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A large vessel with a mountain landscape in the background.
2020 Accomplishments: The Year in Review

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration works to minimize environmental damages and prepare coastal communities to better deal with the impacts of marine debris, oil spills, and hazardous materials. 

In fiscal year 2020: we provided scientific support for 200 pollution-related incidents; we provided incident coordination to nine hurricane and tropical storms during the 2020 hurricane season through the Disaster Preparedness Program; we supported two pollution settlements in Washington state for a total of $2.2 million for restoration of public natural resources; we made major advances in data management; and in our outreach efforts we celebrated 30 years since the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. These accomplishments show our dedication to science-based solutions for protecting and restoring natural resources from coastal hazards.

Oil in a marsh area with pollution boom around it.
2020 Accomplishments: The Fiscal Year in Numbers
  • 200. Oil spills, chemical releases, and other threats we responded to. 
  • 47. That’s the number of training and response events we led or hosted.
  • 9. That's the number of hurricanes and tropical storms we served as Incident Coordinators for the National Ocean Service. 
  • 4,989. Metric tons of marine debris removed. 
  • 4,016. That’s the number of people we trained in disaster preparedness, oil and chemical spill response, and planning. 
  • $2.2 million. Funds for restoration of public natural resources in Washington state from two pollution settlements.
A woman wearing a hard hat looking out at an urban shoreline.
Assessing and Restoring our Nation's Shores After Pollution

The Office of Response and Restoration's Assessment and Restoration Division (ARD) is responsible for evaluating and restoring coastal and estuarine habitats damaged by hazardous waste releases, oil spills, and vessel groundings.

Working with partners, ARD, through NOAA's Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program, which includes the Restoration Center and General Counsel for Natural Resources, determines the harm to the environment and defines the amount of restoration required to compensate the American public for those impacts.

A screenshot of a mapping tool.
Responding to Disasters with Cutting-Edge Spatial Data Tools

In 2020, OR&R made significant improvements to two of its spatial data tools—enhancing decision-making and the ability to address risks and ensure restoration and recovery efforts are underway. 

ERMA® supports mapping and data visualization needs for responders across NOAA, partner agencies, and researchers. ERMA saw a nearly 10% increase in user sessions over 2019. This was a result of major updates to system architecture and new data, tools, and components—with 2,222 data layers added (1,388 publicly accessible). Finally, the ERMA development team partnered with the National Weather Service (NWS) to collaborate in a new joint effort to significantly improve NWS data dissemination. 

The DIVER application is an electronic warehouse that stores and shares environmental data. DIVER improvements, based on user feedback, included enhanced photo management tools, new data queries for toxicity calculations, and updated help files to better explain approaches for data analysis. Nearly 128,725 field observation and photo record updates were added to the data warehouse and hundreds of case records were added to the document libraries to support natural resource damage assessment cases nationwide.

Oiled rocks on a beach.
$22.3M Settlement for Natural Resources Injured by Refugio Oil Spill

On Oct. 16, 2020 a $22.3 million settlement was finalized to restore natural resources injured by the 2015 Refugio Beach oil spill near Santa Barbara, California. The settlement will go toward resolving natural resource damage claims, to restore habitats and wildlife injured by oil, and to compensate the public for lost recreational opportunities. To ensure these restoration projects best benefit communities, economies, and ecosystems. In the spring of 2020, the draft restoration plan was released for public comment and projects will be selected with this public input. 

On May 19, 2015 a pipeline owned and operated by Plains All American Pipeline ruptured near Refugio State Beach, spilling over 120,000 gallons of crude oil on land. Approximately 50,000 gallons of this crude oil ran down a storm drain, into a ravine under the freeway, and spilled into the ocean. The spill impacted wildlife including brown pelicans, common murres, Pacific loons, and snowy plovers, marine mammals including California sea lions and dolphins, as well as shorelines and underwater habitats. The incident also shut down fisheries, closed multiple beaches, and prevented public recreation like camping, recreational fishing, and beach visits. This settlement marks a major accomplishment for communities, economies, and natural resources impacted by the spill.

A satellite image of a hurricane.
Preparedness for Natural and Human-Caused Disasters

The Disaster Preparedness Program (DPP) coordinates current operational capabilities and facilitates knowledge from across the National Ocean Service (NOS) and NOAA to ensure that commerce, communities, and natural resources can recover as quickly as possible. The DPP includes NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, located in Mobile, Alabama, which is a fully staffed facility that expands the federal capacity to plan for and respond to hazards of all types in the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

The program is dedicated to providing services that allow NOS and our partners to move through the preparedness cycle efficiently, safely and effectively — including creating and modifying NOS emergency plans for continuity of operations, providing training and exercises to improve preparedness and response posture, and serving in an incident coordination role during natural disasters and other emergencies.

A virus.
Supporting the National Ocean Service Response to COVID-19

The Disaster Preparedness Program supported NOAA preparedness and response operations to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As the incident coordinator for the National Ocean Service, the program is responsible for coordinating across program offices during an event when multiple offices are impacted. The program continues to collect information on NOS mission readiness, logistical needs, and impacts to personnel and infrastructure. 

During the COVID-19 response, the program coordinated information on the tracking and safety of all NOS staff and impacts to numerous sanctuaries, reserves, facilities, and laboratories. Throughout the response, staff supported the NOAA Homeland Security Program Office by leading the After Action Reporting/Lessons Learned Unit. Program staff developed a process to capture lessons learned across the agency, and memorialize new processes for the future. Additionally, the program supported community recovery needs by working with NOAA Fisheries to coordinate CARES Act information dissemination through the Recovery Support Function Leadership Group and several state COVID-19 forums. The COVID-19 work strengthened the systems for NOS coordination with NOAA for disasters and spills.

A satellite image of a hurricane.
Hosting a Three-Part Virtual Hurricane Preparedness Summit

The Disaster Preparedness Program hosted a three-part virtual Hurricane Preparedness Summit in preparation for the 2020 hurricane season. The Summit focused on the National Ocean Service’s (NOS) hurricane readiness in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each NOS program office discussed how they implemented lessons learned from the 2019 hurricane season; identified challenges and limitations that NOS faces for deployments, missions, personnel, and resources during the 2020 hurricane season; and developed guidelines and policies to ensure NOS personnel can safely respond to a hurricane during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The three-part summit also included contributions from important NOS federal and state partners, including the NOAA National Weather Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S.Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Partner agencies shared best practices to mitigate limitations brought on by a pandemic, and highlighted how NOS can continue to provide support throughout the 2020 hurricane season.

A fire on a shoreline.
Conducting Exercises to Prepare for Disasters

The Disaster Preparedness Program partnered with the NOAA Office for National Marine Sanctuaries to hold a functional exercise, “Shaken Sanctuaries.” This exercise simulated a 7.2 magnitude earthquake impacting California between Monterey and San Francisco. This area encompasses numerous NOAA offices as well as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. 

Exercise participants located in California stimulated responses to the earthquake damage and secondary hazards such as chemical and oil spills, while participants located in NOAA headquarters collected critical personnel, mission, and infrastructure information that was shared with NOAA leadership. After the exercise was completed, DPP staff provided an after action report on what went well during the exercise, and areas that need improvement. Exercises like these help to ensure NOS plans, policies, and procedures are disaster ready, and NOS personnel are well-trained for the next disaster response.

A vessel in marsh with pollution boom around it.
Providing Scientific Expertise for Oil and Chemical Spill Response

The Office of Response and Restoration's Emergency Response Division (ERD) supports the U.S. Coast Guard by providing round-the-clock scientific expertise for oil and chemical spills in marine and coastal waters.

ERD's efforts facilitate spill prevention, preparedness, response, and restoration through its network of regionally distributed scientific support coordinators; a Seattle-based support team of scientists, technical experts, and software developers; and federal, state, and academic partners.

Two vessels on water with people in them.
Pivoting to Online Training and Expanding our Reach

As part of its mission, OR&R provides training to the U.S. Coast Guard and other NOAA partners on addressing oil and chemical releases in coastal waters. During FY20, OR&R brought its training online and expanded its reach by making training available to all. 

Beginning in late April, OR&R staff began creatively providing training sessions to responders and planners via a weekly online lecture series dubbed “You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know.” To create the lectures, staff sought out spill response specialists from government, academia, and industry to describe their research and experience, with topics ranging from oil booms to oiled birds, burning to bacteria, satellites to submarines. The series became immensely popular, drawing between 200-300 participants each week. Training for chemical spill responders continued, with a pilot online training in Science of Chemical Releases. To ensure that learning also continued internally, OR&R’s spill responders shared their knowledge and experience in “Tuesday Technical Talks,” at which scientific support coordinators and other scientists lectured on a large variety of technical and operational topics.

An aerial view of an urban river area.
Sensitivity Maps Updated for Pollution Response and Planning

OR&R has created Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps for the entire U.S. shoreline, its territories, and several international locations. The ESIs provide critical response information, serve as a tool for various stakeholders, and protect the environment. For almost 40 years, these maps have served as the foundation of resource risk analysis for pollution emergencies, as well as to identify vulnerable resources and habitats in advance of emergencies for response planning. 

In March 2020, OR&R completed updates to the ESI maps and data for two Great Lakes regions—the Straits of Mackinac and the St. Clair-Detroit River System. These busy shipping routes also contain two 20-inch diameter pipelines that carry nearly 23 million gallons of oil per day. These areas are habitats rich with managed natural areas and preserves, sensitive wetlands, and numerous threatened and endangered species. 

The new ESI digital data and maps are available for download, and can also be viewed in Great Lakes ERMA®. OR&R recently established a new agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard to update another set of Great Lakes ESI maps—for the St. Marys and St. Lawrence rivers.

A woman walking on a beach with large overturned vessel in the background.
Supporting Response and Salvage of MV Golden Ray

On Sept. 8, 2019, the 656-foot car carrier Golden Ray capsized, caught fire, and sank in St. Simons Sound, Brunswick, Georgia. In addition to its own fuel, the vessel was carrying 4,200 vehicles, laden with gasoline and other hazardous materials. NOAA’s Emergency Response Division responded on-scene throughout the fall and winter of 2019 and 2020, to support the U.S. Coast Guard’s pollution response and salvage efforts. NOAA provided pollution trajectory modeling, resources at risk, shoreline surveys, environmental sampling, weather, currents, and the development of incident-specific response tactics. 

Remote NOAA support continues a year later. The vessel remains capsized in the sound and all of the vehicles remain inside the ship’s cargo holds. The salvage and wreck removal efforts—one of the most complicated and expensive salvage efforts in U.S. history—have been slowed by the hurricane season. An environmental protection barrier has been built around the wreck and later this fall, the vessel will be cut into large sections and removed from the waterway.

Trash in a landfill.
Researching, Preventing, and Reducing Marine Debris on our Shores

The NOAA Marine Debris Program leads national efforts to research, prevent, and reduce the adverse impacts of marine debris on the United States economy, the marine environment, and navigation safety.

The Marine Debris Program team is positioned across the country and supports Great Lakes and coastal marine debris projects and action planning in partnership with state and local agencies, tribes, nongovernmental organizations, academia, and industry. The program also spearheads national research efforts, leads interagency coordination on marine debris, responds to severe weather events, and supports marine debris removal and prevention efforts.

A trash boom.
Funding Awarded to 23 New Marine Debris Projects

Following a highly competitive review process, the NOAA Marine Debris Program provided approximately $2.7 million in federal funds to 23 recipients of our 2020 removal and prevention grant awards. Federal funding is matched by non-federal contributions, bringing the total investment of these marine debris projects to approximately $5.9 million.

The Marine Debris Program offers nation-wide competitive funding opportunities for community-based projects that improve ecological resources through the removal of marine debris, as well as prevention projects that provide the knowledge and resources necessary to change behaviors, raise awareness, and promote the long-term prevention of marine debris. Through these opportunities, the Marine Debris Program is proud to support impactful, community-driven, and cost-effective projects.

Derelict fishing gear.
U.S. Government Joins the Global Ghost Gear Initiative

On July 16, 2020, the Department of State announced that the United States formally joined the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) as a member government of this multi-stakeholder partnership, joining 15 other governments and 85 non-government partners. The GGGI is the foremost international collaboration working to address the problem of ghost gear and has broad representation across industry, government, and civil society.

Addressing marine debris, including ghost gear, is a key priority for the United States and by becoming a member of GGGI, the United States Government can better support this key international initiative and foster stronger collaboration between the Department of State and the NOAA Marine Debris Program to reduce ghost gear. In spring 2020, the Marine Debris Program collaborated with GGGI and the Department of State to develop a project to prevent the loss of fishing gear in the Asia Pacific in coordination with governments and stakeholders throughout the region.

Hurricane debris.
Awarding $8.2 Million For Hurricane Response Marine Debris Projects

The 2018 hurricane and typhoon seasons inflicted severe damage to communities and coastal resources across North Carolina, Florida, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Hurricanes Florence and Michael, and Typhoon Yutu left a swath of destruction and large amounts of debris in the coastal zones of the affected states and territory. Following the storms, NOAA received disaster relief funding to aid in coastal recovery efforts by supporting marine debris assessment, removal, and disposal in the impacted states and territory (Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2019, P.L. 116-20).

In 2020, NOAA and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded $8.2 million in federal funds through the Hurricane Response Marine Debris Removal Fund to six projects that assess, remove, and dispose of marine debris that was caused by or moved by the storms and prevent further harm to habitats and fish and wildlife populations. The projects will assess and remove debris impacting coral reefs, as well as debris that is near National Wildlife Refuges, state parks and reserves, and aquatic preserves, among other sensitive habitats.

A person with a camera on a ship looking at vessels spray water at a fire on an oil rig.
Communicating 30 Years of Oil Spill Science

With the passing of both a decade since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the 30 year anniversary of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, this past year presented several opportunities to highlight advances in oil spill response and restoration. 

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 significantly improved measures to prevent, prepare for, and respond to oil spills. Thirty years later, OR&R highlighted the act in “The Oil Pollution Act of 1990: 30 Years of Spill Response and Restoration.” The campaign explored the past three decades and how NOAA and its partners continue to support this important legislation. 

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill remains the largest oil spill in U.S. history. As the lead science agency for coastal spills, OR&R provided mission-critical information to guide the emergency response, the natural resources damage assessment, and the restoration plan. “A Decade Later: Advances in Science Since Deepwater Horizon” featured blogs highlighting how OR&R has enhanced its science, technology, and communication for the better. The campaign also included “Deepwater Horizon: The Science Behind NOAA's Unprecedented Response,” a video from NOAA Fisheries featuring OR&R’s chief scientist. 

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