Oil spills have hogged the spotlight the past few weeks. Between Exxon Mobil’s burst pipeline in Arkansas, Chevron’s leaky pipeline in Utah, the passionate debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, and BP’s trial for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill that shot an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the ocean, oil spills have earned an unfortunate amount of attention in recent weeks.
In addition to the frequency of these spills, this month marks the tenth anniversary of the most damaging oil spill in Massachusetts history. Admittedly there have only been two overall, but the recent surge in oil spills gives us a reason to recall the impact of these environmental disasters here in our own state.
On April 27, 2003, the Bouchard Transportation Company’s Tank Barge No. 120 scraped the bottom of its hull along the rocky floor of Buzzard’s Bay, rupturing one of its cargo tanks and spilling 98,000 gallons of fuel oil into the water. Much of the oil was blown onto Joy Beach in Dartmouth the next day, but the wind blew the rest of the spill further along the shore, eventually contaminating 90 miles of shoreline.
The environmental had impact primarily on the landscape and wildlife. Close to 700 people worked daily, cleaning up beaches, rocks, marshes, and animals. Despite their efforts, 497 birds were found dead.
The spill stirred then-Governor Mitt Romney, along with the state legislature, to pass legislation designed to prevent and prepare for future spills. The new law included raising fines for oil spills, implementing new safety standards for navigating Buzzards Bay, and putting a two-cent-per-barrel fee on ships coming into the bay to raise money for a $10 million oil spill training and response fund.
The only other major spill in Massachusetts began on December 15, 1976. The Argo Merchant, a seasoned Liberian oil tanker with a bad reputation, ran aground on the shores of Nantucket during rough weather. Its 7.6 million gallons of oil cargo started to leak, and less than a week later, on December 21, the tanker split in half, dumping all 7.6 million gallons into the ocean.
Speculation roared about the implications the spill would have on the economy and ecosystem of the region, a historically vibrant fishing community.Had the oil sunk to the ocean floor or blown to Georges Bank, an area rich with nutrients and aquatic life, the impact on the fishing economy would have been disastrous. Thankfully, the spill instead blew southeast, away from shore. Out in the ocean, it stayed at the surface and formed shallow, up to ten-inch deep “pancakes” thousands of square feet across.
The Coast Guard made a few, unsuccessful attempts to burn the spilled oil, but despite their lack of success, the spill had a minimal ecological impact. Much of the oil washed up on the shore of Nantucket as tar balls, some as big as 70 pounds.
One of the major reasons the two spills didn’t have more serious implications for the environment was the type of oil that was spilled: in both cases, the ships were carrying Number 6 oil, which is much thicker than other kinds of oil and is often described as viscous. When it’s spilled, it tends to clump together and form tar balls instead of dissipating or forming slicks. This makes it much easier to locate and clean up.
Although Massachusetts oil spills have been few and minor, they’ve taught scientists about how different kinds of oil—like Number 6—act when spilled in water and on land, and prompted the Massachusetts state government to prepare for future spills. And for that, they’re worth remembering.