possible, we like to try to integrate restoration with the cleanup at a site, that's one of the reasons we work so closely with the lead cleanup agency. We also work with them to minimize injury wherever possible and to accelerate the recovery of injured resources. But if additional restoration is needed that can't be done at the site itself, then we look to nearby areas.
We can't complete our damage assessment until we know what the cleanup plan is going to be and when it's going to happen—our calculation depends on those two pieces of information.
But it's in everyone's interest to start improving the environment as early as possible. So, when we know that we're going to have to do some of the restoration nearby—not at the site but as close as possible—we try to work with the parties who are potentially responsible for the contamination to see if we can agree on restoration projects that we can do early in the process—sometimes even before the cleanup decisions are finalized.
Host: Reyhan, what are some examples of restoration projects?
Reyhan Mehran: Lots of different kinds of restoration projects can be conducted that could provide appropriate compensation for injured habitats. Wetland enhancement or creation projects are really common—that's when we improve an existing wetland or turn an area, that used to be a wetland but may have been filled in, back into a wetland by regrading it so it can be re-connected to the water and maybe re-planting it.
But we've also done beach enhancements, shoreline improvements, creating benthic structure—like oyster reefs—that's something we're trying to do more of since bottom habitats are often impacted. Oysters and other reef-building organisms grow together in dense groups and the structures that they create provides habitat that's used by so many other species.
NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration has also restored coral reefs, seagrass beds, and even restored access to historical fish spawning areas by removing obstacles that prevent fish from migrating into freshwater areas. And we work on lots of projects that improve recreational access—like creating boat ramps or fishing piers—where there might not have been any before.
Host: Can you share with us an example of a successful restoration project?
Reyhan Mehran: Sure. Awhile back I was working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency together on a project at a site where we were evaluating impacts from a facility that made airplane parts a long time ago. The process they used to finish the metals so that the parts would last longer, resulted in used solvents that were mixed with metals and those wastes weren't managed properly and they ended up in the soil around that facility. The contaminants worked their way over time through the ground and into the water underneath, which in that case discharges to a nearby creek and park.
The Office of Response and Restoration worked with EPA to make sure the areas in the creek where most of the metals that accumulated over the years were cleaned up properly. But after the natural resource trustees determine how many years those areas had been contaminated with those metals, and the negative effects they could have been causing to fish in that creek over all those years, we determined that the public had to be compensated for the years that the fish had likely been injured. And the parties who were potentially responsible for the contamination agreed. So we worked together with them to figure out what we could do to compensate for that injury to fish. We evaluated several options and together with public input decided to provide a connection between the creek and a downstream tidal channel, so that the fish that historically spawned in the creek, but had been blocked for years by a dam could reach their freshwater spawning grounds.
So, we put a fish ladder on that dam and within a few years adult alewife and blueback herring, those were the fish that we were targeting, they were traveling back into that creek to spawn. And after hatching in the freshwater, the young were swimming out to sea. We've monitored them now at that restored passage for several years and it's beautiful and it's improved the resources within that creek ecosystem for the people in that densely populated area who use it.
Host: That's great Reyhan. I always like to ask our guests to share with us a little bit about themselves including how you got to your position today at NOAA?
Reyhan Mehran: I've always been interested in protecting the environment, but I probably started getting interested in the oceans when I was in college. I worked on an independent coastal study one semester and then I got this summer undergraduate coastal fellowship and I spent that summer working with a team of marine chemists on several studies that they were working on and one that I had come up with. And then in graduate school I actually got a NOAA scholarship to do graduate research and while I was writing it up I got this NOAA Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship and I ended up in DC for a year and during that year I learned a lot about the different programs at NOAA and eventually got connected to NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration here in New York City. There aren't a lot of us in the Office of Response and Restoration who get to work in the New York and New Jersey Harbor area. I’m lucky to get to do exactly what I always dreamed of right in the heart of where this work affects the greatest number of people.
Host: Do you have any final, closing words to leave our listeners with today?
Reyhan Mehran: I'd love to give one more shout-out for NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration. OR&R has been responsible for bringing back thousands of acres of wetlands, beaches, reefs, corals, and seagrasses and opening up fish passage on many miles of streams across the country since the late 1980s. These projects and the protection and restoration that we've been able to integrate into over 500 hazardous waste site cleanups have accelerated recovery of our resources and provided tremendous economic benefits through tourism, recreation, green jobs, coastal resiliency, improved property values, and enhanced quality of life. The public relies on us to keep our coastal resources clean, healthy, resilient, and productive. I'd just like to thank you Kate for giving us the opportunity today to share with you some of what we do.
Host: That's it for this episode of the NOAA Ocean Podcast. Thanks to Reyhan Mehran for talking with us about moving towards restoration of industrial waste sites. To learn more, visit our website at oceanservice.noaa.gov. We appreciate you taking the time to learn with us, and hope you'll join us again soon. Until then...thanks for listening.