The state was still reeling from the ravages of Hurricane Hugo II when Joe Guard noticed a heavy black sheen spreading across the Cabin Branch.
A watchman at a Curtis Creek oil terminal, Guard notified company officials, who quickly determined that the storm had damaged the storage facility, spilling 100,000 gallons of petroleum into the storm drains and ultimately the creek.
That was the scenario that began yesterday morning's mock oil spill -- a "scrimmage" for the state's Oil Spill Emergency Rescue team -- at the mouth of Curtis Creek and Cabin Branch.
By 10:30 a.m., cleanup crews from the Department of the Environment, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Baltimore City Fire Department and area industries had stretched several bright orange and yellow booms across Curtis Creek to contain the spill.
Workers from CleanHarbors Inc., an environmental contractor hired by the state, stretched a yellow boom several hundred yards across the water beneath I-695 to prevent the wind from blowing the spill into sensitive wetlands upstream in Anne Arundel County.
By noon, the spill had been corralled and cleaned up. For the drill, environmentally safe peat moss was substituted for oil.
"This is an example of what it takes to combat and contain an oil spill," said DOE spokesman John Goheen said. "One agency couldn't do it all bythemselves."
Mention an oil spill and, for many, it conjures images of a crippled supertanker like the Exxon Valdez. But, Goheen said,the threat of a spill in Baltimore Harbor may just as likely come from land.
More than 4 billion gallons of oil pass through Maryland every year. About 850 million gallons enter by ship or barge; the rest comes by truck or pipeline.
"This is one of the more logical places other than a barge in the harbor that you would have a spill," Goheen said of the heavily industrialized Curtis Creek area.
Two oilcompanies as well as other industries, such as W.R. Grace & Co.'s Davison plant, have storage tanks on the creek's banks.
The tanks are required to have berms around them to contain leaks. But a natural disaster like a hurricane can render the best precautions useless, Goheen said. "After Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina so hard, it forced a lot of officials to think about the potential problem," he said.
The state has equipment and crews around the state to respond to almost any type of hazardous spill. Goheen's environmental agency responds to about 400 spills annually statewide.
Two spills in recent years have given environmentalists a scare. Last November, about 80,000 gallons of petroleum spilled from a St. Mary's County storage facility. And, in 1988, a barge traveling up the Chesapeake Bay split in half, dumping about 200,000 gallons.
"An oil spill is one of the biggest threats to the bay," said Shannon Varner, an environmentalist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It would devastate every aspect."
A sizable spill in the Chesapeake would be worse than the Valdezbecause the bay is shallow and does not flush well, Varner said.
The Coast Guard reports about 1,400 minor spills of a few gallons or more every year, which take a cumulative toll, Varner said.
Oil isconsidered toxic and would kill plant and wildlife. It can destroy marine habitats, from marshes to oyster beds.