Delaware River Oil Oozes, Mess Gets Murkier

Delaware River Oil Oozes, Mess Gets Murkier

Last week's spill was believed manageable. But the entire region is shaken as slick spreads, closing a nuclear plant and threatening wildlife.

By David Zucchino
LATimes Staff Writer

December 4, 2004


NEWARK, Del. — Like a mutant blob in a bad horror movie, an oil slick first thought to be relatively small has grown bigger and more menacing over the past week, oozing its way down both banks of the Delaware River.

When the Greek tanker Athos I began leaking heavy Venezuelan crude into the river the night of Nov. 26, it appeared to be a manageable spill confined to a riverside terminal — just 30,000 gallons, according to estimates.

But authorities now warn that it could be as much as 473,500 gallons, a gooey mess that has spread to 70 miles of shoreline across three states.

Investigators are trying to determine whether a gash and a puncture in the ship's hull were caused by an 11-ton, 13-foot-wide propeller that fell off a dredge owned by the Army Corps of Engineers in April and was left on the river bottom.

The muck has killed birds, fish and turtles. It has shut down a nuclear plant and threatened a dozen freshwater streams and tributaries. It has slid past a pristine nature reserve and spread to within three miles of drinking water intakes for Philadelphia and southern New Jersey.

And it was still oozing Friday, leaving a 4-foot-high black smear along the stone seawall that keeps the Delaware from flooding Ft. Mifflin, a historic Revolutionary War battlement. Stiff sea winds spread a sharp chemical odor across the freshwater tidal marshes that straddle Interstate 95.

The spill is not exactly the Exxon Valdez, which dumped nearly 11 million gallons in Alaska in 1989, but it could be the worst on the Delaware, surpassing the 300,000 gallons spilled by a tanker in 1989.

And it has surprised and shaken a region where most people are only vaguely aware of the massive refineries that dot the uninhabited, low marshlands just south of Philadelphia.

Tankers deliver a million barrels of crude each day to the refineries that produce 70% of the gasoline sold in the Northeast, according to the local maritime exchange.

More than a thousand workers were along the river Friday, putting down 94,000 feet of boom, absorbent floating barriers used to contain the slick. Despite all efforts, the environmental and economic damages probably will be in the millions, authorities said. The Delaware Bay is home to thousands of migratory shorebirds and the world's largest population of horseshoe crabs.

"No matter how good the cleanup is, the damage is irreparable. This is a real catastrophe," said Maya van Rossum, a lawyer and environmentalist who calls herself the "Delaware Riverkeeper." For the last week, Van Rossum has stomped along creek beds and marshlands, taking photographs and documenting the effects of the spill.

The oil has spread from Pennsylvania and New Jersey past here in Newark, where on Friday staffers and volunteers at Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Inc. were using diluted dishwashing liquid to dissolve oil from the feathers of ducks, Canada geese and seagulls — and from the shell of a single painted turtle. A pair of rare bald eagles smeared with oil had been spotted but not recovered by rescuers, van Rossum said.

"The oil burns their skin and eyes and destroys their feather structure — it's nasty stuff," Chris Motoyoshi, the rescue center's executive director, said as workers struggled to get a feeding solution down the throat of an uncooperative gull.

Shipping restrictions have been imposed on the Philadelphia port, the East Coast's leading destination for cocoa beans from Ivory Coast and for South American fruit — particularly grapes from Chile and bananas from Costa Rica. Ships were waiting Friday to be washed clean of oil before heading out to sea, with the delays costing tens of thousands of dollars a day.

Pleasure boats, some of them coated with oil, have been banned from the river. Hunting and fishing have been restricted along the Delaware's shoreline. Along the riverbank Friday, workers stacked plastic bags filled with oil-smeared junk and debris skimmed from the river.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has placed oil snares on the river, said Friday that the spill ranges from "very light sheening to heavy oiling" along the 70-mile slick.

The 750-foot Athos I was carrying 14 million gallons of oil when it began leaking at an oil company dock. Authorities first said only 30,000 gallons had seeped out, but four days later the U.S. Coast Guard announced that 473,500 gallons were missing from the tanker. Divers found a 6-foot gash and a 2-foot puncture in the hull.

Officials now are trying to determine how much of the oil was trapped inside the ship's ballast and how much has leaked into the river.

The Athos I is a single-hulled tanker. Federal laws passed after the Exxon Valdez spill required single-hulled ships in the U.S. to be gradually replaced with double-hulled by 2015.

The tanker's operator, Tsakos Shipping and Trading of Athens, has said insurance would cover cleanup costs. Federal law limits owners' liability based on a ship's tonnage. In the case of the Athos I, the liability would be about $45 million.

After touring the riverbank this week, U.S. Sens. Jon Corzine and Frank R. Lautenberg, both New Jersey Democrats, said they would introduce a bill next week to abolish such liability caps for single-hulled ships.

The most obvious damage from the Delaware spill is environmental. At the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge near Philadelphia International Airport, the closing of the mouth of Darby Creek within hours of the spill prevented oil from reaching the low-lying refuge.

Even so, birds that had been soaked with oil in the river were still flying and landing in the refuge Friday. Workers separated birds that could be saved from those that were dying, sending the survivors south to the Tri-State Bird Rescue facility.

There, workers had set up an assembly line of five metal 10-gallon tubs filled with 103-degree water and diluted dish soap. Birds were moved from tub to tub after an initial examination by a veterinarian.

In each tub, workers used sponges, cotton swabs and squirt bottles to wash off the oil. The birds were given fluids to prevent dehydration and, in some cases, Pepto-Bismol to relieve gastro-intestinal distress caused by ingesting or breathing oil.

Oil destroys birds' delicate feather structure and waterproofing, the Tri-State Bird Rescue's Motoyoshi said. Some birds have died of hypothermia, she said, and others have died after sinking and drowning under the weight of the oil.

Since the spill, 86 birds have been brought to the center, including Canada geese, mallards, cormorants, herons, coots and seagulls. Of those, Motoyoshi said, 69 are still alive. The center is continuing to receive about 20 oil-coated birds a day.

Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times

Informant: Teresa Binstock


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