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Size, Damage Estimates for Oil Spills Cut

June 26, 1989|BOB DROGIN and WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writers

Officials battling oil spills in Rhode Island and Texas said Sunday they are optimistic that quick cleanup efforts had prevented serious environmental damage, while experts trying to contain an 800,000-gallon tanker leak on the Delaware River were more guarded.

The Rhode Island mishap--caused when the Greek tanker World Prodigy struck a well-marked reef Friday at the mouth of Narragansett Bay near Newport, R.I.--was downgraded from early estimates of 1.6 million gallons of No. 2 heating oil to 420,000 gallons by Coast Guard Adm. Richard I. Rybacki.

Moreover, scientists estimated that 70% of the oil had evaporated from the water after two days of hazy sun, Rybacki said, while wind and currents were pushing the largest remaining slicks farther south into open water.

"It looks pretty good," said Capt. Eric Williams, the Coast Guard official in charge of the cleanup.

In the Delaware River spill, the Uruguayan tanker Presidente Rivera was refloated at 2:12 a.m. Sunday. It had strayed out of a well-marked shipping lane south of Claymont, Del., early Saturday and run aground, spilling an estimated 800,000 gallons of heavy heating oil.

The balance of its cargo--originally 28 million gallons of oil--was unloaded at the Sun Refinery in Marcus Hook, Pa. Officials said that while concern persisted about possible environmental damage and the long-run effects on fish and wildlife, initial reports showed only slight impact from the spill.

But Delaware Gov. Michael N. Castle complained that the cleanup was proceeding too slowly. The problem is compounded because the oil has formed into tar-like clumps in the water and has to be removed by hand, one glob at a time, he said.

"If the cleanup goes well in the next 24 hours, we can minimize the damage," he said.

The Texas spill of more than 250,000 gallons of thick No. 6 oil, which gushed from a ruptured barge in the Houston Ship Channel Friday evening, was flowing into the Bayport Ship Channel and directly into vacuum trucks, making for an easy cleanup, the Coast Guard said.

Collides With Tanker

The barge ruptured when it collided with a Panamanian tanker some 40 miles downstream from Houston.

"Right now we've collected 1,300 barrels. The initial spill was 6,000," Petty Officer Bob Morehead said. "As oil spills go, this one couldn't have worked out any better for anybody."

After a helicopter flight over the Delaware River, Castle voiced outrage.

"I think we are shutting too many barn doors after the horses are gone," Castle told reporters at the Coast Guard headquarters in South Philadelphia.

"I am more interested in prevention than response," he said. "Everyone involved in this industry has to go a lot farther than they have been willing to go so far."

Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, who also got a helicopter overview of the spill that has spread from Marcus Hook to New Castle, Del., expressed his disgust and warned the owners of the vessel that ran aground that "we expect a full cleanup and we are going to monitor it very closely."

Coast Guard officials, meantime, administered drug tests to the captain and other key members of the crew.

Investigation Planned

Rear Adm. Alan Breed, commander of the 5th Coast Guard District, with headquarters at Portsmouth, Va., said that he would name a one-man board of inquiry to investigate and determine why the ship ran aground in the river.

Castle said that someone in command of the ship--either the Uruguayan captain or the American river pilot who was aboard at the time--apparently made a mistake in navigation.

"We want to know who made a mistake," he said.

Damage in the Pennsylvania part of the river was concentrated almost entirely in the Marcus Hook region, where steel plants and refineries dominate the shoreline, so little environmental impact is expected there, Casey said.

Castle said that a bird sanctuary at Pea Patch Island and nesting areas for wild fowl might be affected unless the cleanup work is done rapidly.

Edwin B. Erickson, regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency, said that he saw some oil stains along the Delaware and New Jersey shores. Erickson said, however, that there were no confirmed reports so far of damage to fish or wild fowl.

Impact Seen as Minimal

"At this point the impact on species in the area appears to be minimal and we hope it remains that way," Erickson told reporters.

On Narragansett Bay, 500 workers and brisk winds helped remove pockets of yellow, filmy oil from rocky shores and beaches.

After flying over the affected area, Rhode Island Gov. Edward DiPrete cautioned that patches of thin, floating diesel oil still threatened beaches 10 miles south of Newport, a wealthy resort town, and he ordered additional beaches and shell-fishing beds closed. The area is a rich breeding ground for clams and mussels.

"The geographical area is more than we thought," he said. "The intensity of damage is less, but the area is potentially greater."

He estimated that the cleanup would not be completed for a week to 10 days.

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