Chesapeake Outdoors By C.D. Dollar

Vol. 8, No. 50
Dec. 14-20, 2000
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Patuxent Nightmare Over But Not Forgotten

The last time I was on the Patuxent River I felt violently ill, not seasick or nauseous, but an uneasiness more akin to being sucker-punched in the stomach. What made me sick was the ecological tragedy I witnessed after a ruptured pipeline at Pepco's Chalk Point generating station spewed 110,000 gallons of oil into Swanson Creek, destroying that fragile marsh and fouling miles of Patuxent shoreline and other creeks. Three days after the accident, I remember motoring past God's Grace Point, where the first signs of the clean-up effort revealed work skiffs stained with oil.

Farther down river at the Benedict Bridge, the horror was more evident as containment booms, oil-skimming barges and absorbent pillows created a surreal scene. I remember men in galactic orange jumpsuits sponging oil from the shoreline. The accident shattered the serenity on the river, killed wildlife, destroyed large tracts of sensitive wetlands and disrupted the lives of the people who call the Patuxent home. As the clean-up stretched on, disbelief, anger and frustration were but a few of the emotions people expressed.

Fast forward to a brilliantly clear late autumn morning, the cold air snapping at my ears. My hunting partner, Kevin Colbeck, and I launched my skiff from Hallowing Point to scout for diving ducks: scaup, buffleheads and canvasbacks. We've had some good hunts on this wonderful river, and I have grown very fond of it, but when we headed south toward Buzzard Island, the vivid images of containment booms and the small armada of oil recovery barges flooded my brain.

My angst was relieved somewhat when a formidable raft of Canada geese came into view. That, nearly 10 months after the worst oil spill in Pepco's 104-year history, is an encouraging sign that the river is recovering. As we pushed south, dippers - as buffleheads are called - fluttered into the air ahead of the boat. But that massive flock of blackheads - another name for scaup - eluded us.

It was only when we made a U-turn and headed north, under the drawbridge that separates Calvert County from St. Mary's County, that we saw what we came for. Clouds of birds, perhaps hundreds of them, rose in unison as we blew past Swanson Creek. Ruddy ducks made up the bulk of them, but a fair number of buffleheads, bluebills and canvasbacks - the undisputed king of the divers - were also in the flock.

Back at the ramp, my thoughts reverted to that horrible spill in April, which killed countless animals and sparked questions about how we can be better stewards of our environment. Questions about the long-term ecological damage done to the area still persist, and I ask myself, what have we learned from the Chalk Point spill? Perhaps we can find some answers when the Maryland General Assembly meets in January and the subject of oil transportation safety is discussed. Maybe we can individually take steps to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

After a day on one of the Western Shore's jewels, I'm hopeful that the Patuxent's scars inflicted by the Pepco accident will, in time, fully heal. The challenge is to ensure that it never happens again anywhere on the Bay.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly