Volume 12, Issue 50 ~ December 9 - December 15, 2004
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A Spill That Sends Chills — And Why We Should Care

The scene along the nearby Delaware River these days is a frightening reminder of what shipping disasters can mean.

Marshy shorelines along 70 miles of waterway damaged. Birds and turtles dying. Nearly a half-million gallons of thick crude oil spreading with wind and waves.

Investigators are still trying to figure out what happened with the Greek tanker Athos I. Nothing thus far points to pilot error, but somehow two gashes were ripped in the hull as tugboats shoved the vessel out of the shipping lane and toward its berth.

A possible culprit is a huge propeller lost from an Army Corps of Engineers dredge boat last spring, according to news reports. If that is the case, we would hope that the investigation would turn to how the Corps could have left a dangerous, 20,000-pound set of blades where it could cause so much devastation.

But at this point, the actual cause of the accident remains a mystery.

What isn’t a mystery is the seemingly bollixed response to the spill and the imperative, all the clearer now, that we take every precaution so that no such mishap pollutes Chesapeake waters.

Is it just our imagination, or is every environmental disaster initially low-balled in effect? We were told two weeks ago that 30,000 gallons of crude had spilled, a manageable mess confined to a relatively small area.

Instead, the region just north of us will spend the coming months and millions of dollars (the shippers’ liability is capped) cleaning up an environmental catastrophe.

What if the spill had happened in the Chesapeake Bay? Right now, communities would be praying for the right combinations of wind and tide to carry the blob away. But there would be vast damage, much of it irreparable.

One reason the Chesapeake is so fragile is that it is shallow and therefore difficult to flush. Imagine the effects of blankets of oil settling in tiny coves, on tidal ponds and in waterfront communities getting dolled up for the holidays.

Regulation can make such spills much less likely. Athos I is a single-hulled tanker. If it had been double-hulled, chances are that the spill would never have occurred. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in the 1980s, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 required double-hulls on most oil tankers by 2015.

Given costly threats like we’re seeing on the Delaware River — and the additional risk we keep hearing about of potential terrorist attacks on these ships — wouldn’t it be reasonable to move up that deadline to, say, 2010?

An oil spill on Chesapeake Bay may be highly unlikely, as the shipping industry tells us. But the consequences would be so devastating for the economy and the environment that our elected officials should lead the charge to expedite the requirement for double-skins on tankers that sail the Bay and every other inland waterway.

We should urge them to do the job: It is, after all, our warmth and light that causes ships to sail from foreign ports carrying cargos of oil and gas.

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