Taming the oil-spill threat: fewer crises, fast cleanups

The past decade has seen a sea change in attitudes, regulation, and organization to prevent and control oil spills. The results are fewer spills, less oil on the oceans, and faster cleanups of spills that do occur. For example, when the freighter Fern Passett rammed into a jetty late last month in Jacksonville, Fla., thousands of gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled into the Atlantic Ocean.

Four days later, the Norwegian owners of the vessel had admitted responsibility for the accident, hired a private cleanup company, and agreed to spend up to $1 million to remove a swath of oil stretching 20 miles down the beaches south of Jacksonville.

Dump trucks, front-end loaders, and teams of Coast Guard reservists combed the beaches. Offshore, a jet monitored the spill with a special infrared camera. A crew of volunteers set up a cleaning station to wash off oiled seabirds.

The response to this spill stands in marked contrast to what occurred 10 years before. In December 1976, there were three major oil spills: The Argo Merchant lost 7.5 million gallons off New England; the Olympic Games lost 134,000 gallons in the Delaware River; and the Sansinena exploded, spreading 20,000 gallons of bunker oil into San Pedro Harbor, Calif. Litigation lasted for months. Cleanup was chaotic to nonexistent.

According to Richard Golob from the Center for Short-Lived Phenomena, evidence for the decline in oil spills is readily apparent: The number of major spills with losses greater than 1 million gallons has been declining steadily. In 1983 there were 16 major spills, in 1984 there were five, and in 1985 there were only two major spills. The total number of spills remains fairly constant, but it is the major spills that do the most damage.

James Butler, a professor of applied chemistry at Harvard University, has seen the decline on the beaches of Bermuda, where he is president of the Bermuda Biological Station. ``We can use Bermuda like a giant plankton net to monitor the amount of oil in the Atlantic Ocean,'' he says. ``Each summer we weigh the amount of tar balls formed from the weathering of spilled oil. In 1979 we were getting about 200 grams of tar per square meter, in 1982 50 grams, and by 1983 and 1984 it had declined to less than 20 grams of tar per square meter.'' Prevention

The decrease in the amount of tar balls on Bermuda and the decrease in the amount of major oil spills are the result of several national and international regulations passed since 1977. In the 1960s, oil tankers intentionally discharged as much as 1 percent of their cargo to clean their tanks.

The International Marine Consultative Organization ratified regulations in 1978 that severely reduced intentional oil discharges.

Other regulations have tightened up tanker safety. The transcripts of the Argo Merchant inquiry read like a parody of seamanship, according to Judith Kildow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. ``The captain was the only person on the ship who could read English, the ship was structurally unsound, a wiper from the engine room was manning the helm at the time of the accident, and there was evidence that several of the crew members had been drinking,'' Dr. Kildow says.

``There are hardly any ships like that today,'' says Dr. Butler, ``and those that are we don't allow into United States ports. Economics has also played a significant role in reducing shoddy shipping practices. In the early 1970s, people were coining money to buy tankers. They could pay $600,000 to purchase a small tanker and make it back in three months. It was an enormously lucrative business.''

When the price of oil soared in 1973, demand dropped, and far less oil was being shipped. Many of the smaller, less scrupulous owners left the business. Things became so tight that in Sweden some owners used their tankers to store wheat. Oil-spill cleanup

Oil spills still occur, but when they do the response is far more organized and less confrontational than it was 10 years ago. Previously, tanker owners claimed that accidents were an act of God and that they should not be held accountable.

Today, owners recognize that spills give them a chance to show that they can be good neighbors. It is less expensive in the long run to declare voluntary liability and pay the cleanup costs right away than to go to court. Most of the owners have put money into a compensation fund. When a spill occurs, they can draw on the fund immediately to hire private cleanup firms and compensate local communities and fishermen.

Butler cites a recent example. ``After a Jan. 6 spill in Port Angeles, Wash., owners poured money on everyone; they paid to have all the seabirds cleaned and reimbursed fishermen for their traps.''

Organization is also more apparent. Under the Clean Water Act, the federal government has established a national contingency plan that outlines the duties of 14 governmental agencies in the case of a major spill. The plan calls for an on-scene coordinator to encourage ship owners to accept responsibility and hire a private cleanup firm. Then it is the coordinator's duty to monitor the cleanup operation.

A national response team chaired by an official of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard has access through personal computers to a data base on past spills and a modeling system that plots the expected trajectory of the spill. Says Commdr. Mark Lavache, ``This system allows the on-site crew to develop a strategy to protect sensitive environmental areas.''

Jack Farlow of the EPA observes that an oil spill is always traumatic for the people involved. ``If it occurs in a coastal area you know and love, it brings forth tremendous emotional feelings.''

The technology for cleaning up oil spills is essentially the same as it was 10 years ago. The difference today is that these traditional booms, skimmers, and pumps are more accessible.

Jack Gould from the American Petroleum Institute explains that there is also a growing appreciation for an old technology. ``Dispersants received a bad reputation during the Torrey Canyon spill in 1967,'' he says. ``However, the dispersants used on that spill were toxic and were applied poorly. They probably did more damage to sea life than the oil itself.''

Since the Torrey Canyon incident, companies have developed less-toxic dispersants and have developed aerial-spraying techniques that are far more effective. The National Academy of Sciences is about to release a report that is also expected to encourage the judicious use of dispersants.

``Formerly, there was concern among much of the scientific community that dispersants could become something of a cover-up because they cause oil to go below the surface where it was feared they could do damage that would be ignored because it was `out of sight, out of mind,''' Mr. Gould says.

``Today we know that dispersants can be another tool in our kit of tools to protect the environment. They can speed up the natural process of weathering oil droplets. They can save seabirds by removing oil from the ocean surface, and they can prevent oil from washing into sensitive areas like marshes and mangroves where it can do the most damage.''

But the bright statistics on spills are ``very unstable,'' says Farlow, and one major spill could ``turn them right around.'' Mr. Golob warns that it is unusual that no major spills have occurred in the war between Iran and Iraq. ``This is primarily because their heat-seeking missiles home in on the engine room of tankers,'' he says, ``disabling the ships before the tanks themselves are ruptured.'' But if an antiship missile ruptures a supertanker, ``the spill will be devastating. Most of the countries in that area rely on desalinization plants to make their water. These would have to shut down and water could become more expensive than oil.''

While oil spills remain a serious environmental problem, their impact has been overshadowed by such recent disasters as Bhopal, Chernobyl, and the contamination of the Rhine River. It has also been learned that less-visible but more-persistent pollutants like PCBs and heavy metals have caused much damage to urban harbors.

While government and industry must remain vigilant about future oil spills, all parties concerned have come a long way in preventing spills and mitigating the amount of damage they cause when they do occur.

William Sargent is director of the Coastlines Project in Woods Hole, Mass.

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