Remembering a little known oil spill with out-sized impacts


The following is the text of a news release from the U.S. Commerce Department:

(WASHINGTON) — Ten years ago, there was an oil spill that you’ve probably never heard of. The spill wasn’t as large as the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, and it didn’t occur in an environment as pristine as Prince William Sound which was affected by the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989. But this event had a significant impact on future oil spill response, restoration and maritime accident prevention. 

Just outside of Philadelphia on Nov. 26, 2004, an oil tanker called the Athos I unknowingly ripped its hull on an 18,000-pound anchor hidden on the river bottom. This released more than 263,000 gallons of heavy oil into an industrialized stretch of the Delaware River. That accident set into motion a coordinated federal, state and local response with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) playing a significant role providing scientific support to the responding agencies and the eventual restoration of the damaged coastline. 

Every oil spill has impacts and this one, despite being a fraction of the Deepwater Horizon release, severely affected the region’s economy and environment. Commercial traffic on this active shipping route was halted for more than a week, delaying over two hundred vessels. Claims paid to affected businesses topped $162.6 million. 

The nearby Salem Nuclear Power Plant was also affected. Because some oil sank to the river bottom it had the potential of clogging the power plant’s critical cooling water intake system. This required operators to shut down two reactors for 11 days, at a cost of $33.1 million. Scientists at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration were instrumental in estimating when the river was safe for the power plant to restart operations. 

The Athos incident also caused serious environmental effects. Almost 12,000 birds died as a result of the spill. Spilled oil washed up on 280 miles of shoreline, which included sensitive marshes, beaches, and mudflats. In addition, the spill affected nearly 42,000 recreational boating and fishing trips along the river. 

NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program, along with state and federal partners, tallied up environmental and recreational impacts and, in 2010, received $27.5 million from the National Pollution Funds Center. This money is being used for 10 restoration projects to benefit coastal communities and natural resources affected by the Athos oil spill. These projects are creating habitat for fish and wildlife, providing public access for recreation, increasing boater safety, and enhancing flood protection. To date, five projects have been completed, restoring 131 acres out of an eventual 332 acres of habitat. 

But this “oil spill you’ve never heard of” also fostered several significant changes to address future oil spill accidents across the nation. In 2006, Congress passed the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act, which included “The Delaware River Protection Act of 2006.” One part of this law increased “limit of liability,” or the upper limit a company responsible for a spill is required to pay for the resulting cleanup and environmental and economic damages. A second key piece of this law resulted from the cause of the Athos oil spill — a huge anchor lurking in the river channel. In an effort to minimize this type of mishap in the future, the Act established a new requirement that ships must report objects lost overboard to the U.S. Coast Guard. 

The Athos oil spill created a response both complex and basic for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Complex in forcing responders to deal with emerging issues — nuclear power plants and sinking oil — and basic in covering the suite of day-to-day responsibilities — from modeling oil dispersion to assessing environmental impacts. 

Like every oil spill, this one on the Delaware River clearly shows that each incident is unique, each spill presents a new set of challenges. NOAA is distinctly suited to address those challenges and provide the sound science to support the response and eventual restoration of the affected coastlines.

By Professional Mariner Staff