Patuxent River marsh shows signs of life after April oil spill

Officials unsure how long restoration efforts will take

May 18, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

SWANSON CREEK -- The marsh at the head of this Prince George's County creek, which was pronounced dead six weeks ago, is showing surprising signs of life.

Large patches of bright green can be seen shooting from the rainbow-colored remains of the 111,000 gallons of oil that gushed from a cracked pipeline at Potomac Electric Power Co.'s plant at Chalk Point on April 7.

Pepco officials took reporters and photographers on a helicopter flight over the spill area yesterday to show their cleanup efforts.

Some black spots are visible, and containment booms and "sweeps" -- absorbent blankets that look like huge rolls of paper towels unrolled -- are visible, but the Patuxent River and its creeks appear to be mostly clean.

Pepco, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Departments of the Environment and Natural Resources declared the oil spill emergency over Tuesday and began calling their efforts the "long-term cleanup."

Colby Stanton, the EPA coordinator who had been in charge, compared the change to a house fire.

"The fire is out now, but work to repair the damage continues," she said. "The restoration efforts will last even longer."

It is unclear how long that will be.

Pepco was preparing the pipeline, which carries oil from a terminal at Piney Point in St. Mary's County to Chalk Point and a plant in Charles County, when the spill occurred.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates pipeline accidents, said the oil spilled from a 5-inch crack in the pipeline under the 45-acre marsh on Pepco property. A final report is not expected for about a year.

About 30 percent of the oil soaked into the marsh, and the rest flowed over a containment boom and into the river during a storm April 8. At one point, the plume of oil stretched for 20 miles and fouled 17 miles of beaches.

Cleanup crews have skimmed nearly 46,000 gallons of oil from the water and collected 3.3 million pounds of absorbent material soaked with oil.

Nearly 300 birds, muskrats, otters and other creatures were found dead in the area of the spill, and 116 were sent to rehabilitation facilities in Bowie and Delaware.

The Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary released 32 waterfowl into the river Tuesday.

"The Patuxent has been sufficiently cleaned to safely release animals and the birds are doing well," said Dianne Pearce, executive director of the wildlife sanctuary. "They appear to be very happy to be back home."

Not everyone was happy with the cleanup efforts.

"It's been the most inept case of Keystone Kops I've ever seen," said Barbara Burton, whose home in Patuxent View opens onto the river.

She complained of oil that escaped Friday when crews were cleaning a sandbar in Caney Creek upstream from her house. While boats were rushed to the site, the oil was drifting toward the riprap onshore between her piers and those of her neighbors.

The water in front of her house was clear yesterday. On the St. Mary's side of the river, "sweeps" stretch along parts of the shore in Persimmon and Washington creeks, and there are oil spots in Trent Hall.

Residents have reported fish kills, mostly of gizzard shad, but tests showed the fish were not killed by the oil spill, said Beverly Perry, a Pepco spokeswoman.

The rest of the cleanup will be dictated by what environmental assessment crews decide is best, from cleaning rocks by hand to doing nothing.

"Sometimes, having people tramp around in there is worse than just letting nature take its course and allowing the oil to break down naturally," said Michael J. Sharon, chief of the MDE's emergency response division. "We have a lot to do yet. It's not over by any stretch."

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