A Slick Response?

An oil spill the size of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is not likely to happen in our waters. Still, the state has a plan—just in case.

Illustration by Owen SherwoodThe environmental and financial damages are still being tallied for the millions of gallons of oil that have been released into the Gulf of Mexico since the BP disaster began in April. Could a petroleum disaster of such magnitude happen here? Are we prepared?

There is no oil drilling, or plans for any at this time, off the shore of Delaware, and the area off New Jersey and to the north is protected, so a disaster such as the one that occurred in the gulf is not likely here. Still, no one should be complacent.

Officials in Delaware and surrounding states have seen large spills before. The Delaware River and Bay are home to the fifth-largest port in the United States, as well as the second-largest oil port. Ports on the bay handle 85 percent of the East Coast’s oil imports. That means a large spill could affect the ecosystems of three states and the commerce of the entire Eastern Seaboard.

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“The state recognized a long time ago the potential for this to happen,” says Jamie Turner, head of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency. Protocols are in place, he says, as are partnerships with agencies that are in a constant state of preparedness.

There is no standard spill or cleanup. Every situation is different, varying with the type of fuel that spills to conditions of the spill to the location and weather. So there are four levels of emergency, depending on the size, type and spread of the spill. The levels determine who will be called to respond.

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For a large spill, the state emergency response team would be summoned, usually by the fire chief whose company responded to the initial call from 911, Turner says. From there, the fire chief on the scene would take charge and decide what other teams would be needed.

“The process is pretty in-depth,” says Turner. There are procedures in place for everything from who responds to who pays to how to rotate people in and out of the scene. A large emergency takes accountants, as well as workers in the affected areas. “Surprises are only good on birthdays and Christmas,” Turner says—not at the scene of an emergency.

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The director of DEMA is also charged with updating the governor if a state of emergency needs to be declared to release responders who otherwise wouldn’t be called, such as National Guard members.

All calls of spills in the waterways go to the Coast Guard, which determines if the Maritime All Hazard Response Team should be dispatched. As a result of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a fund was established so a cleanup can begin right away, without first having to determine who will pay for it.

That is good news for Delaware, because a large spill spreading through the river and bay could affect the larger Delaware Estuary if not controlled quickly. Wind, tides and currents could carry a spill through the bay, into the ocean and down the beaches of Delaware south past the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Oil-covered birds would be the first thing people would notice, says Dr. Jonathan Sharp, professor of oceanography at the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment of the University of Delaware in Lewes. Pea Patch Island off Delaware City and Cape Henlopen, for example, are homes to a great numbers of birds, and they are major resting and feeding areas for migratory fowl—some of them endangered species. Oil can be devastating to their habitat.

The more subtle impact would be to the ecosystem overall. No one is sure how bad it could be—the fund for restoring an ecosystem after a spill doesn’t pay for a baseline cataloging of the area before a spill, which makes it hard to determine exactly how bad the effect is, Sharp says.

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How the oil is cleaned up can sometimes have as bad an effect as the spill itself, he says. If there is no possibility of oil polluting coastal regions or marine industries, leaving the oil alone is the option, according to a report by the University of Delaware in 2004. “Nature will clean it up,” Sharp says. “It just takes a long time sometimes.”

If, however, spilled oil is headed toward shore, the most common method of cleaning is soaking and scooping. Crews put down booms—floating material that contains the slick and soaks up the oil—then use skimmer boats to scoop up the oil. Booms are stored near the most sensitive areas, as determined by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, ready to be deployed immediately. Soaking and scooping is not, however, very effective in high winds and high seas.

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Crews may also treat spills with dispersants, substances that break the oil into small droplets that can evaporate quickly. Dispersants can be effective in helping Mother Nature along, but they don’t work on all types of oil, and they can cause oil to accumulate temporarily in marine organisms. Biological agents can also be added to help with biodegradation, but they tend to deplete oxygen in the water, which suffocates other organisms.

Because no method is perfect—“the amount of land and water is so large, there’s not a lot you can do,” says Sharp—prevention and preparation are the best policies.

The non-profit Delaware Bay and River Cooperative is one of several agencies working to prevent and prepare. Members such as local oil refineries, tugboat operators and power plants, as well as many of the vessels that enter the bay, pay for the cooperative. Its two skimmers are some of the first responders to spills. It stores a series of booms near critical areas along the bay and river.

The industry’s self-policing, continually updated safety policies and procedures, and more efficient machinery cut down on spills significantly. “We’ve been fortunate,” says Gardner Knight, marine supervisor for DBRC in Lewes.

To keep in practice, skimmer captains take their boats out to simulate different responses. “We try to deploy the equipment, not just hope it will run fine,” Knight says. Members of DEMA and the DNREC emergency response team also take part in similar drills to stay ready.

A spill here is not just an exercise. It is a reality. Last year the Coast Guard sent out its Maritime All-Hazard Response Team 196 times in response to calls of pollution in the water. Many of the calls were small spills such as those that occur when someone spilled gas while fueling a boat. But that is not always the case.

More than 12 million gallons of oil have been spilled in the Delaware River and Bay since 1975. The Corinthos spill of 1975 alone was, by some estimates, bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince Edward Sound in 1989, says Turner. More than 11 million gallons from the Corinthos escaped into the river. The fact that the ship exploded and burned most of the oil actually saved the environment from greater damage.

The last large spill was in November 2004. A ship called the Athos I spilled more than 473,500 gallons of heavy Venezuelan crude into the Delaware River. Complicated by a northeast storm that prevented clean-up crews from arriving immediately, it was a huge spill, affecting 115 miles of shoreline in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. (Winds and tides helped spare Delaware.) Shipping channels were closed for three days, and two reactors were shut down at the Salem nuclear power plant. More than 7,812 tons of oily solids (cleanup materials and oil) were collected. Some 1,300 people were involved in the cleanup.

Regulations since then have decreased the likelihood of a spill. By February of 2011, all vessels coming into the Delaware River must have fire, salvage and spill plans in place, Knight says. The more stringent regulations help ensure methods of prevention and cleanup are in place and functioning before an accident happens.

“We’ll use anything to make a problem go away, but it’s got to be tested—proven,” Turner says. “The only perfect emergency is the one prevented.”

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