Learned about minimizing damage from sea...

MUCH HAS BEEN

February 24, 1996

MUCH HAS BEEN learned about minimizing damage from sea disaster oil slicks in the 29 years since the giant Torrey Canyon was grounded off the southwest coast of England, spilling nearly 35 million gallons of oil. Less progress has been made in preventing such accidents.

The Sea Empress ran aground last week on rocks off the southern Welsh coastline. The Norwegian-owned Cypriot company's British-managed, Liberian-registered supertanker -- three football fields long -- was carrying oil from the British production field in the North Sea to the Texaco refinery in Wales. Before it was refloated by a dozen European tugs using advanced techniques, it had lost about 65,000 tons, at least 19 million gallons of oil.

This was nearly double what was lost by the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989. An oil slick ten miles long has fouled island bird sanctuaries in the Celtic Sea and the habitat of seals, dolphins and rare starfish. Other slicks spread 30 miles across the fishing grounds of Carmarthen Bay to the southeast.

An international flotilla of boats and aircraft is cleaning and containing the oil. Much of the ecological damage is likely to last but a few years. Yet the supertanker might have been rescued without this huge oil loss had the British government heeded a 1994 recommendation to keep powerful salvage tugs on station near major oil ports.

None was available when gales drove the Sea Empress onto rocks. In the short run, the rich bird life is at risk and the wild Welsh coast is degraded. Experts hold out hope that after a few years, most of the damage will be undone. But a lot of people in Wales and round the world are wondering why the accident had to happen at all.

ONE WEAKNESS that made Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke vulnerable in last year's election was the accusation that he didn't care about neighborhoods. Mayoral candidate Mary Pat Clarke was seen as someone who religiously attended to constituent services; Mr. Schmoke was not.

The mayor countered that ultimately any garbage picked up, any pothole filled, occurred because officials under his direction made it to happen. But many people believed they could either call a council member's office and get something done, or call the mayor's staff and die waiting.

The perception must have galled the mayor, who has 14 field offices to make sure complaints and requests don't languish. He has looked at the field offices and discovered some are staffed by people so unpopular that neighborhood groups "would rather have them find other employment."

Like a number of other problems in the city, one wonders why it took so long for Mr. Schmoke to see what was clear to others. What matters now, though, is that he recognizes the inadequacies of the field offices and has ordered an overhaul. The program's merger years ago with an old anti-poverty agency may have created some of its problems. Viable field offices should improve the quality of life in city neighborhoods.

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