Scrubbing Up After Rhode Island's Worst Oil Spill

From floating booms to washing loons, cleanup progresses

Moonstone is as pretty a beach as you'll find in New England. Beach grass waves over the dunes, and gulls take wing overhead.

But for the past six days, such postcard images have been overtaken by legions of jumpsuited workers and bulldozer operators struggling to clean up the worst oil spill in Rhode Island's history.

Scrubbing the seashore here - where a grounded barge spewed 828,000 gallons of home-heating oil into Narragansett Bay last Friday - has required around-the-clock efforts. Some 450 Coast Guard officials; scores of workers from Clean Venture, an environmental cleanup firm; and hundreds of volunteers spent this week skimming oil from the water's surface and ringing sensitive tidal ponds with booms in what many observers now say has been a relatively successful effort to contain the spill.

Some have questioned the 42-hour lag time between the start of the leak and the beginning of the state's cleanup efforts. But Judith McDowell, director of the Woods Hole Sea Grant Program, gives the state's efforts a good grade.

''Given the weather conditions, they did about the best they could,'' she says. ''These things are always logistically much more difficult than they appear.''

Ms. McDowell says that under the best of circumstances, spills are difficult to clean up. ''You're lucky if you recover 20 percent of the oil,'' she says. While this spill pales in comparison with that of the Exxon Valdez, its short-term toll has been high. Damage to marine industries is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars. More than 12,000 lobsters have died so far. Scores of birds have either died or been injured. Rhode Island has banned fishing within a 254-square-mile zone.

But the longer-term picture may be brighter. Tests released Wednesday by the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed only one-tenth the contamination federal officials had anticipated. The EPA said petroleum concentrations were no higher than 3.8 parts per million, far below the 10 parts per million considered to be damaging to marine life.

State officials coordinated the cleanup amid volatile weather, corralling Coast Guard special response teams from as far away as Mobile, Ala., and organizing the massive volunteer effort.

Removing the remaining oil from the disabled barge was the first priority. Despite two days of high seas, the Coast Guard started pumping roughly 3 million gallons of oil from the North Cape barge into three smaller barges last Sunday. A coastal storm brought operations to a halt Wednesday, but the officials expected to move the barge today.

For numerous volunteers involved in the week's cleanup operations, saving oil-slicked birds, many of which inhabit nearby Trustom Pond Wildlife Refuge, has been one of the most rewarding tasks. Volunteers overwhelmed the bird rehabilitation center and flooded Save the Bay, which coordinated volunteer efforts, with offers of help.

One woman brought in a golden-eyed duck that she had rescued from the beach and ended up staying for the training required for volunteers. ''It's exciting and rewarding work,'' she commented. ''They're wonderful birds. I just hope there's enough of us to get the job done.''

Area businesses pitched in to support the cleanup. One supermarket donated detergent and paper towels to wash the birds, whose natural insulation against the frigid water was temporarily removed by the oil.

Volunteers, mainly students and homemakers, did everything from donating old towels and soft-sided playpens to preparing fish for the fowls' supper. Just washing the loons, which made up the vast majority of injured birds, took three volunteers per bird.

It is unclear how much the efforts to clean the water and protect wildlife will stem long-term damage. Heating oil is lighter than crude oil and evaporates or dissipates in water. While easier to get rid of than crude oil, the refined product is more toxic, according to McDowell.

Some argue that Rhode Island is using less-than-effective procedures to deal with the spill. ''These folks are geared up for a crude oil spill. It's like trying to use a tool that's not quite the right fit,'' says Kenneth Hinga, a dean at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Crude-oil cleanup methods such as booms and skimmers, he points out, are less effective against the lighter heating oil. ''It's like trying to skim water off water,'' he adds.

Dr. Hinga estimates that it will take about two weeks to eliminate toxicity in the water. Joseph DeAlteris, fisheries co-director at URI, agrees. ''There's not much we can do but let natural processes take place,'' he says.

Hinga says that it may take three years for the local lobster population to recover. Rhode Island lobstermen expect to lose 10 to 15 percent of their annual income this year. Another area of concern is tourism, which earns the state $1.5 billion annually. ''There's been a tremendous amount of negative publicity,'' says David de Petrillo, director of tourism for Rhode Island. But Hinga predicts that by summertime, ''a casual observer would never know there was an oil spill.''

A task force is now assessing the long-term effects of the accident. McDowell, for her part, says the state needs better preparation at the local level to deal with future spills. She would also like to see more effective implementation of laws governing vessel monitoring and construction.

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