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Del. Bay oil spill strikes at critical time
Six-mile sheen may worsen if wind shifts

By JEFF MONTGOMERY of The News Journal 04/26/2006

An oil spill of unknown origin emerged along a six-mile stretch of Delaware Bay early Tuesday and -- if winds shift -- could endanger sensitive Delaware River fish and bird habitats during a critical time for spawning, migration and growth.

Discovery of the oil, which had collected in globs and spread in a sheen up to 100 feet wide in places, prompted a Coast Guard cleanup order and a multistate search for a source or culprit.

Some estimates described the oil as stretching from waters east of Bombay Hook and Leipsic, to east of the Murderkill River near Frederica. Lt. Richard Minnich, an investigator at the Coast Guard's Philadelphia port headquarters, said the drifting band appeared to be in the middle of the bay.

Federal and state officials said the spill, first reported by a tugboat crew at 6:45 a.m. Tuesday, is far smaller than the 264,000 gallons lost in the Delaware River by the punctured tanker Athos 1 in November 2004. Investigators have not yet ruled out the possibility that remnants of the Athos spill had resurfaced with warmer weather.

"It consists of heavier tar balls and a sheen elsewhere. There are different stretches of it that are maybe disconnected from each other," said John A. Hughes, secretary of Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Hughes added that shifting winds could push the oil toward Delaware shorelines, which could trigger an order to deploy absorbent booms to protect river inlets.

The timing of the spill could be devastating."Everything is coming back to life in the spring," said Fred Stine, estuary coordinator for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a multistate conservation group. "It's particularly damaging because there's so much nursery life -- so many babies of all different species around."

Researchers are focusing on the annual run of American shad from the ocean up the Delaware Bay and Delaware River to newly accessible spawning areas, Stine said.

"Younger fish and crabs are more susceptible to toxins from oil spills than an adult fish or crab, that's why there's so much concern," Stine said.

Officials were reluctant to estimate the number of gallons involved, but described the spill as "recoverable." Three skimmer ships were dispatched to the area by midafternoon.

"It's a substantial spill that has the earmarks of being a bilge-pumping episode," Hughes said. "We're rendering assistance. We're taking samples so that we can 'fingerprint' the oil."

Officials said the oil globules had some characteristics of waste oil that pools and mixes with seawater in vacant ship areas, or bilges.

Bilge spills and dumping have become global problems as oil disposal rules become tougher and more costly, prompting some ship handlers to dump before entering port. The World Wildlife Fund has reported that bilge oil accounts for 10 percent of all oil entering the oceans.

"The fact that it's long and thin -- without drawing conclusions -- right now it does look like maybe a moving vessel discharged it over a good distance," Hughes said. "The situation is good in the sense that there's not a lot of wind blowing and the water's cold still, so the stuff has some viscosity. The wind is often a key factor because it drives oil ashore, where it does damage."

The Coast Guard "federalized" the cleanup after investigators were unable to find a clear source. The action made cleanup work eligible for funds from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, an industry-financed federal program. Federal law allows action to recover money spent for cleanups once a responsible party is found.

Minnich and Hughes said investigators could try to match the chemical profiles of oil from the bay and oil from suspect ships that recently have moved up or down the bay as part of the investigation.

Petty Officer Second Class John D. Edwards said three regional spill cleanup contractors were hired to manage recovery efforts, including Miller Environmental, Northstar Marine Environmental Services and the Delaware Bay and River Cooperative.

DNREC and New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection are working with the Coast Guard on the problem. The Coast Guard late Tuesday opened a command center in Philadelphia to coordinate the effort.

Minnich said it would be "next-to-impossible" to use absorbent booms to contain and corral such a large area of the open bay. Skimmer ships, however, should be able to scoop up concentrations of oil globs or mats.

Coast Guard guidance documents recommend caution in estimating spill sizes on sight alone, noting that oil type, weather and temperature all can affect the way oil spreads. Under some conditions, less than two gallons of oil can produce a bright "rainbow" sheen on more than 1.5 acres of water.

The last major spill to affect the river and bay occurred Nov. 26, 2004, when a lost anchor tore holes in the bottom of the Greek-registered oil tanker Athos 1 as it approached a refinery in Paulsboro, N.J. Officials believe much of the spill still coats the bottom of the river.

Cleanup costs in that spill have exceeded $175 million, triggering a federal lawsuit pitting the ship's owner against shippers and others involved in the original delivery attempt.

Contact Jeff Montgomery at 678-4277 or jmontgomery@delawareonline.com.

John A. Hughes, state environmental control secretary, suspects dumping is the source.
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