Less than a week after a tanker leaked up to 473,500 gallons of crude oil into the Delaware River, industry and government experts say a similar spill on the Chesapeake Bay is possible but far less likely.
Federal efforts are under way to improve the aging fleet of commercial tankers and barges that move petroleum products through the nation's ports. And there are calls this week to speed up the process after Friday's accident.
Initial reports put the leak at 30,000 gallons, but spokesmen for the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration raised the estimated size of the leak yesterday.
The safety odds of Maryland waterways remain good because, with no refineries, there is relatively little petroleum coming here, experts said. Products such as gasoline and diesel fuel, home heating oil, liquefied natural gas and asphalt are stored in small quantities. And ships travel along a 50-foot-deep channel in a bay with a soft bottom forgiving to vessels' hulls.
Jeffrey McKee, chief of deep draft navigation for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Baltimore, said about 6.9 million tons of petroleum products a year are handled here, based on the latest statistics available. That compares with Philadelphia, home to several refineries, where more than 100 million tons move through annually. New York-New Jersey ports handle close to 90 million tons.
About 100 to 150 large vessels carrying everything from cars and paper to containerized textiles and fuel call at Baltimore each month. A small number of those bring petroleum products to a handful of storage facilities, including Apex Oil Co. and Amerada Hess Corp.
It's unclear how many vessels carrying petroleum come and go in U.S. waters or the bay each year because they also transport products such as molasses and rum. There are about 3,500 tankers in use worldwide.
The U.S. Coast Guard records about 8,000 spills a year, but most are minor and the result of fishing boats and other small craft that lose fuel. In addition to inspecting all vessels for safety and security at least once a year, the agency is overseeing a federal mandate that all barges and tankers be retrofitted or replaced with double-hulled versions by 2015 for more protection.
That move was prompted by the Exxon Valdez spill into Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989. At nearly 11 million gallons of crude, it was the largest spill in U.S. history.
The Athos I, the tanker operated by the Greek company Tsakos Shipping and Trading SA, was headed for a New Jersey dock near Philadelphia and a Citgo Petroleum Corp. refinery in a channel no more than 42 feet deep when a leak was discovered Friday. The company said in a statement that it looked as though something punctured a single-hulled part of the tanker.
The spill halted traffic until Tuesday, and the Coast Guard said it could take months to clean up.
Two New Jersey senators said this week that they would introduce legislation that lifts a liability cap for single-hulled ships and adds protections for double-hulled ones. The Athos I has a liability limit of about $45.5 million, which may not cover the cleanup, according to Democratic Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg and Jon Corzine.
The unlimited liability for cleanup should encourage tanker owners to upgrade their fleets faster, said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for Corzine.
The last major vessel spill in the Chesapeake Bay was in 1976 when a barge partially sank during stormy weather off Virginia en route from the Amoco refinery in Yorktown, Va., to a Baltimore terminal. An estimated 250,000 gallons of oil spilled, killing 20,000 to 50,000 waterfowl.
The only other major bay spill was in 2000. A leak in an underground pipeline that supplied oil to the Pepco Chalk Point generating facility in Aquasco, in Prince George's County, spilled about 140,000 gallons of fuel oil into Swanson Creek, a tributary of the Patuxent River.
Bud Nixon, chairman of the Private Sector Port Coalition, said the nation uses 700 million gallons of oil a day and as long as there are tankers, and even recreational boating, there is the chance of a spill.
"There's no such thing as a safe tanker, just safer," he said.