Vol. 8, No. 16
April 20-26, 2000
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Gunk and Obfuscation

Beaches coated in oil and slime. A sheen on the water and stomach-churning odors in the air. Animals and aquatic life harmed.

Wetlands badly damaged. Boats banned and children kept indoors. Corporate blunders compounded by secrecy. No, it’s not the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in the 1980s. It’s the Potomac Electric and Power Co. oil pipeline spill along the Patuxent River.

All of us should be troubled by this damage to Chesapeake Country. Especially on Earth Day, our annual time of environmental reckoning.

As we all know, an underground pipeline ruptured, spilling oil into the Patuxent. We are not so pollyanish to think that accidents don’t happen, and we understand how petroleum products fuel our lives.

But given the sensitivity of our surroundings — our developed shores and shallow Bay waters that don’t readily flush themselves — we’re stunned by Pepco’s incompetence in containing the spill and its ham-handed public relations since.

As officials have told us, Pepco didn’t know what to do or whom to call when the oil began to flow. Senate President Mike Miller put it bluntly: “This oil spill, with prompt action, could have been contained.”

Instead, the oil spread across 17 miles of Patuxent shoreline, damaging four counties.

Citizens are alarmed and rightly so. It doesn’t help to be told that instead of 80,000 gallons, just 20,000 gallons have been cleaned up, one of last week’s conflicting signals.

The day after that report, Bay Weekly sent reporter Matthew Pugh to check on the damage and the clean-up. Pepco wouldn’t let him near the worst areas around the plant. It’s not “media day,” he was told during a protracted run-around.

You would think that a company guilty of violating the public trust would be eager to show any citizen, especially an emissary of the press, the extent of the problem and the efforts to make amends. Then again, you would expect a company to have a well-oiled emergency response plan. Pardon the pun.

Gov. Parris Glendening observed that it could take years for ecosystems to recover from severe damage. He’s right. More than a year after the Exxon Valdez mishap, we walked the stained shoreline in Alaska and listened to Native American fishermen tell us how their catches had dwindled.

The Patuxent River spill is no Exxon Valdez disaster. But it will live on. And it will be up to us, by demanding safeguards, to keep it from happening again. There’s new legislation in Congress for stiffer penalties and a $30 million pipeline safety program.

Until then, every elected official you see, wag your finger in their face and say “Pepco.” They’ll get the message.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly