Despite oil cleanup effort, spill drifts toward the bay

Equipment is being shifted downstream

April 12, 2000|By Joel McCord and Heather Dewar | Joel McCord and Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

The oil that spilled from a Prince George's County electric plant over the weekend and fouled beaches on the Calvert County side of the Patuxent River has started moving downstream with the tide toward the Chesapeake Bay.

The plume of oil that once stretched about five miles south along the eastern shore of the river went three miles farther yesterday -- reaching Buzzard Island and Sandy Point on the Calvert County side and was found on Golden Beach and in Trent Hall and Indian creeks in St. Mary's County.

Nancy Moses, a spokeswoman for Potomac Electric Power Co. which operates the plant at Chalk Point, said company crews, private contractors and officials from state and federal agencies were struggling to keep the oil north of Sheridan Point, about 16 miles north of the bay.

Carrie Dietzel, a community involvement coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said cleanup crews are moving equipment and workers to bring the spill under control.

The spill of 111,000 gallons of No. 2 oil, one of the worst in Maryland in years, occurred about 6 p.m. Friday in a 45-acre marsh near the head of Swanson Creek.

PEPCO crews stretched containment booms across the creek that night and began the long, arduous cleanup. But a storm Saturday with winds of 25 knots gusting to 50 knots blew water and oil over the containment booms, out of the creek and across the river.

It was not clear yesterday how much oil PEPCO kept in the creek, but the rest is floating in the river or has washed up on beaches and coated wildlife.

Dianne D. Pearce, president of Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary, said yesterday her group has captured swans, mallards, a heron and a muskrat -- all covered with oil -- and took them to its lab in Bowie to clean them.

"We're responding to calls and checking them out," she said. "As we find and retrieve animals, we get what we can to triage, then transport them."

Officials have scheduled a public meeting at 7: 30 p.m. today at the Benedict Fire Hall to discuss the situation with residents.

The marsh in Swanson Creek is less than three feet deep, and the winds that blew most of the water out of it over the weekend left the bottom exposed to oil, said Kent Mountford, senior scientist with EPA's Chesapeake Bay program.

That coating would kill worms, snails, periwinkle snails, fiddler crabs and small crustaceans that are important food sources for fish.

Insect larvae, like midges, are lying on the marsh bottom ready to hatch, providing essential food for flycatchers, swallows and other birds that will soon be returning from winter migration. Oil on the exposed muck would kill the larvae and might create food shortages for the birds, Mountford said.

Federal records obtained yesterday show that the federal Office of Pipeline Safety recorded two past oil spills involving PEPCO's Chalk Point plant and the pipeline that feeds it.

In September 1995, operators for ST Services, the company that operates the pipeline, spilled about 4,000 gallons of oil at the pipeline terminal in Piney Point when workers failed to line up a series of valves properly.

And in August 1987, PEPCO workers at Chalk Point tried to pour more oil into a tank than it would hold and spilled 52,000 gallons. But PEPCO spokesman Nancy Moses said the tank was double-walled, so the spilled oil was captured without any harm.

The pipeline from Piney Point to Chalk Point is among those that could face stricter regulations under a set of rules the Office of Pipeline Safety is developing.

In 1992 and again in 1996, Congress passed laws ordering the federal agency to identify the nation's most delicate and valuable wild areas that are crossed by oil pipelines, where spills could do serious, long-term harm. The Office of Pipeline Safety would have the right to set tougher safety standards and hold more frequent inspections.

The Chesapeake Bay is among the places on a preliminary list of areas meriting extra protection. But eight years after Congress acted, the agency is still trying to develop a method for identifying the targeted areas. A draft proposal is now open for public comment; no further action will be taken till the comment period closes in July.

Yesterday, Vice President Al Gore proposed legislation to require pipeline operators to establish comprehensive inspection and repair programs and reduce the impact of accidents.

"These pipelines are vital to our economy, but without adequate safeguards, they can pose a serious threat to our families," Gore said.

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