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
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
"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
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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