Calif. oil spill spurs query on Md. plans

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Fresh from California, where the crash of a ship spilled 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the San Francisco Bay, U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings is asking state and federal officials about preparedness should a similar disaster strike Maryland.

The Baltimore Democrat, who chairs the House subcommittee on the Coast Guard and maritime transportation, has written to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and the commandant of the Coast Guard with questions about how quickly local and state authorities would be notified of a spill, who would respond and how recently they've conducted a drill to practice.

"This can happen anywhere," Cummings said after a hearing in California last week into the crash of the Cosco Busan in the San Francisco Bay. "We in Maryland, and ports all over the country, need to take a very, very careful look at what happened."

Local Coast Guard officials say they're well aware of the danger. In September, the Coast Guard joined with the Navy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Maryland's Department of the Environment and other agencies on a drill in the Chesapeake Bay that included a mock oil spill.

"It's something that we practice and take very seriously," said Coast Guard Capt. Brian Kelley, commander of Coast Guard Sector Baltimore. "I believe right now that we're ready to respond."

Marylanders seeking an idea of the damage a spill could cause might recall the rupture in 2000 of a pipeline that supplied fuel to the Chalk Point power generating facility in Prince George's County. The line poured more than 111,000 gallons into a tributary of the Patuxent River, coating 17 miles of shore with oil and killing birds, turtles, crabs and fish.

Cleanup cost more than $65 million. A year later, black splotches still marred some land near the river, and a telltale rainbow sheen still spread from tarballs when sand and water were stirred up.

"Once the oil gets up into those marshes, you know, it doesn't come out," said Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist Beth McGee, who responded to that spill as chief of the environmental contaminants branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Annapolis. "The best way to deal with an oil spill is to not have it in the first place."

A heavy fog blanketed the San Francisco Bay on the morning of Nov. 7, when the 209-foot container ship struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The Coast Guard has drawn heat for what critics say was a slow response to a spill that initially was reported as only 140 gallons.

Cummings said he was considering several proposals in the aftermath of the spill, including giving the Coast Guard greater responsibility for guiding vessels through the nation's busy waterways. In some ports, the agency operates a vessel traffic service, in which Coast Guard personnel track and give advice to ships to avoid collisions. The Chesapeake Bay has no vessel traffic centers.

Maryland could be vulnerable to the type of disaster that struck the San Francisco Bay - or worse. The bay sees ships the size of the Cosco Busan, and also some tankers. In 1976, a barge traveling to Baltimore in stormy weather became partially submerged off Virginia, spilling an estimated 250,000 gallons of oil that killed as many as 50,000 waterfowl.

In his letter to O'Malley, Cummings said he wanted to make sure that Maryland "remains adequately prepared at all levels" to respond to a "catastrophic" oil spill. A spokesman for O'Malley said the state departments of transportation, natural resources and the environment were preparing a response.

Cummings wrote a similar letter to Admiral Thad W. Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard, saying he wanted to make sure that Coast Guard Sector Baltimore and units stationed throughout the Chesapeake Bay were prepared for such a disaster and that state authorities were alerted "in a timely fashion" to begin their own response.

"I also want to ensure delays in notification never again affect a major oil spill anywhere in the nation," he wrote.

A spokesman for Allen said the commandant was preparing a response.

Kelley, of Sector Baltimore, said the Coast Guard has developed good communications with local government and private agencies.

"If something were to happen on the scale of the Cosco Busan, we would be lighting up all of our phone trees," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

An article in yesterday's Metro section included an inaccurate description of the size of a containership that struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge last month. The Cosco Busan is 902 feet long.The Sun regrets the error.
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