For Certain, Oil Spills Will Occur

A recent decision by the Maryland Department of NaturalResources to grant an exploratory oil-drilling permit in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has caused spirited debate between environmentalists and developers. As one of a handful of people in the United States ever charged with coordinating a state's clean-up efforts for a major oil spill, I'd like to try to shed some light on the subject.

First, whether one is for or against oil drilling and oil transport, the simple, indisputable fact is that oil spills will occur. Most will be small, in the neighborhood of a few thousand gallons. Then, like throwing the dice in a crap shoot, you roll the big one, and you've got an Exxon Valdez or Santa Barbara on your hands.


Once the big one occurs, you've got some major problems. When federal, state and local agencies start bickering with each other in the midst of a clean-up the word frustration takes on new meanings.

At the time of the Exxon Valdez spill, Frank Iarossi, then president of Exxon USA Shipping Company, said it would be better to name an oil-spill "dictator" to respond to oil spills rather than rely on hodgepodge state and local efforts. At the risk of incurring the ire of some of my environmental colleagues, I must say, that I agree with Mr. Iarossi.


As I read about the state's permit to Texaco, I was reminded of a sunny spring afternoon in 1979, when I was notified by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Park Service that a "small" oil spill was washing up on the pristine beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As the director of a marine research center and public aquarium, with a significant environmental background but virtually no regulatory experience, I was appointed by the governor to represent the state's interests in every aspect of the spill clean-up. I was to approve every decision to protect North Carolina's fragile coastal ecosystem.

I was immediately thrust into a maelstrom of conflicting interests. Dozens of media reporters, irate citizens and business owners confronted me, and so did an equally irate governor who wanted the tourist beaches cleaned post-haste. Environmental groups urged that damage to the marine resources be minimized.

From our helicopter surveys, we determined that the small spill stretched from Back Bay, Virginia to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, a distance of some 30 to 40 miles. The sticky, tarry globules of oil were later traced to a Venezuelan tanker. Hundreds of volunteers and paid workers were mobilized to hand-shovel the oil from the beaches. The mixture of oil and sand was placed in plastic trash bags, loaded onto bulldozers and taken away by truck.

On Day 5, the first really major conflict arose. The Coast Guard wanted to get the oil out of an estuary on the North Carolina-Virginia border. The most expeditious way was to bring in bulldozers. I hesitated, knowing what havoc the machines would wreak on the fragile environment. The Coast Guard was equally insistent on using the 'dozers. In 1979, their only charge was to clean the spill, not assess environmental issues.

After calling in two consultants who confirmed my fears, I found myself nose to nose with the Coast Guard commander. Only the threat of direct involvement by both states' governors made the Coast Guard back off. Crews were sent in to hand-clean the estuary.

Next came the real clincher. While the Coast Guard did a superb job of helping coordinate the clean-up of the affected beaches, it perceived its job as essentially complete once the oil was bagged. Bags were removed from the beaches slowly and, I found out later, were taken to the local town dump, where no containment precautions were taken. Bags were ripped open from the hauling process and the island's groundwater was threatened.

Only after a serious two-day confrontation would the Coast Guard agree to a plan whereby we excavated a special section, lined it, put in truckloads of sawdust brought in from a mill 60 miles away, placed the bags in, capped the site, and planted grass over it. By then the clean-up fund was well over budget and each decision severely challenged.

These were by no means the only controversial incidents. Clean-up operations involve myriad details and constant crises. For example, even when beach operations were going well, an impending northeast storm threatened to wash three days worth of collected bags back out to sea.


In the case of the oil spill on the Outer Banks, I was fortunate to have an excellent staff willing to work around the clock and the backing of a strong governor. We were also fortunate to have an environmentally literate group of local citizens ready to assume responsibility. I shudder to think what might have happened had circumstances been different.

What my experiences point up is that oil spills are an unavoidable consequence of drilling and transport. Assuming that a state allows drilling and transport in its coastal waters, it must develop comprehensive contingency plans to cope with such catastrophes.

But even the best plans may be shattered by the reality of the event. Therefore, enough decision-making responsibility should be entrusted to one agency or a few people to enable them to respond to environmentally disastrous spills and mobilize adequate resources, keep abreast of emerging technology and plan for a wide variety of scenarios. To do little or nothing while agencies fight over turf, as was the case in the crucial first days of the Valdez disaster, will invariably be worse than informed action.

Maryland may choose to pursue oil and gas development; tough economic times demand new ways to feed its people. But no one should be misled into thinking that lunch will be free.

Lester A. Picker is a financial columnist for The Sun and a consultant to non-profit organizations, private foundations and corporations. His most recent book is "Winter Environmental Studies."