Oil spill culprit still sought, will pay for cleanup if found

SLAUGHTER BEACH — If identified, the source of a significant oil spill affecting Delaware’s shoreline will face a cleanup bill from the federal government that continues to grow.

That’s according to the U.S. Coast Guard, which is utilizing the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to pay for costs that continued to rise as operations progressed Wednesday. The federal fund was derived from the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

“The fund gives us the means of providing an immediate response to cases like this while we work to determine a responsible party,” spokesman Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann said Wednesday afternoon.

According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, no state money will be used to fund operations.

In an update, the Coast Guard said no possible sources have been ruled out. Oil samples are being analyzed by its Marine Safety Laboratory to find a “petroleum fingerprint” that might help determine the source of the spill, the Coast Guard said.

DNREC and the Coast Guard have partnered as a unified command since the spill was detected on Oct. 19 as oil washed ashore at Broadkill Beach. The Maryland Department of Environment has since joined the response.

Evidence of the spill-weathered, oil-formed tar balls and debris was scattered along the shoreline from Bowers Beach to Ocean City, Maryland.

DNREC said crews were picking up coin- to pancake-sized tar balls, and approximately 65 tons of oily debris and sand had been removed from Delaware beaches as of late Tuesday. More than 100 crew members were involved, DNREC said.

“We’re not sure how long oily debris will continue to wash up with the tide,” said DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin, who surveyed oil on Delaware’s beaches Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, oil can be very persistent in the marine environment, but our environmental professionals are persistent too. They’re out there, working up and down the coastline, getting it out of the sand as much as possible.

“I have put out a call for additional resources from within DNREC this week and the response has been outstanding — with their help and the effort from our federal partner the Coast Guard, we’re making progress on this incident.”

USCG Lt. Commander Frederick Pugh is leading the federal government’s response team.

“At this point in the response, we’re critically examining our resources, looking at the big picture and seeing where the greatest needs lie,” he said.

“We’ll continue to assess the situation across all impacted coastlines through our on-the-ground experts and through the diligence of our local partners in the affected municipalities.”

Cleanup operations may be suspended temporarily if warranted due to the effects of Tropical Storm Zeta, DNREC said.

According to DNREC Secretary Garvin cleanup crews were dispatched to South Bethany on Tuesday and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which later began a planned beach replenishment. Also, DNREC said a 15-member advance crew was sent to “comb the beach at South Bethany for tar balls and oil patties before new sand was pumped onto the beach there.”

Also, DNREC said it set up communications with the Army Corps of Engineers’ replenishment contractor “to ensure that any significant deposits of oil sighted on the beach can be removed before sand pumped ashore could cover it over.”

There’s believed to be no ongoing or undiscovered patch of oil in the Delaware Bay or Atlantic Ocean, DNREC said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, reports of 52 oiled gulls and 26 shore birds had been received.

“The physical status of the birds are that they have light oil deposits on them but they are still able to fly and are generally unaffected,” according to Petty Officer Lehmann.

Newark-based consultant Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research remained on standby if needed, the Coast Guard said.

“In a joint environment, you’re only as effective as your partnerships permit and in this case, we’re very fortunate to have a partner like Tri-State Bird,” Petty Officer Lehmann said.

“The protection of wildlife is a top priority for the unified command, so having an expert resource like Tri-State is invaluable to that end.”

There were no other reports of wildlife or marine animals being affected, according to Petty Officer Lehmann.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del, visited Dewey Beach Tuesday.

“I am continuing to monitor this situation closely as officials work to remove this oil and determine its source, and I will continue working in the Senate to support and protect our coastal communities and wildlife,” he said in a statement.

Beachgoers were “strongly” advised by DNREC to stay out of the water and walking in the area where oily debris was deposited by each high tide. The towns of Lewes, Dewey Beach and Bethany Beach have closed their beaches until further notice as a result of the debris.

Also closed was the four-wheel drive surf fishing crossing at Delaware Beach Plum Island Preserve managed by Delaware State Parks.

DNREC asked the public to report any findings of oil patties or oiled wildlife to its environmental hotline at 800-662-8802. Concerns regarding Maryland’s coastline can be called to the state’s Department of the Environment at 866–633-4686.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson
at 741-8296 or canderson@newszap.com.