EPA slashes estimate of oil recovered from utility spill

Barely 20 percent skimmed from river

April 14, 2000|By Joel McCord and Heather Dewar | Joel McCord and Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

HALLOWING POINT -- The Environmental Protection Agency significantly revised downward yesterday the estimate of the amount of oil recovered from a spill at a Prince George's County power plant, from 80 percent to barely 20 percent of the amount reported spilled.

Colby E. Stanton, the EPA coordinator in charge of the cleanup, said officials of the Potomac Electric Power Co. -- which operates the plant at Chalk Point, across the Patuxent River from this Calvert County beach -- had overestimated the amount of oil skimmed from the river into tanker trucks.

Vacuum tubes suck oil and water into the trucks, where most of the water settles to the bottom of the tanks and is spilled back into the river, leaving a mix of oil and water in the trucks. Crews figuring how much oil has been recovered must allow for the additional water.

"We had been explaining that to PEPCO, and they were reporting to us, but when they got to 80 percent, we thought something was wrong, given the amount of oil still out there," said Stanton.

EPA checked the receipts from the contractors and re-figured to get the new estimate.

PEPCO spokeswoman Nancy Moses said the early cleanup estimates were "guesstimates."

The revised cleanup estimate was the latest addition to a swell of official criticism of the utility that started Tuesday when U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who lives in the affected area, said he was unhappy with PEPCO's response and organized a public meeting Wednesday.

The federal Office of Pipeline Safety released yesterday a preliminary report that says crews weren't paying proper attention to the pipeline Friday when an estimated 111,000 gallons of oil spilled into a Patuxent River tributary.

The findings are contained in a "corrective action order" sent to PEPCO officials on Wednesday. The document is separate from the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the pipeline break.

The OPS report outlined a series of mistakes while the pipeline was being prepared for an inspection that led to the spill that has fouled the river and its tributaries in parts of four counties.

It also orders PEPCO not to reopen the pipeline, which carries oil from a terminal at Piney Point in St. Mary's County to the Chalk Point plant, until OPS inspectors have approved the repairs and the utility develops new training programs and emergency procedures.

Officials at PEPCO, which supplies electricity to Washington and its Maryland suburbs, said yesterday they will follow the agency's instructions even though they don't necessarily accept all of its findings.

"It's a preliminary order, and preliminary orders sometimes contain mistakes," said PEPCO spokesman Bob Dobkin. "There are some things in there that we were asked to do, and we will take those actions."

Also yesterday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening flew over the river and toured the beach here to assess the damage, then said PEPCO understands it will have to pay for the cost of the cleanup and could be assessed fines.

"Accidents happen," said Glendening. "But they ought to be able to respond better than they responded here."

Brad Campbell, a regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, complained PEPCO did not have "the right materials, the right competence" in place when the spill occurred and suggested the utility's plan to deal with spills is inadequate.

John Derrick, PEPCO's chief executive officer, bristled at the criticism.

"The plan we had in place was put together with expert input and filed with any number of government agencies and approved as adequate," he said. "By the time the oil got out of Swanson Creek, others were involved, and we were cooperating, and we will continue to cooperate."

The spill, the largest in Maryland since 1993, was discovered about 6 p.m. Friday. PEPCO workers, alarmed by an apparent leak in the 51-mile pipeline, flew over the plant and spotted oil in a marsh at the head of Swanson Creek. The underground pipeline crosses that marsh.

PEPCO workers alerted contractors who are on standby to clean up such spills and placed a floating boom across the creek to contain the oil. But a storm Saturday with winds of almost 30 mph and gusts up to 50 mph blew oil over the boom and into the river.

By yesterday, crews had gotten most of the free-floating oil from the river and were working on heavily oiled Trent Hall and Indian creeks, about 10 miles south of the plant on the western shore of the river.

They were also working on the marsh where the spill began and where EPA's Stanton estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of the oil had collected.

"There are still some globules and some other stuff out there, but you don't see the oil that used to be there," Stanton said.

The leak came from a segment of pipe 12 inches in diameter that was being cleaned in preparation for an OPS inspection.

The Office of Pipeline Safety order says that workers failed to properly monitor the oil's flow and "bypassed" some of the meters and pressure gauges that kept track of the pipeline's contents.

"The amount of [oil] that escaped before being detected indicates that the leak detection capabilities were not adequate," the order says.

"We're not sure what they mean by that, and I think we're going to need some clarification," said company spokesman Dobkin.

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