Oil upon troubled waters

Southern Maryland: Pipeline spill will cause lasting harm, prompting restudy of emergency preparations.

April 14, 2000

NATURE is ever deceiving.

After Maryland's worst oil spill in more than a decade dumped 110,000 gallons of petroleum near the Patuxent River last week, authorities said the slick was contained in a 45-acre marsh buffering the river.

But 50-knot winds pushed the floating oil over the containment booms and into the river Sunday, as cleanup efforts faltered. More than 20 miles of Southern Maryland shoreline are now fouled with the spill.

The light oil, from a ruptured underground pipeline of Potomac Electric Power Co. serving Chalk Point power plant, has shut down fisheries and oyster farms.

While two-thirds of the escaped oil has been recovered by vacuuming, skimming and diaper-like absorbent blankets, the effects of the accidental spill will be felt by the environment for years.

The cost is not just in the few bodies of birds, mammals and sea creatures recovered by cleanup teams. The impact will be seen in the health of these wetlands and waters, and their wildlife and fisheries, in coming years The residue of oil will remain in the area.

The spill followed the inspection 18 months ago of the 12-inch-diameter pipeline, and as the power company was flushing the conduit for maintenance. PEPCO quickly shut off the oil flow and isolated the problem in the 51-mile pipeline.

There is concern that clean-up contractor crews moved too slowly to prevent the spill's spread into threatened tributaries when they knew of impending stormy weather. Inadequate clean-up direction and a shortage of effective equipment are also faulted. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and PEPCO must reflect those concerns in future emergency plans.

The incident also sends a message that environmental safeguards -- and public regulation -- must not be abandoned as power companies race into rate deregulation.

Strict maintenance and monitoring of pipelines remains a priority for the fragile Chesapeake watershed.

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