Chesapeake Outdoors

Vol. 8, No. 16
April 20-26, 2000
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Nightmare on the Patuxent

On a beautiful spring day, the woman had the right idea. With rod in hand, she dunked worms for white perch and catfish. But this tranquil scene at Magruder’s Landing belied the tragedy only miles down river. Three days earlier, the serenity of the Patuxent was shattered when a pipeline ruptured at Pepco’s Chalk Point generating station and spewed 110,000 gallons of oil into Swanson Creek and eventually the river, killing wildlife, destroying large tracts of sensitive wetlands and disrupting the lives of the people who call the Patuxent home.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior naturalist John Page Williams and I set out to get a first-hand look at the damage. Like a punch to the stomach, the unnatural activity on this beautiful river stunned me. Containment booms, oil-skimming barges and absorbent ‘pillows’ created a surreal scene made only stranger by the scores of workers clad in protective orange suits who roamed the shoreline like images from a Kubrick film.

Having spent many good days and nights on this magnificent river, I have grown fond of it. Still, I can’t begin to imagine how this has impacted the people who live here. Disbelief, anger and frustration are but a few of the emotions people have expressed. Memories of winter hunts at Buzzard Island have been replaced by an image of a containment boom blocking off the area where scaup, canvasbacks and buffleheads roosted only a few months earlier. Trent Hall Creek, where I trot-lined for crabs with middle school kids, is now the focus of intense clean-up efforts.

Like many people, I have reaped many benefits from the Patuxent, taken fish from its waters, glimpsed otters swimming silently across a creek and discovered diamondback terrapin nests along the beaches. Now, scores of animals have been found dead and animal rescue groups are treating many more.

Yet to be determined is the long-term ecological damage. What fate awaits the millions of rockfish, herring and shad eggs soon to float within the water column? And what will migrant birds eat now that the aquatic insects and small crustaceans of Swanson Creek and other marshes lie smothered under oil? How much damage have landowners sustained and how long will it take to restore? And what about the people who earn a living from those waters of the Patuxent?

Nearly two weeks later after the worst spill in the company’s 104-year history, more than 700 people from nearly 20 government agencies and private companies continue to recover oil from the river’s creeks and shoreline. Some of the data reported Tuesday by clean-up officials is staggering: 975,000 pounds of absorbent material has been trucked off site for disposal and 57,650 feet of boom has been deployed throughout the area.

Maryland Department of the Environment warns not to take fish and crabs, either commercially or recreationally, in areas of the river where oil has been observed. These areas may be identified by a surface sheen, oil on the beach or the smell or taste of petroleum. Residents are also urged not to use such beaches and shorelines for recreation. Pets and livestock should not be allowed access to contaminated areas.

By all accounts, this is an ecological catastrophe. There is much to sort out before we can move on from this ugly chapter. Pepco has promised to clean the river and restore wetlands and private property. But larger questions may loom after the ugly specter of oil is removed: How do we increase gas and oil pipeline safety throughout the watershed? Where do the pipelines run and how often, and to what extent, are power companies required to maintain them? Is it worth the environmental risk to continue to depend on fossil fuels for convenient, cheap power? At what point do we begin to significantly reduce our reliance on oil to reduce the threat of ecological disaster?

Hard questions for sure, but the health of our treasured Bay and its crown jewels like the Patuxent depend on sound answers. We owe it not only to ourselves, but also to the river and its creatures, for they have no voice.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly