A leak of industrial fuel oil in the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal early yesterday caused cleanup crews and environmental officials to scramble, but turned out to be much smaller than emergency workers initially feared.
"It started off with a scare," said John Chlada, who coordinates emergency efforts and enforcement for the Maryland Department of the Environment and other state agencies that responded to the spill.
Although the U.S. Coast Guard had received reports that 11 waterfowl needed cleaning because of the leak, Mr. Chlada said last night that no reports of harm to fish or waterfowl had been confirmed.
The leak, noticeable for the 14-mile length of the canal, occurred after a barge hauling industrial fuel oil from Baltimore to southern New Jersey apparently scraped against rocks in the canal.
Early reports by the Coast Guard estimated the oil leak to involve as many as 4,950 gallons. But last night, investigators said the total was more like 420 to 840 gallons.
Nevertheless, the cleanup closed the major shipping lane linking the Chesapeake and Delaware bays until about 6 p.m. yesterday.
Low clouds and rain also prevented state environment officials from flying over the area until around 6 p.m.
Evidence of the spill was visible along the entire canal and southward in the Elk River in Maryland, said Ronald Nelson, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The spilled No. 6 industrial oil is thicker than kerosene, but not as thick as crude oil, and is used in factory boilers.
How serious the stoppage of service on the canal -- which links the Port of Baltimore with Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia and points north -- was to shipping was unclear. The Coast Guard said weekend traffic is light.
A commercial cleanup firm, hired by the barge owner, Christiana Marine Service Corp. of Wilmington, began working right after 3 a.m., when the leak was reported. State officials asked the firm, Clean Harbors Inc., to stop at 6 p.m. yesterday and resume this morning.
Mr. Nelson said most of the visible oil was cleaned last night with oil-absorbing devices that look like pompoms. As they are dragged through the water, the plastic strands repel water and attract oil.
Earlier yesterday, a Coast Guard spokesman said 10 oil-coated ducks and one osprey were reported to have been found in the vicinity of the Town Point section of Cecil County, between the Elk and Bohemia rivers.
The oil could be deadly to fish, suffocating them, and could kill birds by either burning their skin or weighing them down so that they drown, said Sgt. John Tugwell of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police.
The barge had loaded about 1,200 barrels -- some 50,400 gallons -- of the oil Friday at the Hess Oil facility in Curtis Bay. The barge headed up the bay and through the canal to a DuPont facility near Wilmington, said Bill Bates, the president of Christiana Marine Service.
Mr. Bates said the workers on the barge did not feel any impact as they traveled across the canal.
About 3 a.m., as it arrived at Deepwater, N.J., the tug pulling the barge reported it was listing. Meanwhile, another tug reported an oil sheen to the Coast Guard.
"It must have been a glancing blow," Mr. Bates said. "Crew members weren't aware of any contact. That's what's so confusing to us. Our employees never saw any sheen or any oil."
If they had known of the leak, crew members would have stopped and used a boom carried on board to contain any oil, Mr. Bates said. "We never would have continued."
At Deepwater, the crew found a small hole in the hull.