Spill cleanup, aquatic life in race

Oily beaches a threat as creatures emerge from winter dormancy Long-term oil spill effects foreseen

April 11, 2000|By Joel McCord and Heather Dewar | Joel McCord and Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

AQUASCO -- Cleanup crews raced yesterday to clear oil from beaches of Swanson Creek and the Patuxent River in Prince George's and Calvert counties -- just ahead of creatures starting their spring ritual of reproduction in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Herring, rockfish and shad spawning runs have begun, and diamondback turtles are emerging from the mud. A female bald eagle and her young are nesting at the spot where the creek joins the river.

"We're working 24 hours a day to get this cleaned up," said Robert A. Dobkin, a spokesman for Potomac Electric Power Co.

"And it's not just the wildlife. It's the pristine nature of this whole area. We want to get it back."

About 111,000 gallons of No. 2 oil leaked from a pipe at PEPCO's Chalk Point generating station Friday night in Prince George's, one of the worst spills in Maryland in years. The oil covered Swanson Creek and a 45-acre marsh at the head of the creek.

More than 100 PEPCO and government workers were collecting oil yesterday. Company officials said yesterday most of the shoreline cleanup could be finished by tomorrow, but cautioned it might take weeks to collect the oil and restore the 45 acres of marsh.

"We don't know how long it's going to take, but it's going to be long-term," said Jim Kelly, a supervisor at the plant.

About a dozen muskrats that live in the marsh were killed, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rescued three swans.

The situation worsened Saturday when winds gusting to 50 knots blew water and oil eastward over containment booms and to the river's eastern shore in Calvert County.

Oil spills commonly cause lasting damage in sensitive marshes and on sandy beaches like those along the Patuxent, said Robert P. Gallagher, acting director of the Academy of Natural Sciences Estuarine Center at St. Leonard, about nine miles downstream on the Calvert shore.

"I suspect we'll see the effects of this for a while," he said. "I could imagine it lasting several years. It depends on how well they'll be able to clean it up. Once that thing reaches the shoreline and starts coating the beaches, it's going to be there for a long time."

The academy shut down pumps yesterday that draw river water into tanks where oysters and other creatures are raised in an effort to prevent oil from entering the water supply, Gallagher said.

The spill's timing is not as bad as it could be, said Gallagher, because bay creatures are beginning to emerge from winter dormancy.

"Things are just kind of waking up now, and they're not in full swing," he said. "Maybe the harshest effects will be gone before they start their reproductive cycle."

Water temperatures in the area reached 60 degrees for the first time this weekend, said Kent Mountford, senior scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program. The warm water accelerates the pace of life in marsh grasses, river water and bottom mud. For every 10-degree increase, the wildlife activity doubles, Mountford said.

Swanson Creek gets little help from nature in neutralizing effects of an oil spill because of the lack of wave action, said Gary L. Ott, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's scientific coordinator for oil and chemical spills.

Ott, whose team works with the Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency on oil spill cleanups, said NOAA experts have ranked the nation's coastlines on a scale of one to 10 according to the amount of natural breakup that comes from tides and wave action, with 10 being the worst.

Swanson Creek is a 10, and many of the surrounding areas are classified as nine. "To clean this marsh isn't easy, and it's not going to be 100 percent," Ott said. If the oil isn't removed from the marsh, it could remain a hazard to wildlife for years, he said.

Among the options considered:

A controlled burn of the heavily oiled marsh grasses. The burn would be timed after a high tide has wet the grasses to help control the blaze and done when wind conditions would minimize air pollution, Ott said.

A system of temporary walkways across the marsh that would allow workers with vacuum hoses to pump up the oil.

Digging a hole around the pipeline, so that oil could accumulate and be easier to pump out.

PEPCO officials detected the leak in a section of pipe under the headwaters of Swanson Creek about 6 p.m. Friday. The pipe carries oil from a barge pier at Piney Point in St. Mary's County to the plant at Chalk Point and one at Morgantown in Charles County, said Susan Moses, a PEPCO spokeswoman.

In the wake of the spill, a group of congressmen, parents and citizen groups worried about the condition of the pipeline system scheduled a news conference today to urge legislation to upgrade the system.

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