Fuel oil spill worsened by weather

111,000 gallons leak from power company into marsh, then river

Winds push pollutant

Pepco, EPA working to clean up oil in Patuxent River

April 10, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Cleanup crews were to continue working in Southern Maryland today to contain a major oil spill -- their task complicated by high winds and tides that pushed the oil past containment booms onto the eastern shore of the Patuxent River.

The emergency began Friday night when about 111,000 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil leaked from a pipe at the Potomac Electric Power Co. power station in one of the largest spills in the state in years.

The situation worsened yesterday as winds and tides blew the oil from a marsh near Pepco's Chalk Point Generating Station in Aquasco. State officials prohibited the harvesting of clam and oyster beds along a five-mile stretch of the river that separates Prince George's and Calvert counties as a precaution. They also warned against fishing in the area.

Environmental and utility-company officials thought they had the problem under control Saturday, confining the oil in booms in Swanson's Creek and a nearby marsh. But high winds and rain swept the oil over the booms Saturday night nearly two miles into the river.

The oil reached a four- to six-mile stretch of shoreline about midday yesterday, said Susan Woods, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"It makes our cleanup more complicated," she said. "It makes a horrible situation worse."

The presence of oil on the shoreline increased the danger to wildlife, Woods said.

A couple of dozen muskrats have died and three swans have been rescued. But there is no evidence yet of a significant fish kill, and birds appeared to be staying away from the area because of the wind, she said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates pipeline accidents, is trying to determine the cause of the leak.

More than 100 employees from federal, state and local agencies, as well as workers from Pepco and private contractors, responded to the spill over the weekend. Additional help is expected today.

"Our first priorities are to re-contain this oil in Swanson's Creek and to remove it from the Patuxent River," said Colby Stanton, on-scene coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the cleanup. "This will continue to be a challenge as long as the high winds persist."

Officials do not know how much of the oil leaked into the river or the extent of the environmental damage.

"Typically, that assessment takes a while to complete," Stanton said.

Late yesterday, winds and chopping conditions hampered cleanup efforts. "The weather worked against us and the location worked against us," she said. "We're throwing everything we can at it."

U.S. Coast Guard skimmers were summoned to help vacuum the oil, which was then put into tanker trucks. The work will continue in the water for at least a couple of days and for longer in the 45-acre marsh, Stanton said.

Pepco is responsible for paying the cleanup costs. No estimate was available.

The utility company detected the leak from a 12-mile section of an underground pipe about 6 p.m. Friday. The problem was noticed as the pipeline was being flushed for an inspection.

Usually the 12-inch pipe carries No. 6 oil, but was being flushed with the lighter No. 2 oil, similar to home heating oil. Officials believe that during the flushing, the pipe ruptured.

"We've never had an incident like this," said John M. Derrick, chairman and chief executive officer of the Washington-based utility company, which has 700,000 customers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and the District of Columbia.

Within an hour of the leak's detection, Pepco had more than a mile of booms in place, company officials said. Pepco yesterday updated its initial estimate that 130,000 gallons of oil had spilled.

"It looks like Pepco has acted quickly," Michael Shultz, spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said yesterday. "At the moment it looks like they are doing the right thing."

But the spill points to the problem of transporting oil around the bay, Shultz said. "It points out what a threat oil pollution can be to the bay," he said. "It's a real shame it has gotten into that marsh and the river. The damage can be persistent."

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