Carney surveys oil spill’s impact at Slaugher Beach

Gov. John Carney looks at sample of oil that washed up on Slaughter Beach on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

SLAUGHTER BEACH — Gov. John Carney walked up and down Slaughter Beach Friday with a little container of oil collected from the Delaware Bay.

“It’s a jar of these little tar balls that float up on the beach here from the spill,” he said. “You can see just how ugly and grimy and gritty it is. It picks up sand and it picks up all this other material.”

The first signs of the spill were first discovered at nearby Broadkill Beach on Monday. But it’s still unclear who and what is responsible for discharging 215 gallons of oil into the bay.

“There’s been investigation there and we’re trying to determine where it came from,” Gov. Carney said. “That’s an important part of this.”

He said there’s “a hell of a lot” of oil that gets shipped through the Delaware Bay.

The governor pointed out that directly off the shore at Slaughter Beach, there’s an anchorage where oil gets moved from large tankers to barges in a process called lightering, which makes ships easier to handle as they enter the bay.

“Whether or not that was the cause of this, it’s a risk that we ought to pay attention to,” Gov. Carney said.

“They offload oil here all the time, so it’s kind of something that’s always in the back of your mind,” said Rob Wood, secretary of Slaughter Beach’s Town Council “When is it going to be the day that somebody’s not going to do something right?”

He hoped the spill would lead to additional precautions being put in place.

“Whoever did the spill did not self report it, and that’s really unconscionable,” said Larry Meinert, another member of Slaughter Beach’s town council. “We need to have an ethic where people realize they’ve done something wrong and step up to the plate.”

He said that oil spills are nothing new for the community.

“My immediate neighbor was born and raised in Slaughter Beach,” Mr. Meinert said. “I talked to her about it, and she said, ‘Oh yes. We’ve seen this since I was a little child. We’d go out with popsicle sticks and scrape the tar off our feet.’”

Gov. John Carney talks with residents Friday after oil washed up in Slaughter Beach.

According to Coast Guard Capt. Jonathan Theel, the last oil spill in the Delaware Bay was in 2006.

“We would hope that regulations could be enhanced so this couldn’t happen,” Mr. Meinert said. “This is just a really special place, between the horseshoe crabs and the migratory birds.”

Mr. Meinert said he feels violated.

“When you walk on this beach daily and you know everything about it, you see it in the morning, you see it in the evening, it’s part of your life, and to have it spoiled like this really hurts.”

Members of the town council were happy with the state’s response to the spill.

“It’s been very impressive, all the way down the ladder,” Mr. Wood said, “From the governor’s office through (Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control). The Coast Guard has really been a lifesaver. I can’t say enough about how good people have been.”

The state’s response has not been limited to Slaughter Beach. Capt. Theel said 24 miles of Delaware’s coastline has been impacted by the spill.

“We want to assess all of it, and then also make sure that we address each beach,” he said.

More than 125 environmental professionals from DNREC, the Delaware Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard and its environmental contractor, and the Delaware Bay and River Cooperative were engaged Friday in removing oil found littering beaches and rafting around debris offshore.

Workers with Lewis Environmental Services clean up oil Friday that washed up on Slaughter Beach.

The Delaware Bay and River Cooperative, a nonprofit funded by industry in the event of an oil spill, dispatched an oil skimming vessel to remove oily debris seen Thursday afloat in the bay.

Shawn Garvin, DNREC’s secretary, said that 93 state workers were involved with the cleanup effort on Friday.

“The old standard techniques of shovels and rakes is what’s going on,” he said, explaining the approach to cleaning up the beach. “We’re just bagging it up and then it’s being stored for disposal, as of (Thursday) 21 tons of material.”

He also noted that there were several ships out working to identify where further clean-up efforts in the bay should be focused.

Mr. Garvin said the spill’s environmental impact has been minimal.

Tri-State Bird Rescue of Newark continued to play a key role in the cleanup coalition, investigating reports of wildlife impacted by oil and treating captured sea gulls and other wildlife that has been oiled in the water.

“We’re fairly fortunate that we didn’t have a bigger wildlife impact,” he said. “As long as we can get all the materials collected, the long-term impact should be negligible.”

He said 24 seagulls have been found with oil on their breastplates, but that it hasn’t kept any of these birds from flying.

The city of Lewes Thursday closed its beaches due to oil that had come ashore and posed a threat to people and pets alike who visit them.

Dewey Beach Mayor Dale Cooke said Friday that the town’s beaches would also be closed until further notice.

A Delaware Bay & River Cooperative boat cleans up oil on the Delaware Bay in Slaughter Beach on Friday.

DNREC closed the four-wheel drive surf fishing crossing at Delaware Beach Plum Island Preserve, overseen by Delaware State Parks, so cleanup operations will not be hampered by vehicles tracking oil onto the sand.

While the oil spill cleanup continues, the Coast Guard and DNREC strongly advise the public not to handle any oily product found or attempt to assist affected wildlife along the shore, but to report these findings to DNREC’s environmental hotline at 800-662-8802 so the situations can be addressed by hazmat-trained professionals.

On Friday afternoon, Slaughter Beach looked relatively normal, as crews had been working to clear the sand of oil-soaked debris. But Mr. Meinert said the clean-up effort there was not over.

“It’s going to go on for a little while because it’s going to come in with the tide here and there, but we’re going to keep a good eye on it,” he said.

Capt. Theel said that if everything goes as planned, he expects his crews to be done in about a week.

Gov. Carney described the spill as a reminder of the natural environment’s precious nature.

“I don’t think you have to remind any of the local folks about how important this natural environment is,” he said, “but it’s a constant reminder that it needs to be protected and there’s a certain vigilance that we all need to have.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney contributed to this story.