Rhode Island Oil Spill
Air Date: Week of January 26, 1996
Dr. Judith McDowell, a scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, fields questions from Steve Curwood on the recent spill of heating oil in the Atlantic ocean off the coast of Rhode Island.
CURWOOD: Point Judith Pond, Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, Galilee Bird Sanctuary. These salt marshes, shallow ponds, and estuaries are all vital elements of the coastal ecosystem of the country's smallest state, Rhode Island. And they are all threatened by the recent spill of more than 800,000 gallons of home heating oil just offshore. Tens of thousands of lobsters, clams, and starfish were killed by the oil in the first few days after the spill. About 200 sea birds died or were harmed as well, and scientists believe these casualty figures will rise. But even when the dead wildlife stops washing up on shore, the danger is far from over. Dr. Judith McDowell, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, says the effects of the spill could last for years. Dr. McDowell says the Rhode Island spill reminds her of past accidents nearby.
McDOWELL: This spill is very comparable to a spill that occurred in 1969 off the coast of West Falmouth, Massachusetts.
CURWOOD: This was the same kind of oil?
McDOWELL: It was heating oil, Number Two fuel oil, yes.
McDOWELL: And we saw again, very rapid die-off of shellfish, invertebrates, fin fish washing ashore. And the recovery of those organisms once that acute toxic phase had passed really took many years.
CURWOOD: What are some of the long-term effects that you saw by looking at the West Falmouth spill?
McDOWELL: Certainly, one of the most significant long-term effects of hydrocarbons in a situation like this is the effects on growth and development of the early life stages of marine animals.
CURWOOD: For example?
McDOWELL: For instance, there was a population of fiddler crabs in the salt marshes affected by the West Falmouth spill. And 2 graduates students at the time observed that fiddler crabs could not successfully colonize the contaminated sediments, up to a period of about 8 years following the initial spill. And they saw behavioral differences in the juvenile crabs, they saw problems with over-wintering, they saw problems with reproduction as well as growth. And that just is one example of the thousands of examples that have been studied around the world, that shows the kinds of low-level effects that can certainly be just as devastating for populations of marine life in the aftermath of the spill.
CURWOOD: You said that the estuary is very important as a breeding ground, as a nursery. I'm wondering what effects are on the reproductive abilities of the animals that you found over time.
McDOWELL: Well, certainly there have been effects not only on reproductive development, development of eggs, but abnormalities within those eggs, such as the offspring will not fully develop. In other studies, petroleum hydrocarbons can also alter an organism's ability to sense its food, so in essence there can be plenty of food within the habitat. But the animal starves to death because it cannot detect that food appropriately.
CURWOOD: What does the West Falmouth coastline look like today?
McDOWELL: Pretty pleasant and no direct evidence that a devastating oil spill occurred 27 years ago. But in a retrospective study in 1989, 20 years after the spill, several scientists went back out to the study site that they had examined earlier and still found traces of petroleum hydrocarbons within some of the upper reaches of the salt marsh. And certainly not concentrations that would suggest devastating biological damage, but certainly suggest that these compounds, once in the environment, are highly persistent.
CURWOOD: Dr. McDowell, let me ask you to step back from this for just a moment and think: what's the worst thing about this kind of oil spill?
McDOWELL: Well, the worst part of a spill like this is that it could have been prevented. We need heating oil in the winter time, so we cannot stop all oil transport. But we can take better precautions that will hold constructions for tankers, was discussed after the Exxon Valdez spill. Double hull construction for barges is now being discussed because of this spill. But that's going to take quite a long period of time to change our whole way in which we regulate and approve oil transport. I think the good news is that where oil spills have occurred, even ones as large as the Exxon Valdez spill, the ecosystem does recover. But the immediate effect, and certainly the sociological and economic effect on those communities most impacted, is a very difficult problem.
CURWOOD: Dr. McDowell, thanks for joining us.
McDOWELL: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Judith McDowell is a sea grant director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
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