Why worry? Because oil and the bay simply don't mix


April 23, 1992|By Michael Hirshfield

TC WHY DO we worry so much about oil in the Chesapeake Bay?

It's really pretty simple. Oil is toxic -- obviously to waterfowl, less obviously to fish and shellfish. The bay doesn't flush very well, making a real cleanup nearly hopeless. Just imagine trying to wash a marsh!

Finally, the plight of the bay is already extremely grave -- without its having to absorb more insults.

In 1988, a barge traveling on the bay split in half, releasing over 200,000 gallons of light fuel oil and gasoline. William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in a letter to the Coast Guard commandant, reminded him of CBF's decade-old recommendations regarding oil transportation and handling. On March 1, 1989, having received no reply, Mr. Baker wrote again. On March 24 the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska. One week later the Coast Guard responded to CBF. The message? "Don't worry."

In 1990, comprehensive oil pollution legislation was enacted by Congress after having been introduced and ignored for 15 years. Many of the regulations, already overdue, will not be known for months. When they are finally issued, they will certainly allow industry months (years?) to make changes.

Similarly, a recent headline in Maryland read, "State backs off strict new rules to curb oil spills." Why? The usual reasons -- too soon, too hard, not needed. This after 15 years of discussion.

The bay has more oil worries than "the big spill." There are all the "little spills" -- 3,000 gallons here, 20,000 gallons there. They occur constantly. There is also the potential damage to miles of bay tributaries from oil drilling wastes. And there's the drip, drip, drip from storm drains. Oil is a major component of urban runoff, the wash water that results when the rain cleans our streets and parking lots. It is this runoff that appears to make so many of the bay's tributaries unsuitable for spawning fish.

It's easy to point the finger at industry and government, but sometimes the finger needs to be pointed at us. Oil is linked to our lifestyles -- we demand it and we abuse it. Assuming that the bay area is similar to the nation as a whole, we improperly dispose of 16 million gallons of oil a year. Half of that is from do-it-yourself motor oil changes.

In an average year, 6 million gallons of oil may wash down the watershed's storm drains following rains like those we've had this week. This estimate does not include oil poured directly in streams or spills large enough to flow down the storm drains on their own. It's that oil spot on the driveway under our cars. Add the deliberate or accidental spills, and the estimate is comparable to the spill from the Exxon Valdez -- every year.

What can we do? First, we need to try to break our addiction to oil. We need to drive less and cut back on the thermostat.

We need to keep our cars in tune and recycle used oil. We need to stencil every storm drain in the bay's basin with the reminder: "Chesapeake Bay Drainage. Don't Dump." We need to plan development better, so people won't need to drive so much and so that much of the remaining rural land in the watershed stays unpaved.

And we need to continue to press government and industry to minimize the risks of spills from oil transport, transfer and storage.

CBF has a long history of worrying about refineries and a relatively new worry about drilling. For us to stop worrying, we would need to trust the promises of government and industry that (this time) all systems will work.

Unfortunately, history tells us otherwise. This is one case where the worriers, professional and amateur, don't want to have to say, "We told you so!"

Michael Hirshfield is senior staff scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. CBF filed suit in March against the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for its decision to grant Texaco a permit to drill an exploratory oil and gas well in Charles County. This essay is adapted, with permission, from the CBF News.

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