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Oil Spills Make Broad Demands

Martha's Vineyard Times March 4, 1999


Last month when a sport fishing vessel sank in Edgartown and began leaking gasoline into the harbor, Edgartown Harbormaster Charlie Blair found himself referring that morning to the oil spill contingency plan in his office. He began dialing the numbers of those poised to respond in such a situation: Coast Guard Group-Woods Hole, Marine Safety Office-Providence, Environmental Police, Dukes County Emergency Management. The pieces seemed to be falling into place when Earl Littlefield, Director of Dukes County Emergency Management, arrived twenty minutes later with a trailer full of equipment for containing small oil spills.

"Woods Hole sent a boat, and the County brought the trailer," Charlie says, "but we had no man-power, no training." Charlie struggled to recall his class on oil spill containment from the Harbormaster Academy. He got approval from the Edgartown Fire Department, then directed the deployment of containment booms to absorb the gasoline. "We used volunteers. We got away with it because it was calm. I looked around and realized that if I hadn’t been there, there would have been no one who had any training."

Charlie estimates that the incident cost the town and the county a total of $10,000.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in March of 1989 elucidated the vast inadequacies in oil spill preparedness plans throughout the US, and prompted Congress to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Under this legislation, the Coast Guard divided the coastline into regions and convened committees in each region to develop and maintain area contingency plans for oil spill response. Martha’s Vineyard falls in the region covered by Marine Safety Office-Providence, and such a plan has been developed for this region. The plan is tested every two years with a large scale oil spill response exercise, the next one planned for this September.

Island officials agree that since the Oil Pollution Act, the Island is far better prepared for oil spill containment, but holes in the system may still exist, and with increasing boat traffic in Island harbors, both commercial and recreational, the cumulative effect of small spills and the danger of large oil spills may be growing.

Medium-Sized Spills May Fall Through the Cracks

Some Island officials believe that, despite the efforts of the Coast Guard in developing a plan and providing an oil spill response trailer which resides at the Oak Bluffs Fire Department, they still lack the training and personnel to put this equipment to use.

According to Bill Searle, Deputy Director of Dukes County Emergency Management, "A tremendous amount of planning has been done, but the problem we have is the man-power to address certain problems. Some of the small spills fall through the cracks."

"Island-wide, it’s pretty scary," says Charlie Blair. Most of the harbormasters on the Island have gone through basic instruction in oil spill containment which, he says, leaves him ill-prepared to lead a spill response team, as he had to do last month.

Bill Searle believes that resources on the Island are adequate to address small spills in calm weather. “But when you get in open water, choppy water, before you can get an appropriate response team, often the damage is already done; the oil is on the beach.”

Shellfish May Be Vulnerable
"It doesn’t take much to lose millions of shellfish," says Charlie Blair.
Three of the Island’s four busy harbors adjoin important shellfishing ponds. In Edgartown, Katama Bay serves as an important natural nursery for scallops, and pristine Cape Poge Bay is historically the most productive shellfish area in Edgartown. Menemsha Harbor adjoins Menemsha Pond which supports a growing fishery, and Lagoon Pond, adjoining Vineyard Haven Harbor, is probably the most productive pond in the state.

Last summer, oil spilled from another sunken recreational vessel in Edgartown Harbor made its way to the intake pipes of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group’s Chappaquiddick Nursery, killing approximately $3,000 worth of seed scallops, according to Rick Karney, the Group’s director. "The place reeked of fuel, and it took about two days before the slicks went down."

Both of the vessels which sank in Edgartown were owned by Russell Amiont of Nantucket. The town and the Shellfish Group have yet to recover any damages for either incident.

According to Lieutenant Ron Cantin, Supervisor of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Field Office-Cape Cod, a geographical reference data base is currently being developed to aid in the protection of environmentally sensitive areas in the event of a major spill. He says that planning will begin soon for the Vineyard, and the first priority is to develop a strategy to protect Lagoon Pond, which is regarded as unusually vulnerable.

Lagoon Pond has a narrow inlet through the bridge in the causeway, and tidal currents move very quickly through this bottleneck. Standard oil containment booms are ineffective in strong currents, so a special arrangement will need to be developed.

The Smallest Spills are Best Prevented

There may be a small oil spill "on an hourly basis in the summer," according to Bill Searle. "Somebody’s not paying attention while they’re fueling their boat, and a half a cup goes blasting over the side through the vent."

Additional small spills may be from oily bilge discharge and paint and thinners from boat maintenance projects. Two-cycle outboard engines also emit a significant amount of oil into the environment.

Both Dukes County and Coast Guard officials cite prevention and education as the first line of defense against this insidious type of pollution. According to Lt. Cantin, this year the Coast Guard Auxiliary will launch a new effort at education of fuel dock operators.

Bill Searles says, "The problem has been lessened a great deal due to legislation. Though it seems there is almost no way of preventing some from being released into the environment. The dealers do try, generally speaking, very, very hard to keep it from happening, but they don’t always have their hand on the pump." If a boater is careless while fueling, he says, it might take the attendant some time to reach the shut-off.

Increasing Boat Traffic Must Be Figured into the Equation
"Clearly, any time you put more boats in a smaller area, you increase the potential of a problem," says Lt. Cantin. "It’s a complex equation."

According to Charlie Blair, Edgartown has seen a threefold increase in recreational boat traffic in the last three years. Similarly in Vineyard Haven the past few years have seen increases in commercial traffic, including a new high speed ferry from New London. Oak Bluffs is likely to see a similar trend with the construction of a breakwater to accommodate the new ferry terminal.

Such trends may increase the potential for a large oil spill, and certainly increase the cumulative impact of small spills.

So, Are We Ready for the Big One?
The potential for a large spill on the Vineyard is greatest with bulk carriers like R.M. Packer, Co. barges and large commercial vessels like Steamship Authority ferries. These vessels are inspected by the Coast Guard and operated by licensed personnel, which Lt. Cantin feels greatly reduces the risk of accidents.

However, Lt. Cantin admits that prevention and contingency planning is "always evolving." With the new database, additional planning is constantly underway, and new regulations aimed at prevention of major spills are in the works. A regulation requiring an escort for single-engine tugs towing oil barges was put in place in response to an incident in 1996 in Rhode Island in which a single-engine tug lost control of an oil barge. Also, double hulls will soon be required for large oil barges.

Ralph Packer operates small petroleum barges out of Vineyard Haven Harbor. He maintains a stockpile of emergency equipment for containment of oil spills and conducts annual drills. Bill Searle says of Ralph Packer, "He has really tried to keep his operation up to date and ready for any situation." Mr. Packer is also prepared to assist the County and the Coast Guard in the event of an oil spill where his vessels are not involved.

"What about the big oil spill? Don’t know," says Earl Littlefield, Director of Dukes County Emergency Management. "I don’t think we’re capable of handling something of that nature right now."

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