Patuxent still feeling effects of oil spill at plant last year

Crews have cleaned much of river, but fouled spots remain

April 14, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

GOLDEN BEACH - Teams from state and federal agencies and Potomac Electric Power Co. combed the shorelines of Patuxent River tributaries last week, evaluating the cleanup of about 126,000 gallons of oil that gushed from a ruptured pipeline at the utility's Chalk Point plant one year ago.

Then they delivered mixed reviews.

Most of the black slime that had coated 17 miles of shoreline on both sides of the river is gone. But in some places, including parts of the beach in this St. Mary's County community, the telltale rainbow sheen spreads from tiny tar balls when the sand and water are stirred up, and black splotches mar the ground.

"Sometimes, the oil is trapped in the soil, so we'll have to get crews to come back and remove this with trowels," said Jack Coyle of Gallagher Marine Services, Pepco's environmental contractor. "But so far, 95 percent of the stuff we've found warrants no further operation. We would do more harm than good trying to clean it up."

The oil spill April 7, 2000, led to fines and lawsuits against Washington-based utility Pepco, a cleanup effort that so far has cost more than $65 million, legislation to put pipeline inspections under state control, and unknown damage to wildlife, beaches and marshes on both sides of the river from Hallowing Point to Hollywood Shores.

The damage assessment is not complete, said Carolyn V. Watson, assistant secretary of natural resources. But more than 800 birds, snakes, turtles, muskrats, crabs and fish died as a result of the spill, and the marshes so important in filtering pollution could not function for months.

The crews cannot begin restoration work until the assessment is finished, she said. "Obviously, our goal is to bring the river back to the way it was before the spill."

Although not everyone who lives here is happy with the cleanup so far, many say it is about as good as they can expect.

"Last year, this was full of oil out here," said Nell Davis, whose back yard stretches to Indian Creek, near its mouth. "They've done a pretty good job. It sure looks a lot better than it did."

But Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, warned that problems might lie beneath the surface.

"Last year, not too long after the spill, we went to Louisiana and looked at a site where they had a significant spill," she said. "Just from the naked eye, the growth was back up. You couldn't tell anything had happened until you dug into the soil. Then, you could see the black, oily substance and the sheen."

The ruptured pipeline carried oil from a terminal at Piney Point in St. Mary's County to Chalk Point, crossing under a 45-acre marsh at the head of Swanson Creek to reach the plant. It cracked sometime April 7, 2000, as it was being prepared for an inspection.

Workers from ST Services, which operated the 28-year-old pipeline, noticed discrepancies in their gauges about 2:30 p.m. and notified Pepco officials, who shut down the operation and arranged for a flight over the pipeline's path. They spotted the leak about 6:30 p.m.

About 30 percent of the oil soaked into the marsh, and the rest was washed over containment booms during a storm April 8. It went back and forth across the river, pushed by winds and tides. At one point, the plume of oil stretched 20 miles.

Cleanup crews dressed in protective coveralls stretched booms back and forth across the river and mouths of creeks. They spread absorbent blankets and plastic pom-poms on beaches and in the water.

By mid-May, they had skimmed nearly 46,000 gallons of oil from the water and collected 3.3 million pounds of absorbent material soaked with oil.

In the aftermath, the federal Office of Pipeline Safety proposed fining Pepco $674,000, arguing that its response to the spill was inadequate. Pepco lawyers are negotiating the size of the fine.

One hundred waterfront-property owners, and watermen who couldn't fish that area of the Patuxent for two weeks after the spill, also sued Pepco for damages.

Six of those cases were dismissed, and Pepco settled 79 others. Eleven class action lawsuits are pending in U.S. District Court, and one other suit is pending in Prince George's County Circuit Court. The company has moved to consolidate the class action lawsuits, spokeswoman Nancy Moses said.

Angered that the pipeline had not been inspected by federal regulators for three years before the spill, state Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a St. Mary's County Democrat, pushed a measure through the General Assembly to authorize state inspection of the 54 miles of oil pipelines in Maryland - in addition to the required federal inspections.

In December, Pepco sold the pipeline, Chalk Point and three other power plants to Mirant Mid-Atlantic for $2.65 billion.

Pepco, which retains control of the transmission lines, remains a part of the cleanup with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state environmental department and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The agencies evaluating the cleanup divided the river into 53 sectors from a few miles north of the plant to the mouth of the river. Thus far, 38 sectors have been pronounced clean enough for restoration work to begin, and five others have received initial approval.

On a stretch of Indian Creek in this small community last week, the cleanup assessment team prodded the marsh grasses and scooped up sand and gravel, looking for the telltale concentric circles of rainbow sheen.

"You can really see it in that tide flat over there," said Michael Welsh of the Environmental Protection Agency's Philadelphia office. "And here, and here."

He scooped up more sand and splashed it. Sure enough, the sheen started to form.

This creek did not pass the test.

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