NEWARK, Del. - Like a mutant blob in a bad horror movie, an oil slick first thought to be relatively small has grown bigger and more menacing over the past week, oozing its way down both banks of the Delaware River.
When the Greek tanker Athos I began leaking heavy Venezuelan crude oil into the river the night of Nov. 26, it appeared to be a manageable spill confined to a riverside terminal - 30,000 gallons, according to estimates. But authorities now are warning that it could be as much as 473,000 gallons, a gooey mess that has stained 70 miles of shoreline across three states.
Investigators are trying to determine whether a gash and a puncture in the ship's hull were caused by an 11-ton, 13-foot-wide propeller that fell off a dredge owned by the Army Corps of Engineers in April and was left on the river bottom.
The muck has killed birds, fish and turtles. It has shut down a nuclear plant and threatened a dozen freshwater streams and tributaries. It has slid past a pristine nature reserve and spread to within three miles of drinking water intakes for Philadelphia and southern New Jersey.
And it was still oozing Friday, leaving a black smear 4 feet high along the stone sea wall that keeps the Delaware from flooding Fort Mifflin, a historic Revolutionary War battlement. Stiff sea winds spread a sharp chemical odor across the freshwater tidal marshes that straddle Interstate 95.
Worse than in 1989
The spill is not exactly the Exxon Valdez - 11 million gallons dumped in Alaska in 1989 - but it could be the worst ever on the Delaware, surpassing the 300,000 gallons spilled by a tanker in 1989.
And it has surprised and shaken a region where most people are only vaguely aware of the massive refineries that dot the uninhabited, low marshlands south of Philadelphia. Tankers deliver a million barrels of crude each day to the refineries that produce 70 percent of the gasoline sold in the northeastern United States, according to the local maritime exchange.
More than 1,000 workers were along the river Friday, trying to contain the spill with 94,000 feet of absorbent booms. Despite all efforts, the environmental and economic damage probably will be in the millions, authorities said. The Delaware Bay is home to thousands of migratory shorebirds and the world's largest population of horseshoe crabs.
"No matter how good the cleanup is, the damage is irreparable. This is a real catastrophe," said Maya van Rossum, a lawyer and environmentalist who calls herself the "Delaware Riverkeeper." For the past week, Van Rossum has stomped along creek beds and marshlands, taking photographs and documenting the effects of the spill.
The oil has spread from Pennsylvania and New Jersey past Newark, where on Friday staffers and volunteers at Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Inc. were using diluted dishwashing liquid to dissolve oil from the feathers of ducks, Canada geese and sea gulls - and from the shell of a painted turtle. A pair of rare bald eagles smeared with oil had been spotted but not recovered by rescuers, van Rossum said.
"The oil burns their skin and eyes and destroys their feather structure - it's nasty stuff," Chris Motoyoshi, the rescue center's executive director, said as workers struggled to get a feeding solution down the throat of an uncooperative gull.
Limits on shipping
Shipping restrictions have been imposed on the Philadelphia port, the East Coast's leading destination for cocoa beans from Ivory Coast and for South American fruit - particularly grapes from Chile and bananas from Costa Rica. Ships were waiting Friday to be washed clean of oil before heading back out to sea, with the delays costing tens of thousands of dollars a day.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has placed oil snares on the river, said Friday that the spill ranges from "very light sheening to heavy oiling" along the 70-mile slick.
The 750-foot Athos I was carrying 14 million gallons of oil when it began leaking at an oil company dock. Authorities first said only 30,000 gallons had seeped out, but four days later the U.S. Coast Guard announced that 473,500 gallons were missing from the tanker. Divers found a 6-foot gash and a 2-foot puncture in the hull.
The Athos I is a single-hulled tanker. Federal laws passed after the Exxon Valdez spill required single-hulled ships in the United States to be replaced by double-hulled vessels by 2015.
The tanker's operator, Tsakos Shipping & Trading of Athens, has said insurance will cover the costs of the cleanup. Federal law limits owners' liability based on a ship's tonnage. In the case of the Athos I, the liability would be about $45 million.