Group warns about spills even as one is occurring

March 23, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

As a tanker leaked fuel near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, an environmental group warned yesterday that regulatory gaps make the estuary vulnerable to potentially devastating oil spills.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said that many of the safety measures imposed by Congress after the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska five years ago do not apply to oil transportation on the bay.

What the group seeks

The Annapolis-based group called for stricter regulation of the tugboat and barge operators that move much of the 4 billion gallons of petroleum transported on the bay each year.

The foundation also recommended requiring double hulls on barges and small tankers, creation of a vessel tracking system, and tighter regulation of overland pipelines.

"We are playing Russian roulette with the bay," said William C. Baker, foundation president.

The loss of 12,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil from a British tanker in Norfolk, Va., early yesterday illustrates how easily spills can happen in the Chesapeake, Mr. Baker said. Fortunately, most of the oil was contained by booms .

Spokesmen for the U.S. Coast Guard and for barge and tug operators said yesterday that significant progress has been made in reducing the threat of major oil spills since Congress enacted the Oil Pollution Act in 1990.

Further safety requirements for tugboats are under study because of the accident that claimed 47 lives last September on Alabama's Mobile River, where barges hit a railroad bridge moments before an Amtrak passenger train crossed it.

In the past decade, said the bay foundation, vessels have hit Chesapeake bridges 26 times -- most recently on the Nanticoke River, where a gravel barge struck a highway bridge. "We will have a catastrophic spill on the bay," Mr. Baker said. "It's only a matter of time."

He pointed out that the shallow, marshy Chesapeake is far more fragile ecologically than Prince William Sound, where waterfowl and fisheries were devastated after the Exxon supertanker hit a reef and discharged nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil.

Petroleum barges are loosely regulated compared with tankers and have accounted for two major spills in the Chesapeake: 250,000 gallons near Smith Point in Virginia in 1976, killing about 10,000 waterfowl; and 212,000 gallons near the mouth of the Potomac River in 1988.

In addition, pipeline accidents have produced six major spills during the past four years, three each in Maryland and Virginia.

Cmdr. George R. Matthews, chief of marine environmental protection for the U.S. Coast Guard's 5th District based in Portsmouth, Va., said that safety standards for oil transportation vessels are being tightened under the federal Oil Pollution Act.

Deadline for double hulls

Many vessels carrying oil -- even smaller tankers and some barges -- must be fitted with double hulls or retired by 2015, he noted.

However, double hulls would not be required for vessels of less than 5,000 tons, such as the typical oil barge in the Chesapeake.

They would be required to have an equivalent spill containment system, but the Coast Guard has not approved any such system yet, according to the bay foundation.

Debra Colbert, spokeswoman for the American Waterways Operators, a trade association representing inland tug and barge owners, said that her industry supports increased safety measures, similar to those the bay foundation seeks, in the wake of last year's Amtrak accident.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Department of the Environment is preparing to issue final regulations requiring more safety training of petroleum transport crews working in the state, said John Chlada, an agency official.

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