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A line of clean-up workers hose off oil from a rocky shore using hot water following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Photograph credit: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council
A line of clean-up workers hose off oil from a rocky shore using hot water following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Photograph credit: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council

30 Years of Restoring Waterways After Pollution

February 25, 2021

The United State’s oceans, Great Lakes, coasts, and the creatures that call them home are public resources. They belong to all Americans, and when they are damaged by pollution we are all impacted. 

2021 marks 30 years of NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) working to hold polluters accountable for the impacts of oil spills, hazardous waste, and ship groundings in waterways. Acting as a steward, or “trustee” for the nation’s waterways, we have worked with co-trustees and industry to recover $10.4 billion from polluters to fund restoration projects that help ecosystems and coastal communities recover. 

The History of the Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program

The DARRP program cut its teeth when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, spilling crude oil over 200 miles of pristine beaches. Photographs of killer whales swimming through slicks, and dead birds and sea otters washing up coated in dark crude oil, rallied the American public to call for change. The Oil Pollution Act was passed in 1990.

Several years earlier, in 1980, congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, commonly called “Superfund”) to address the dangers of abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste releases on human health and the environment. 

Together, the Oil Pollution Act, CERCLA/Superfund Act and other laws gave NOAA the authority and responsibility to use science to determine the impacts of pollution to America’s waterways and reach legal settlements with those responsible to fund restoration. Later, legislation would also be passed to include ship groundings that damage coral reefs in National Marine Sanctuaries. We work closely with our trustee partners from other agencies, States, and Tribes, we work together to hold polluters accountable for restoration. 

The Science Behind Damage Assessment and Restoration 

Over the years, NOAA experts have kept up with the changing times to develop tools and technologies that meet emerging challenges. Our scientists work on the water and in the lab, from airplanes, helicopters, and computer desks. They collect data from the skin of living dolphins, corals at the bottom of the ocean, chemicals dissolved in water, and from satellites peering down from outer space. Through the process of working in the interest of the American people, NOAA’s DARRP experts have become world leaders in marine pollution science. 

The result of this work is 306 pollution settlements recovering $10.4 billion to restore waterways damaged by pollution. Scientific studies, research, and expertise help us decide the types of restoration to implement. We use all of this information, along with data from the damage assessment, and public input to develop restoration plans and projects. 

Once restoration is completed, monitoring can continue for years. We use adaptive management techniques to ensure that restoration projects are successful, by fine tuning them based on monitoring results, and improved scientific understanding. Restoration enhances fisheries and wildlife, and restores protected species and sensitive habitat including wetlands, beaches, reefs, corals, and seagrasses. 

Hundreds of projects have been funded to restore coral reefs, salt marsh, beaches and rivers, protect habitat for sea turtles, salmon, and oysters, and build fishing piers, boat ramps and walkways.  Restoration also provides economic benefits from more recreation, tourism, blue economy jobs, coastal resiliency, and projects that help Americans access nature. 

Continue the Conversation

All this year we will be commemorating the accomplishments of the past 30 years on the 30th of each month. Follow the NOAA Clean Coasts on Facebook Twitter and follow @NOAAOcean on Instagram, as well as NOAA Habitat on Twitter, to stay up-to-date on our 30 Years of the Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program Campaign! 

more images

Oiled Sea Otter (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)
Cleanup workers spray oil-covered rocks on Prince William Sound with high-pressure hoses. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)