280 dead animals found in spill area

Not all were killed by utility fuel oil, cleanup officials say

April 22, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Nearly 300 birds, otters, muskrats and snakes have been found dead in the area of an oil spill April 7 at a Prince George's County power plant that sent 111,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Patuxent River and some of its tributaries.

Officials at the headquarters of the federal, state and private forces involved in the cleanup said yesterday not all the animals were killed as a result of the spill, but they could not say how many died of other causes.

Carolyn V. Watson, assistant secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, said yesterday there were some 280 dead animals and another 116 were in rehabilitation facilities where their feathers and coats are being cleaned before they are returned to the wild.

In addition, a pair of ospreys were returned to their nest on a powerline tower over the river after they and their eggs were cleaned by crews at Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary in Bowie.

Watson said it is too early to calculate the environmental damage. It could take decades for some parts of the river to come back, while others can be restored within a year.

"For a while, we're going to see some sheening on the river, and the tar balls -- bits of oil that attached to sand and sank to the bottom -- could be around for decades," she said.

The blackened, oil-covered grasses in marshes protected from wave action will "look awful" through this summer, but when the grasses die, the plant matter and oil will break down to carbon dioxide and water. The marsh will come back next year "in all probability," Watson said.

But it will be more difficult for marshes exposed to wave action to recover; when the grasses die from the oil, waves will erode the soil, leaving no place for new grass to grow.

State and federal officials said yesterday they have recovered 24,000 gallons of the oil that leaked from a pipeline buried more than three feet under a marsh at the head of Swanson Creek on Potomac Electric Power Company's Chalk Point plant. They also recovered an undetermined amount of oil in nearly 1 million pounds of absorbent material, containment booms, blankets, netting and protective clothing.

An estimated 30 percent of the oil soaked into the marsh, but large quantities were blown over containment booms and into the Patuxent April 8. At one point, the oil plume stretched 17 miles along the river, fouling some 20 miles of shoreline.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates pipeline accidents, says the spill came from a crack about five inches long and a half-inch wide.

The 27-year-old pipeline, which carries oil from a terminal at Piney Point in St. Mary's County to Chalk Point and another PEPCO plant in Charles County, was being prepared for an inspection when the spill occurred. It was last inspected in 1997.

At least two lawsuits have been filed against PEPCO as a result of the spill, one in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt and one in Calvert County Circuit Court.

The federal suit, a class-action filed by a Charles County marina owner and a Calvert County waterman, was filed a week after the spill.

"We needed to file [quickly] to preserve our clients' claims," said Gary E. Mason, a lawyer from the Washington firm of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld and Toll.

"What we see here is the government concluded PEPCO was negligent, and we have evidence that they were on notice to fix this pipe," Mason said.

The federal Office of Pipeline Safety, which conducts pipeline inspections, had issued no warnings to PEPCO about that line, an agency spokeswoman said yesterday.

The suit seeks unspecified damages for Albert Bond, owner of Benedict Marina, and Graham M. Baldwin, the waterman, and others in southern Maryland in their situations.

It contends that PEPCO negligently failed to prevent the spill or to properly clean it up. The suit points to a report from the federal Office of Pipeline Safety and says PEPCO did not have the proper equipment to monitor the pipeline, detect the leak or clean up after it happened.

The suit filed in Calvert County was not readily available.

PEPCO spokesman Robert A. Dobkin said the company is reviewing both suits and "will file an appropriate response."

"We've set up a claims process, and our intention is to treat everyone equally," he said.

The cleanup crews, which have been concentrating on nine creeks and several beaches on the river, say they have found horn pond weed in the water and on the shoreline, a sign that vegetation can grow in the areas affected by the spill.

The entire river has been opened to boat traffic, but vessels are forbidden to enter areas blocked by booms. Operators who do so could be fined up to $2,500.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has warned residents not to take fish and crabs from areas where they can see a sheen on the surface or oil on the beach or can smell petroleum. The department also has closed clam and oyster beds in the Patuxent from Thomas Johnson Bridge north.

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