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Restoring Polluted Urban Areas Helps the Environment and Communities Rebound

November 17, 2021

NOAA and partners have supported communities through restoration at two urban Superfund sites in Massachusetts and Washington. We’re increasing access to parks, and getting locals involved in habitat restoration through training and job opportunities.

People canoeing on calm waters. Restoration at the New Bedford Harbor Superfund site included parks and increasing access to the waterfront. Credit: Buzzards Bay Coalition

From Los Angeles to Portland, and Boston to Tampa Bay, the U.S. coasts are home to many urban areas. Close to 40 percent of the country’s population live along the coast, and that number is growing. Along with people, urban coastal areas often have both historical and operating industrial infrastructure, such as factories and ports. These industrial features sometimes lead to hazardous materials making their way into waters and soils, as well as fish and wildlife. 

When pollution happens in any coastal community, NOAA works with teams of state, tribal, and federal agencies, called Trustees. Together, we assess the impacted resources and services. Then we work with responsible parties to secure funding to restore them. This work is backed by more than 30 years of science and collaboration

Pollution’s Social Costs 

Often, the “services” provided by our natural resources—like recreational fishing, boating, and going to the beach, or storm protection and clean water—are impacted by pollution. These natural resource services have economic value, and part of our work focuses on restoring them. Examples include building parks and piers, or improving infrastructure for cleaner water.

Engaging Communities in Restoration

We also work with impacted communities to restore the environment. Through the power of state, regional, and local partnerships, we leverage our knowledge, resources, and funding to reach more effective solutions together. These partnerships can include working with conservation corps that combine habitat restoration with job creation and employ people from the communities impacted by pollution.

More than 100 of these natural resource damage cases across the United States are in various phases of assessment or restoration. Here, we highlight two cases in urban areas that have seen strong environmental and community restoration results.

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Aerial view of a dense community on a river and harbor.
New Bedford Harbor Superfund site is in an urban community on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. Credit: Buzzards Bay Coalition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Restoring Natural Resource Services After 40 Years of Pollution 

New Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts

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An industrial parking lot and barn.
A former industrial site shown here was converted to a park as part of the New Bedford Harbor Superfund settlement. Credit: Buzzards Bay Coalition

New Bedford Harbor is a major commercial fishing port and industrial center in southeastern Massachusetts on Buzzards Bay. From the 1940s to the 1970s, manufacturers discharged wastes containing highly toxic chemicals and metals into the harbor and bay. The toxins contaminated hundreds of acres of sediment at the bottom of the harbor. In fact, one location contained the highest concentrations of PCBs ever documented in a marine environment. These industrial chemicals cause developmental and neurological problems in babies and children, and accumulate easily in fish and shellfish.

NOAA and partner agencies on the New Bedford Harbor Trustee Council include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. We are using $20.4 million of restoration settlement funds to restore natural resources and services impacted by the contamination. Since 1998, the Council has implemented 37 projects restoring fish passage and habitats, preserving land, and restoring public access and recreational opportunities. 

New Parks For People to Access to Waterfronts, Recreation

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A creek runs through natural landscape.
The former industrial site shown above is now a natural park with trails and other features for the community to enjoy. Credit: Buzzards Bay Coalition

The Council has funded the construction of portions of two recreational parks in the City of New Bedford: 

  • More than $2 million for the construction of Riverside Park at a former mill site. Completed in late 2005, Riverside Park also provides the urban community with harbor access.
  • $2.4 million to the City to construct a community center, and other facilities, and reconstruct a stone fishing pier at Fort Taber Park. Completed in 2004, this park also provides access to the bay and harbor.

Another $1.2 million in settlement funds were awarded to the Buzzards Bay Coalition to develop the Acushnet Sawmill Park, called The Sawmill. Finished in 2015, the park was a 19-acre former industrial lumber yard on the Acushnet River. The Coalition worked with contractors, the City of New Bedford, and hundreds of community volunteers to restore the area. They removed acres of pavement and buildings, restored natural river banks, replanted wetlands and wildflower meadows, and built nature trails and scenic overlooks along the river. The public park protects the river’s health and offers local residents a beautiful place to explore the outdoors.

Combined, these projects took formerly industrialized and generally inaccessible land and gave people more ways to access the water to enjoy nature and recreation activities.

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Aerial view of an industrial waterfont with factories.
Commencement Bay in Tacoma, near Seattle, Washington has a historically large industrial presence. Credit: EarthCorps

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Engaging Local Communities and Leveraging Settlement Funding

Commencement Bay, Washington

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A crew of workers removing invasive plants on an industrial shoreline.
An EarthCorps, trains and provides jobs working on habitat restoration, like this shoreline revitalization project in Commencement Bay. Credit: EarthCorps

Industrialization of Commencement Bay in the early 1900s led to filling in a vast area of tidal habitats. It also led to dredging and widening the meandering streams and rivers that flowed into the bay for maritime traffic. Beginning in the 1920s, hazardous substances from various industries, including shipbuilding, oil refining, and chemical manufacturing plants, were released into the waterways.

Since 1991, under NOAA’s leadership,the Commencement Bay Trustees have negotiated 19 settlements with those responsible for the pollution. They've recovered more than $70 million in funds, services, and properties to support restoration projects. 

Along with direct restoration, the Trustees created the Commencement Bay Stewardship Collaborative with a $4.9 million stewardship fund. They partnered with the nonprofit organization EarthCorps to monitor and maintain Commencement Bay’s restoration sites in perpetuity.

Giving People Job Opportunities in Restoration and Conservation

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A crew of EarthCorps conservation corps members pose at a project site.
EarthCorps participants are a part of the next generation of restorationists, and are contributing to improving their local environment. Credit: EarthCorps

EarthCorps has expertise in science and stewardship, and deep roots in the communities in and around the urban waterways of Puget Sound. Like other NOAA conservation corps partnerships, they offer local youth job and training opportunities helping restore habitats. EarthCorps alumni have gone on to work in a wide range of organizations in Washington and other states, and internationally.

In addition to job training, EarthCorps members learn how their work addresses environmental injustice and helps ensure a more resilient and climate-adapted bay. Its variety of habitats all contribute to a connected watershed for migrating salmon. These areas also serve as important resources for local communities, including: 

  • The Hylebos Creek Natural Area that features a community trail
  • The Tahoma Salt Marsh pocket estuary adjacent to the Chinese Garden Reconciliation Park
  • The Yowkwala beach site owned by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians

EarthCorps also leads events with local community volunteers and school groups to get some of their work done. For example, they partner with other local environmental nonprofits to remove invasive plant species to restore natural site conditions. This leads to a deeper awareness, pride, and sense of ownership among local community members, which is critical to long-term restoration project success. Caring for these precious lands and waters in such a tangible way encourages a stewardship ethic among participants that lasts long after the work is done.

About $1.5 million of the initial $4.9 million stewardship fund has been spent to date. Supported by the Trustees, EarthCorps is managing stewardship dollars by:

  • Growing the fund, now worth $6.2 million, through private investments, with goals to maintain restoration sites in perpetuity. 
  • Leveraging small portions of the fund to secure grants to address unmet restoration needs. In 2021 alone they’ve raised $50,000 in additional stewardship funding from foundations.

Holding Polluters Accountable

New Bedford Harbor and Commencement Bay are just two examples of NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program success. The collaborative program has worked to hold polluters accountable for the impacts of oil spills, hazardous waste, and ship groundings in waterways for 30 years. Over that time, NOAA and co-trustees have recovered over $652 million for restoration from 156 Superfund sites like these, with more under assessment.