A Candle In The Sand
THE STORY OF THE 2003 WEST ISLAND OIL SPILL DISASTER
April 28, 2003
By M.L.Baron of the West Island Weather Station
This story is dedicated to those who bravely endured the elements to protect our town and other coastal communities from this environmental cliff hanger, and to my wife Carole, daughter Brittany and son Mark.
MLBaron is a SkyWarn Weather Spotter and maintains the West Island Weather Station KA1WBH. He also is an accomplished artist who practices in varied media from the old American Folk Art of Scrimshaw, to award winning videos and photography. Living on West Island, Fairhaven,MA offers an abundance of subject matter. With every changing season along the shore or inside the West Island State Reservation, an opportunity for a special photo is never hard to come by. This small island is located near the Cape Cod Canal and Martha’s Vineyard, MA. West Island is small enough to fit inside New York’s Central Park.
Spotter experience, Deadly heat wave August 1975, The Blizzard of 1978, Hurricane Gloria 1985, Hurricane Bob 1991 Associated Press award to WNBH radio for outstanding coverage in which I was a live correspondent, my weather communications tower destroyed. The Crow Island 600 ft. radio tower also destroyed, total damage 1.6 billion dollars regionally. The Perfect Storm October 1991,the Gloucester -based Andrea Gail lost at sea with all hands. The Super-Storm of March 1993-one of the most powerful coastal storms on record, West Island Weather Station tower top 17 feet of antenna and 2 weather stations were destroyed. The Blizzard of 1996, Blizzard of 1997. Rare Tornado warning event 2000, the West Island Weather Station hit by lightning and hail, multiple assets and equipment destroyed.
The Oil-Spill of 2003.
From initial reports an estimated 14,700 gallon spill of No.6 oil was revised upwards to almost 100,000 gallons within a few days. Although the spill was wide spread along the SouthCoast, the ordeals incurred by emergency officials and cleanup crews in the West Island vicinity are revealed with a first person recollection. There is much discussion as to the mystery barge and tug that was spotted
at Anchorage “L” by several observers hours before reports of the oil spill fitting the same description of Bouchard Barge No.120, the barge that created the spill. Eventually a barge and tug would later be identified as the No.120 at the exact same location, however it was stated to have arrived on the scene after 5:30 P.M. by the United States Coast Guard and Bouchard officials.
The History of West IslandWritten by Bristol County Sheriff David R. Nelson (retired). His ancestry and family go back to the West Family for which the island is named.
Because of its prominent location in Buzzards Bay, West Island (535 acres) is thought to have been visited by ancient explorers such as the Norsemen even before Columbus landed in America in 1492.
It’s recorded history began on November 29, 1652, when Wampanoag Indian Chief Massasoit and his son Wamsutta sold the territory of Dartmouth with all the rivers, creeks, meadows, necks and islands to a band of Pilgrims which included John Cooke.
CLICK HERE for more on the history of West Island Fairhaven Estates
John Cooke the last survivor of the Mayflower settled in Fairhaven were his daughter Mercy Cooke married Steven West the individual for whom West Island is named. The West family settled on Sconticut Neck and owned West Island for many years. Originally called West’s Island, and recorded as such on early maps, the island’s name was modified by popular usage to West Island because it was much easier to pronounce.
The island was used mainly for the grazing of cattle. At low tide the cows would be herded over from farms on Sconticut Neck to graze. On May 14, 1775 the first naval battle of the revolution was fought off it’s shores. It was also reported that British warships landed parties at West Island. They were supposedly interested in the sheep and cattle grazing on the island.
The last member of the West family to own West Island was Nehemiah West, a whaling captain who later sold the island in 1880 to Anthony De Costa who was a farmer in the area. He later sold it to Horace S. Crowell of Marlboro. Crowell retained Captain John T. Besse as care taker of the island. Captain Besse’s house, the oldest on the island located at 42 Causeway Road, is still maintained as a private residence.
Legend has it that the old clay chimneys at the Besse House have bullet holes from hunters from well over a hundred years ago. they are still visible today and have never been repaired.
When you live on an island, main-landers with a hidden envy say you should get a life. Sometimes I wonder if they are right. But for those who are fascinated by all kinds of weather and the solace of the ocean, this is the ultimate place to be. A narrow causeway, only three-feet above sea-level connects us to the mainland. It’s vulnerability to strong southerly gales and accompanying tidal -surge can make the only exit off the island difficult and at times, impossible. The weather so far this year has been very unsettled, cloudy and raw especially on the weekends. Year round with every season I venture out to the northeast corner of the island.
The panorama is spectacular like a living and breathing picture postcard changing with every second. All of Buzzards Bay can be seen. Mattapoisett, Marion, Wareham, The Cape Cod Canal, Falmouth, Woods Hole and the Elizabeth Islands mark the horizon. In the fog, the horn from the Cleveland Ledge Light in the middle of the bay has a tranquil sound that has a caressing resonance. Even with poor visibility one can hear the deep drone of the vibrating engines of passing ships in the distance many miles away. Red buoy #29 “R2SE” 1 mile off-shore clangs its bell in the rolling waves. Incoming tides bring in newly arrived flotsam entangled in the seaweed. At times it is so quiet that it feels like you are in a sound proof room. In contrast, the day after brings a roaring sea with frothing white caps as an exiting storm gives way to the sun’s crepuscular rays descending through breaks in the dark clouds down to the turbulent ocean.
Occasionally small single and twin engine aircraft fly over head from the New Bedford Airport to Martha’s Vineyard. West Island is referred to as the “outer marker” for these transiting planes when they radio the New Bedford control tower about 4 miles away to the northwest, giving their position. For the most part the bulk of wildlife consists of water birds of various species including the endangered Piping Plover.
Deer swim over from Sconticut Neck a mile away. Certain times of the year, usually during a full moon you can hear coyotes howling in the night echoing across the water from the woods in East Fairhaven and Mattapoisett. Skeins of cackling Canada Geese flying by in a “V” shape are typical.
My wife’s grandmother built one of the first cottages on West Island in the forties. My father-in-law introduced me to shell fishing. My island roots go back further to my dad , Louis Baron, who as a boy waded cows across from the farms on Sconticut Neck to graze on the island even before there was a causeway. As a recreational shell fisherman you faithfully watch and wait for low-tide that coincide with decent weather.
The hike out back to East Cove is a workout and it’s even more back breaking heading home with a bushel of quahogs that may have taken up to three hours to rake up. My dog “Sunny” a yellow lab is always by my side. He’d rather be in the ocean swimming around than on land. I have him running at 35 miles per hour uphill and swimming at up to 8 knots in the ocean.
I finally figured out why at times it would take me so long to get a full basket. Sunny decided while I was not looking to clench the clams with his teeth and toss them out of my basket back into the water. Include the horse flies, mosquitos, and gnats biting away at you and there is some misery that one has to endure to enjoy that cherished Quahog boil at the end of the day. But it’s worth it. There’s no “drive-up” window for this meal.
Upon arriving home, I can’t wait to take off my waders. You begin to rinse off everything. The quahogs are washed to clean off sand and mud. Then the fun begins. I place the clams in the bottom of a large pan with about three inches of water, cut up potatoes ,slice up some linguica , put in some hotdogs and add hot pepper and my favorite ingredient, Worcester Sauce. Bring it to a boil then lower the heat so it simmers and steams. When the potatoes are soft and cooked the boil is ready. The longer you wait the better the flavor and of course the hungrier you get!
Who would have ever thought of the disaster lurking that would change everything. Shellfish beds across the entire Buzzards Bay would soon be ordered closed indefinitely.
Save West Island
With orange stake s placed in the ground and seeing low flying aircraft banking over obviously taking pictures, you know somebody’s up to something. That was the scenario I saw as I routinely walked along the West Island Town Beach back in 1986. http://www.youtube.com/embed/e5WuSISZCpg
Areal video clip of the reservation taken at about 500ft
I immediately called my long time friend and Board of Public Works member David Szeliga. I told him that we have to find out what’s going on the east side of the island. Sure enough, developers where surveying over 338 acres of pristine land to build over 100 homes. Upon this confirmation, I told Dave who’s a naturalist as well, “How in the hell can we stop these guys from bulldozing half of the island into oblivion?”This was a monumental uphill battle going against all odds. We organized along with others and formed a grass roots group given the simple name of Save West Island Inc.
The so called “Massachusetts Miracle “ that Presidential candidate Governor Michael Dukakis, heralded to the media, was quickly fleeting. The timing was disastrous for our endeavor. Without the state to back us up with funding to purchase the property from Realty Transfer of New Jersey, the destruction of more than half of the island to development was at a threshold.
The clock was indeed ticking against our favor. Negative elements said it couldn’t be done and that our group was pissing in the wind. We were laughed at as a bunch of tree hugging political fanatics. But our resolve never faltered, if anything, it became even stronger. Save West Island bumper stickers were seen as far away as Worcester. We couldn’t keep up with T-Shirts and Save West Island videos.
https://www.youtube.com/embed/OmsyMXZIgk0After almost two years of lobbying, fund raising and hard work by our group, it became “politically correct” for those who hesitated to finally join in and support our cause. A long awaited urgent message was received.In December of 1988 the Save West Island newsletter announced that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has concluded an agreement for the purchase and acquisition of over 338 acres of pristine wetlands and forestry of West Island for 1.6 million dollars. It was one of the largest conservation land acquisitions in the region’s history since the days of the pilgrims. Tears of joy, disbelief, and relief befell the membership at the final meeting of Save West Island Inc. at the Fairhaven Town Hall.
Today the land is known as The West Island State Reservation dedicated to my late dear friend and compatriot David L. Szeliga. The island reservation is a habitat for common, rare, resident and migratory birds.
Save West Island Inc. received the distinguishedNational Award “A” from the National Audubon Society for
“Excellence in Environmental Action”.HAMMERSMITH FARM, NEWPORT
The year was 1980, it was a cold January winter with wind chills to twenty below zero at times. I was out in a 25 ft. boat with a cleanup crew laying out booms (we nick named them sausages ) in three foot seas off Newport. A 5,000 gallon No.6 oil spill was threatening the shores of Naragansett Bay especially Hammersmith Farm, formerly of the Auchincloss estate.
It was the dawn of Camelot as then Senator John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier had their wedding reception here on Sept. 12, 1953. Over 1,200
guests attended for champagne and dancing to the music of Meyers Davis and his orchestra. For the first dance the Kennedy’s chose “Married an Angel”.
Following the cutting of the wedding cake, a luncheon of fruit cup, creamed chicken and ice cream sculpted to resemble roses was served.
We as a cleanup crew had a mission. So did the thick oil. It began to wash ashore and now in our haz mat outfits we began the strenuous cleanup. High- pressure steam-cleaners didn’t get everything. We were given tongue depressors at one point to scrape off the congealed oil from each individual rock on our hands and knees in miserable winter weather conditions. Frustration abounded.
When it was thought we were getting ahead more oil would come in with the tide. We couldn’t see what was below the surface. Pockets of oil became buoyant at certain depths depending on the amount of air trapped inside similar to a submarine’s ballast. Even with gloves and warm clothing gear our faces and hands still became numb in the freezing ocean breeze. A wind chill off the 28 degree ocean water made it even more unbearable. Our cleanup crew endured and finally after a number of weeks much had been accomplished.
A CANDLE IN THE SAND
Aside of the bad weather for many months, there was a window of partly cloudy skies. On Friday, April 25, I reckoned that the next 72 hours would be favorable for further excursions out on the east side of the island. I wanted to give my wife Carole a simple surprise.
But she’d have to venture out to find it, a treasure hunt in the sands of the desolate east side of the island. I gave her hints were to look. She had no idea what she was looking for or for why. It added to the mystery, while common herring gulls hovered curiously over head in the wind. The ocean paced back and forth with natural rhythm. The tide was slowly coming in and taking over the shoreline as it does about every six hours. The delicate eel grass fluttered in the brisk breeze creating a soft hissing sound. The coalescence of shore and sea offered us tranquility and a sense of peace without parallel.
I had carefully buried a decorative candle enclosed in a plastic bag in the beach sand a few days before. Carole enjoys candles. She finally found it and the joy and laughter was unforgettable. And here we where looking across the bay, and I said “Look at this, this is our backyard. What more could you want?” Carole agreed, clutching her coveted wax treasure uncovered from the sand. Being the only souls on the beach, we inhaled and exhaled the exhaust of the salty ocean breeze. We didn’t want to leave. But the shore only tolerates your presence for so much of time. The wind chill was also about thirty degrees. It would be within 48 hours that our shorelines would be sullied by the heavy thick No. 6 Oil. Weather Spotting and a Barge
A weakened nor ’Easter was exiting the area. It was Sunday morning April 27, 2003. My daughter, Brittany kept calling me for updates when the cloudy sky would clear. She had a sleep over at her friend’s house in East Fairhaven. At my weather station, I have several cameras mounted on top of my radio communications tower sixty feet in the air.
I rotated camera No.7 to the north and told Britt that the sun should be breaking through the clouds and within twenty minutes and it did. At 11:15, I decided to get to the back side of the island with my radio, binoculars, mountain bike, pager, and of course, Sunny.
Observing the cloud formation and the outer edge of the storm heading out to sea was typical and for a weather spotter always fascinating. As the sky began to clear around noon, a well-defined contrast of clouds, a brilliant blue sky and sun emerged. The winds were generally out of the north under 15 miles per hour, the sea was stable enough to be under way in a small boat. The weather conditions met no criteria for a report to The National Weather Service office in Taunton. With a clear view like this, it was time to look into the binoculars and scan the horizon and bay. I had a vested interest to see how much boat traffic was out there, as I’m a maritime communications dispatcher. The observation revealed scant traffic in the bay.
Two lonely sailboats near the east bound canal entrance and a barge at anchor with a tug along side by buoy No.10 were observed. This site is also referred to as Anchorage L. It is the proverbial parking lot area for barges and other ships waiting to transit into the canal. With no other vessels to observe, I decided to take a closer look at the barge and tug at anchor.
As far as barges go they are dirty black ugly hulks that are a common sight in Buzzards Bay. But this one stood out. This barge at anchor had a brilliant red cab structure with a white top. It appeared not to be in any distress. At 3.48 miles away, using my Steiner, German-made military-marine 8×30 binoculars, I couldn’t see the name Bouchard on the vessel, nor any identifying marks except the bright red superstructure topped off with white trim on the barge.
I did not see or smell any oil because the wind was from the north blowing away from shore, if there was any oil in the sea at all at the time. At 2:00 in the afternoon I departed -RTB-which means returning to base.
One final observation at the time was a second tug approaching the same location at Buoy No. 10. I could only see the upper superstructure over the horizon of the town beach from my vantage point. Nothing with this activity sent up a flare of trouble. It was normal maritime activity seen every day.
Until the day after.
Monday, April 28, 2003
Sunrise 05:44 Sunset 19:37
Moon rise 04:49 Moon set 16:58
Low Tide 00:42 High Tide 06:58
Low Tide 12:21 High Tide 19:13
It was a quiet, uneventful Monday morning around 7:30 a.m. I routinely raised the U.S. flag on my outside deck while a sweet diesel-fuel like smell wove back and forth intermittently in the light southerly breeze. Thinking nothing of it, I descended down into my radio room and took the first sip of my coffee and scanned the headlines of the morning newspaper.
The communications console was squelching with normal radio traffic. Suddenly, multiple calls blared through on the marine frequencies with frantic reports of thick oil assaulting the shorelines from Westport to Wareham. Distraught fishermen were transmitting, over each other at times, reporting thick black oil on their gear and lapping up against their hulls blackening their boats.
I thought to myself, “Jesus, this can’t be happening…no”. A scenario that I long dreaded like many others began to unfold. Almost spilling my coffee, I swung over quickly and began to punch up tide and current data on the main computer and relay the latest weather and sea conditions to local officials. According to my readings whatever was out there, it was headed straight for us. As a news media communications dispatcher for East Coast Paging out of Boston, this unfolding news event met the strict criteria for sending it out on the wire both regionally and nationally. I had to compress this event into a few short words that would soon reach thousands of pagers.This was the original actual dispatch message sent from the West Island Weather Station : 04/28/03 0738 EDT: ” Oil Spill Buzzards Bay, MA . Several towns reporting thick oil washing ashore. Woods Hole Coast Guard investigating. Situation unstable. EC78″ . Several updated messages with more details would be dispatched. I called the Standard-Times city desk and advised them that “aside of the President getting shot you have a major front page story for days to come, a major oil spill was in progress. “ The Associated Press received the dispatch as well as all other major media outlets in the U.S.
Helicopters, live satellite trucks, and other news media thundered into the area in droves. The much taken for granted peace and quite of this obscure island was a memory for the time being. Sounds of whining generators from media trucks and the noise of helicopters and other aircraft made it very hard to hear from one talking in front of you. The nighttime illumination of the command center and media who also congregated at Hoppy’s Landing, Long Island, had a carnival like view from a distance. The chaos and mayhem on the island looked like it was from an eerie scene from the movie Jaws. As the news footage began to appear on TV, it showed from the air a barge that had a bright red superstructure highlighted with white on top with a tug along side at anchorage L by buoy No.10. These markings are consistent with vessels of the Bouchard Line.
The average depth in the area is about 35 feet. (Latitude: 41.33.112N Longitude: 070.46.483W ) 3.48 nautical miles looking southeast from the northeast corner of West Island from where I made an observation and 4.73 nautical miles west of Woods Hole several hours before they said that Barge No. 120 was never there. (see nautical chart)
When I left at 2pm, I didn’t realize that at 4PM some beach goers at the town beach saw a same barge at anchor fitting my description in the same location with a tug along side.
According to the Coast Guard tapes as printed in The Standard Times, it indicated an initial call to Group Woods Hole USCG at 5:30PM. The initial report of the spill indicated that an estimated 14,700 gallons of number 6 oil leaked from the ruptured vessel. Days later, the revised estimate of leakage went to a staggering 98,000 gallons.
A spokesman from Bouchard Transportation Company stated that the barge I saw “could have been anybodies”. The company later admitted that they did indeed have a barge at the location I saw. It was allegedly Bouchard Barge No.80 according to the company at anchor standing by at Anchorage L to deliver fuel to New Hampshire. According to a Bouchard spokesperson, the tug and barge remained at anchor all day “because of bad weather”. The skies were clear and the seas calm enough to be in a small boat. Further contradictions began to emerge.
The company indicated that barge No. 80 weighed anchor and set forth to the Cape Cod Canal entrance east bound at 4:30PM. The Army Corps of Engineers reported only two barges that passed through that day. One at around 5:30 p.m., and another before six. One of them was a Bouchard Barge. Simple math shows that if Barge No.80 was at anchor at the time instead of No.120, the vessel could not have entered the canal in such a short amount of time, a debate that continues in the maritime community.
Under way at around 6 knots, it could not have built up enough speed with a heavy cargo, according to some experienced tug captains that I have consulted with. The canal is approximately thirteen miles away. This vessel could not have arrived at the canal entrance within an hour.
It is very likely that Bouchard barge No. 80 entered the canal as stated, but it probably sailed right by the disabled barge No. 120 that was at anchor all day, very likely doing damage assessment for an object they struck off Gooseberry Neck, Westport up to twelve hours prior before finally making the call to the Coast Guard of an oil spill. Weeks later, dive teams have been inspecting rocks in the area for scrape marks from the hull of Bouchard barge No. 120 in the investigation.
The alleged delay in reporting this accident arouses further curiosity. Weather observations, automated sea conditions, tide, and current data tend to conflict with the actual time of the event, when it was reported in relation to the overall impact of the spill ashore . A number of parameters will be analyzed to help in this investigation as to what exactly happened and when, detailed right down to cellular phone calls made that morning by the captain and crew.
When the wind direction shifted from north to southwest at around 5p.m., the oil would start to come ashore en masse, that’s when perhaps the call to the Coast Guard with the Bouchard No.120 fuel barge eventually was made, when the tide and wind were coming in and the oil with it.
Close scrutiny of these critical details in this investigation by the Coast Guard are paramount and expected.
THE BOUCHARD TRANSPORTATION CO.
The Bouchard Transportation Company out of Hixville, Long Island, New York has been in business since 1918. According to its web site, It is considered to be the largest family owned barge company in the world. Their distinctive red and white trimmed barges along with the powerful tugs are legendary among the barge transportation industry. Despite a series of recent accidents including a fatal incident in New York, the ratio of activity versus accidents for their delivery of fuel in which all of us rely upon is minimal. The transportation of millions of gallons of fuel on a barge being hauled by a tug is a dangerous business to be in. When an accident of this nature occurs, it makes headlines. Some of the most treacherous water ways on the east coast is right here in Southeastern Massachusetts. Over 3,000 barges transit Buzzards Bay every year, were sea conditions are not always favorable for navigation. The product delivered keeps our lights on and our cars running. For the conveniences that we take for granted every day, consequences can arise.
Monday, April 28, 2003 1:15PM:
ENTER HERE FOR STANDARD-TIMES OIL SPILL GALLERY
We watched helplessly, with several town officials and numerous news media as the oil came in at Wilbur’s Point at the end of the peninsula of Sconticut Neck. I never realized how black the color black could be until I saw the oil up close for the first time in 23 years since Newport. Constant weather updates were transmitted to town officials from the West Island Weather Station. At the scene, I told the Fairhaven shellfish warden Dan Costa “this is it”. The oil began the attack with the help of a hefty southwesterly breeze at about 18 knots under sunny skies. I called the Standard Times city desk and advised them that Fairhaven has begun to get impacted by the spill at the tip of Wilbur’s Point.
Wildlife, especially birds began to die right in front of us and there wasn’t a damned thing we could do about it. It was like watching your house burn to the ground and you don’t even have a garden hose to try to put it out. I told Fairhaven Police Chief Gary Souza that the boats rushing out to attack the spill may look good for the media and the countless live trucks, but you’ve got to wait for it to come to you. And it will.
I remember Newport all too well. Number 6 is elusive and sneaky. No. 2 so they say is the most volatile. I agree, No. 2 oil when it comes in will kill right away. But No. 6 oil is a stealth killer. It takes its time. It comes in globs every now and then and when you think you’ve cleaned it up there comes some more. A second wave of oil would arrive with even more of a vengeance 4 days later when strong southwesterly winds drove of what was left out at sea to shore.
With waves pounding ashore with an unusual partly sunny sky for a weekend after many rainy Saturday and Sundays for months, I brought my 14 year old daughter Brittany to the east side to see for herself the effects of the oil spill. Weatherwise , if you love the seashore it doesn’t get much better for this time of the year. Ironically we observed oil barges continue about their business. The blackness covering the rocks showed the reality of the spill first hand. I told her that someday you’ll remember that when along shore with your dad an oil spill was present and we were here together in this historical maritime disaster.
Someday the spill will be no longer evident. The immense beauty of the ocean and crashing waves made us forget for a time why we were there in the first place. On the way back, a dying loon sitting on the beach, covered in oil struggled lethargically to head back into the ocean and it disappeared into the waves never to be seen again. My young daughter experienced death and the reality of the disaster first hand, a disaster that was being repeated up and down the Southeastern Massachusetts coastline. But I was by her side. As bizarre as it may seem, I was glad to be there in this time of this trauma in her life. She was confused and angry that this could happen. We hugged each other and quietly returned home. Brittany wishes to seek a future career in the United States Coast Guard.
Ground ZeroHoppy’s Landing-Long Island
Long Island is a small but busy place, just before West Island about 1,500 feet away. (Lat: 41.35.770N Long: 070.50.656W see nautical chart) The total length is about 3,000 feet by 600 feet wide.
It is the epitome of a classic but obscure New England Island along with all the nautical attributes and predictable characters that occupy it. On the north side is Earl’s Marina which caters to pleasure boats and Taylor seafood a base for a fledgling scallop-farm. Across the way on the south side of the causeway is Hoppy’s Landing.
Clusters of lobster boats are anchored nearby. Dozens of multi-colored lobster buoys are amassed together at the entrance and along the shack.
A crude sign indicates lobsters at five dollars each. Another sign spray painted on a large concrete block advertises “morrings available”. The distinct sound of crushed white clam shells under your tires in the entrance lot announces your arrival. The nearby boat ramp is busy around the clock.
Tanks of lobster, crab, quahogs, clams and plenty of cold beer are in abundant supply here. An honor system is even in place. An eloquently hand-written sign taped on a dirty refrigerator door inside a work-shed has this invitation:
“Cold Beer $1.00 nothin is for free this means you.”
Among the stacks of lobster traps are an array of work and pleasure boats on rusted trailers. A thirty foot flagpole stands in the middle of the property flying a huge American flag. Other small poles display the flags of Poland and Great Britain that flutter in the breeze even on a calm day. Several friendly cats lay lazily around the small 2 story cement block lobster shack which curiously has cable tv with no poles nearby. An old but comfortable couch and a long-discarded recliner are exposed to the elements on the front deck. The seaside aroma of shellfish envelopes your senses.
This is the second home to Robert D. “Hoppy” Hobson, 64,a retired Fairhaven police officer who’s trademark is his grey pony tail sticking out of his worn engineers cap and pickup truck. Hoppy has run his lobster business on the small island since the late 1970’s.
He is assisted by watchman, Jim Mullen, a grey bearded soft-spoken man who politely greets all visitors and fishermen with a smile.
Massive quantities of oil found it’s place on the shores of this tiny island. Although many areas were hit hard from Westport, Dartmouth, Mattapoisett and Wareham, It was without debate, the epicenter of the Spill. The oil was so well entrenched that it permeated under large boulders.
The first known casualty that I heard of was one of Hoppy’s cats who had succumbed to the thick goo. The cat was expecting to have kittens any day. There were also unconfirmed reports of a dog killed on Sconticut Neck as well. The chaos and enormity of the disaster still had yet to be fathomed.
A virtual army of cleanup crews and equipment were arriving everywhere. Soon, hundreds of workers in bright yellow and white hooded hazardous material outfits lined the shores raking in and stuffing globs of oil tainted seaweed and debris into large clear plastic bags.
Traffic on the causeway was at a snails pace creating its own sightseers with, work crews and emergency personnel. Large steel disposal containers blocked half the road to one passable lane.
It didn’t help that Sconticut Neck had limited access because of a large sewer project underway creating it’s own traffic problems and detours. It seemed at one point that progress was being made. Then a few days later a potent south westerly wind delivered a lethal blow.
Huge unexpected rolling black blankets of oil up to a foot thick battered the beaches in front of stunned officials and clean-up crews. Containment booms became ineffective as waves of oil leaped over them. This abysmal black juggernaut was relentless and seemed unstoppable. It behaved similar to slow moving volcanic lava when it reached the shore oozing over rocks and into crevices. The Captain of the Port, Coast Guard Admiral Mary Landry ordered hundreds of more cleanup workers to the scene. At one point an additional 700 workers lined the shore. It became clear that the reported volume of the spill was far greater than expected.
Meanwhile at Hoppy’s, Fire Chief Tim Francis advised Hobson and other lobster men to stop trying to clean off the oil from their gear as it was creating more of a problem from the run-off.
Occasional blasts from Ram Island off Marion reminded us that this was a war
zone in its own right. The blasts were from propane cannons to scare away
endangered Roseate terns attempting to nest and feed on the small oil slicked island.
I was summoned by the Town of Fairhaven Conservation Commission to respond to the scene with a video camera and begin documenting the cleanup efforts. Having access to restricted areas I saw firsthand and up close the contaminated areas being cleaned. Cleanup activities were multi-faceted and meticulous. From large cranes to small bobcats removing rocks, crews were in small outboard boats laying, maintaining an replacing booms. Trucks were constantly hauling away full containers of debris and returning with empty ones around the clock.
The Cleanup and The Statue of Liberty
A cleanup detail worker approached me and asked what I was doing here. I was monitoring the cleanup . I asked this imposing tall black man in full clean up gear how things were going. With hesitation and frustration he said, “ were doing it, but it’s a workout cleaning this stuff up”. I told him I did a No. 6 oil spill job in Newport 1980.
To my astonishment he stated he was there too and how we half frozen haz mat guys stayed and cleaned up the stubborn black goo in terrible winter weather. We hit it off as comrades. I then asked where he was from, and he said New Jersey. I said “You’re from New Jersey ? I asked why is your state always part of a punch line? Then I told this him a story, that on November 9th 1965 , on my 8th birthday, I blew the candles out on my birthday cake and most of the Northeast of the United States lost power. It was a massive blackout that placed over thirty million people without electricity. For a brief moment as an 8 year old, I felt guilty. I thought, what did I just do?
New York was in total darkness as well. The biggest blackout in history. However, the torch of the Statue of Liberty stayed lit. And I told him why, because the power for our beloved statue, a gift from France in 1886, came from New Jersey which for the most part wasn’t affected. He slapped me a hefty hand to hand and he knew were I was coming from. And then I said “let’s get to work”.
The cleanup continued with increased vigor. Other crew members were from as far away as Mexico to nearby New Bedford.TEAM BROUGHT IN TO AID RESCUEBy Sam Hornblower-Standard-Times correspondent
The birds keep arriving.
Common loons, double-crested cormorants, northern gannets, common eiders, red-breasted mergansers, black scoters, surf scoters, oyster catchers, buffleheads, and long tail ducks.
Bivouacked at a makeshift animal hospital at the New Bedford Wastewater
Treatment Plant at Fort Taber, a team of veterinarians with expertise in saving animals after oil spills now has 60 birds in its care. And the number keeps growing.
Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Inc., a nonprofit firm hired by Bouchard Transportation Co., the owner of the barge that spilled 14,700 gallons of heavy No.6 fuel oil into Buzzards Bay on Sunday, has been brought in to try to prevent oil-soaked birds and other wildlife from dying.
Tri-State already has responded to five oil spills this year and has 27 years experience working with animals traumatized by environmental disaster.
“They don’t have the best chances for survival but you try,” said Tom O’Shea
MassWildlife district supervisor. “Best case scenario, you get 20 percent, 25 percent. It could be more, it could be less. “
Seven oil-drenched birds have died on site and 43 corpses have been brought in. Six “live bird” teams are acting as emergency, beach-roving
ambulances, chasing reports of tainted birds. The medical treatment of each bird includes a baseline stability exam, which includes body temperature,
measurement, blood tests and treatment of dehydration through intravenous.
The birds are then sent through and elaborate series of warm wash tubs of Dawn dish detergent, 104-degree hose-downs, drying pens, rinse rooms and deep water recovery pools.
The birds’ feathers must be structurally yet fluffy before they are released, according to Eileen Gilbert, who runs logistics and has been with the firm since 1989. Veterinarians analyze everything from eating habits and bodily wastes ,to swimming and fishing ability.
Once they begin “acting normally”
vets give them a clean bill of health and a federal tracking band.
“They get just about everything but a note from their mother (before we send them off),” said Mrs. Gilbert, who calls the Bouchard event a “challenging spill”. She added that “The birds should start being released by mid-next week.
Oil kills birds, she said, not only by damaging their bodies’ interior and exterior, but also by ruining their breeding and nesting grounds and disrupting their food source.
Oil also affects a birds’ buoyancy and devastates its ability
to regulate body temperature. “We will see the damage continue for the next two to three weeks,” Mrs. Gilbert said. The bird rescue effort began on Monday at the Buttonwood Park Zoo. After three days of working overtime, the Buttonwood Park Zoo’s resources and staff had been stretched thin by the
crisis. “When (the division of Fisheries and Wildlife) stepped in with Tri-State, it was a relief,” said Buttonwood Park director David Raboy. “We were monopolized by this horrible event. It was a chance to return to normalcy”.Star of the Sea Chapel, West Island
AN APPRECIATION CEREMONYFOR THE CLEANUP CREWS & VOLUNTEERSMay 24, 2003
O God, O Lord our God, Stand by us. We, are a hurting people in need of healing. A part of our earth is once again sick. Bring it back to its’ loveliness and pristine beauty. Give solace to our hearts as we witness how, in our humanness, we once again became careless.
We forgive those who are responsible for this catastrophe and that we pray that the earth, this wonderful living organism we share life with, can once again forgive us. O God, let your sun shine on us and fill our saddened hearts with warmth and light, love, and peace.
A POEM PRAYER
The seas are calm as seagulls fly.
And ocean traffic does its thing.
‘Neath puffy clouds and sky.
A barge makes passage It’s cargo – oil
‘tis ripped asunder
Causing seas to spoil.
My God , why this again?
The earth cries out
Pay attention, pay attention;
And with it sea creatures shout.
We live here too,
Or have you forgot?
We have the right to live,
Like you, it’s our lot.
The waves, if they could speak,
would tell us how they wished to stop,
than bring the black stuff to shores around.
They wish they didn’t have the force to drop.
Oh God, we know You hear us now,
We know the earth is a living creature like our selves.
We need Your help and healing, Lord.
To turn our errors into ancient history upon our shelves.
Come soothe us, Lord, and hear our cry,
Our hearts are sad and need uplifting,
We trust in You, our earthly King and Heavenly Father,
And thank-You that the earth keeps giving.
As you leave here today, be repaired.
May your hearts take courage. Know that we share in the breathing of the same air and warmth of the same sun. Go in hope, knowing that the things we experience helps us to be more aware, indeed, more awake. Walk softly upon the earth and leave the footprints of one who has compassion for all living things, for all creatures are your brothers and sisters. Let us feel uplifted by those who would toil in our behalf to repair and restore the earth for us. Greet the dawns of your existence and thank the sunsets for another day of life. Be thankful unto God, for His amazing beauty which we behold in sun, sky , land and sea. Remember, that each of you is a precious gift of this planet. Come here bringing peace. Come here bringing love and deep respect for all that makes the earth what it is. Be blessed and be a blessing.
Reverend Dr. Arlene Paiva, Star of the Sea Chapel. West Island, MAThe Headlines
The Standard Times, April 29, 2003
Barge spills oil, fouls bay
14,700 gallons leak from fuel vessel
Environmental disaster looms
Complex oil makes for tough cleanup
The Boston Herald
April 30, 2003
CAPE SPILL TAKES HEAVY TOLL
Oil threatens wildlife, soils miles of beach
The Standard Times
April 30, 2003
SouthCoast hopes for the best
May escape long term disaster from oil spill
Report’s timeliness questioned
Shell fishermen will feel impact first
The Standard Times
May 1, 2003
Crews tackle ‘changing situation’
More than 1,800 gallons of oil recovered; barge moved, pumped
Environmental workers do their best to keep up
The Standard Times
May 2, 2003
Oil batters beaches
More towns’ shores sullied; lawsuit filed
Romney tours oil cleanup site
Vows to pursue litigation, federal aid
Fishermen file class-action lawsuit
More litigation expected against Bouchard Transportation Co.
The Standard Times
May 3, 2003
Cleanup cost at $2.25M and rising
Coast Guard plans to double number of workers on spill
Oil extends its reach to coves, rivers
The Standard Times
May 4, 2003
Oil leaves its mark
West Island is no longer overlooked
Shellfish beds still vulnerable
May 14, 2003
Oil resumes assault on beaches
The Standard Times
May 21, 2003
98,000 gallons were spilled
Coastal workers, residents shocked
Bouchard revises14,700 estimate, raising criticism
Scientists revising potential damage assessment
Romney wants greater fines for oil spills
The Standard Times
June 4, 2003
Selectmen go over spills effect on town
Cite dissatisfaction with Bouchard
The Standard Times
June 9, 2003
Oil could sully shores for years
Letters to the Editor
The Standard Times
May 4, 2003
Our Coast has some difficult times ahead
The worst oil spill in Fairhaven-West Island history has arrived.
It was a matter of time in which this ecological disaster would transpire.
The west end entrance of Buzzards Bay is the proverbial Times Square
for fuel barge traffic and other ships. It is also one of the most sensitive and rich marine sanctuaries in the northeast. I have evaluated this incident so far, regionally, as equivalent to the damage ecologically and economically (aside from structural damage and loss of human life) to that of a potent category 2 hurricane.
A man-made tidal action event, in this case a No.6 oil spill in significant quantity, permeating the jagged shores and inlets of Buzzards Bay is catastrophic. The repercussions are immeasurable. Buzzards Bay is laid out
in a fashion to a bathtub that geographically enclosed except for it’s widest southwest opening into Rhode Island Sound. Imagine an old time pinball machine where the steel ball is constantly diverted from one edge of the machine to the other. This is the scenario where the oil mass is constantly impacting different areas influenced by tides, currents and frequently shifting winds.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, this will persist until most of the oil has dispersed ashore. Having some experience in oil spill cleanup, I can appreciate the Herculean efforts of those who are feverishly going against a gauntlet of the elements of weather and seas which as of yet as shown no mercy.
Those inlets that are the latest to be affected, days after the initial spill, very likely will be the last to recover, due to isolated water flow and wave action.
We as coastal inhabitants have some difficult days, months and even years ahead. The crown jewel of the south coast going back to the days of the Wampanoag Indians is reeling for the time being with the great spill.
West Island Weather Station KA1WBH
The Standard Times
May 4, 2003
Congress must speed up ban of single hulls
There are some questions raised by this oil spill that will have to wait to see a complete investigation by the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board. But there is one issue that has waited far too long already. For than 10 years we have known that double hulls make environmental sense.
They are the cornerstone of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 enacted after America’s worst oil spill in the pristine waters of Prince William Sound. The problem was that Congress and the shipping industry made a deal, for economic reasons, to phase in double hulls over more than 20 years.
And the problem remains that single-hulled barges and tankers will legally ply the waters of Buzzards Bay and other sensitive estuaries until 2015. Sure, there will be fewer and fewer such crafts as the older and larger barges are required to be retrofitted or retired with each passing year. In fact, the ill-fated Bouchard-120 was due to be retired along with four other Bouchard barges in 2005.
But this painstakingly slow phase-out of single hulls leaves us on the SouthCoast gambling with time, gambling we’ll defy the odds of the past twenty years of one or two oil spills per decade. We should not have to take this gamble. We believe that the cost of this spill to the region and other recent spills far outweighs the cost of significantly speeding up the building and launching of double-hull barges and tankers.
State legislators are tinkering with ideas such as requiring that power companies such as the Mirant Plant in Sandwich where the B-120 was headed on Sunday accept oil only from double-hulled craft. But this doesn’t even put a dent in the traffic of single hulls through Buzzards Bay because more than 1,000 barges or tankers steam through each year. And many don’t stop in Massachusetts. Another idea we’ve heard is to ban single-hulls outright in our state waters-a state’s rights argument. The problem with this is that Rhode Island tried that the North Cape Spill as John Torgan of Save the Bay points out in an opinion piece on this page.
After the Exxon Valdez spill, Washington state also tried to impose more stringent regulations on barges and tankers that came into it’s waters. These were struck down by the Supreme Court as violations of the interstate commerce act. Double-hull rules have to come from the federal level.
In addition to the recent spill, we have another reason for speeding up the single-hull phase-out.
The European Union, initially upset by the American double-hull requirements, has had a major change of heart since the disastrous Prestige spill that washed up on the shores of Spain, Portugal, and France. The EU voted in March to ban all single hulled oil tankers. The proposed deadlines reported in the Journal of Commerce are a good five years faster than our deadlines.
This European ban could have the adverse effect of pushing the remaining single hulls into our waters because they can’t operate in Europe.
Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington state should lead other coastal states that have the same in protecting their sensitive estuaries in a federal effort to speed up the deadlines for retiring single-hulled barges and tankers.
It makes no sense to gamble for another decade on a repeat of this spill or something far worse.
May 4, 2003
We know how to prevent spills
The oil spill in Buzzards Bay s the latest example of what has become an all-too familiar scenario for New England. The coastal waters we love and fight to protect become a killing zone. We all remember the 1996 North Cape barge oil spill off Rhode Island that covered 250 square miles of ocean and destroyed more than 12 million lobsters, hundreds of seabirds and countless other marine animals. Few people remember the 14,000 -gallon bunker oil barge in 1999 off Newport in Narragansett Bay. Luckily in that case, a favorable wind pushed most of the oil into a sea-walled shoreline and a quick , effective response by the Coast Guard and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management prevented that spill from causing serious long-term damage.
Each of these disasters involving single-hull tank barges could have been prevented or vastly reduced if the barges simply had double hulls.
While the Federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) has been credited with a 95 percent reduction in oil spills annually in U.S. waters, it’s lenient and gradual phase-out provisions for single-hull tank vessels have come at a great cost to our environment and economy. According to the OPA schedule, we will continue to have these dangerous and outdated vessels plying our waters until 2015.
After North Cape, Rhode Island passed a law that would have accelerated
the double-hull schedule for local waters. Regrettably, those provisions were repealed after the tank-shipping industries challenged the legality of states regulating standards for interstate maritime commerce, arguing successfully that jurisdiction lies with the federal government. Shortly after the passage of the Rhode Island law, the Coast Guard convened a regional risk assessment team that developed barge safety regulations that applied to the Northeast coastline from New Jersey to Maine. These regulations essentially preempted
Rhode Island’s law, but left the double-hull requirements of OPA intact.
I co-chaired that team on behalf of environmental groups, and I still believe it was worthwhile process that yielded some sound safety improvements.
Clearly, though, these efforts were not enough. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that upheld the federal regulatory scheme and placed
limitations on the authority of individual states to set shipping standards.
Because of this, we remain subject to the gradual phase-out of single-hulled tankers and barges. But there is more bad news: Earlier this year, the massive Prestige oil spill off of Spain prompted the European Union to propose a greatly accelerated phase-out schedule, a move that may have the unintended consequence of sending even more single hulls to our region, where they are still legal.
How many more catastrophic spills must we endure before Congress recognizes that the cost of oil pollution is greater than the savings afforded to shippers by allowing them to continue to use single hulls? If our political leadership is as outraged by these spills as the rest of us, we should use these events as a catalyst to change the law. Spills from single-hulled tank barges are preventable and therefore unacceptable. Oil spills of this nature should never be allowed to happen again.
John Torgan Epilogue
West Island continues to recover from the trauma of a disaster that could have been far much worse. Boaters and beach goers are starting to enjoy the summer of 2003 here. This incident was a small infraction in comparison to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. But this incident is a wake up call of what could have happened. An environmental Armageddon, the destruction of our cherished Buzzards Bay, the crowned jewel of Massachusetts, was imminent with the breach of a single hulled fuel barge containing up to 4 million gallons of fuel that could have placed the South Coast on welfare for years to come.
Despite the efforts of state, federal and local officials demanding doubled hulled barges entering Buzzards Bay, especially to the Bouchard Transportation Company, defiant owners remain oblivious to what has happened and continue to transit off our shores with their single hulled vessels awaiting Federal double hull compliance deadlines to be exhausted, years away.
In October, state officials announced that most shellfish beds are re-opened. Hoppy’s Landing has been purchased by the Town of Fairhaven for conservation land which was planned before the spill.
In November of this year six months after the spill, the chief consulting engineer hired by the town took his own life.
In December, the Standard-Times named Fire Chief Timothy Francis, Fairhaven Man of the Year for his actions during the oil spill.
The now infamous single hulled Bouchard Barge #120 has been repaired and placed back in service, again to ply the waters of Buzzards Bay and parts unknown.
“I don’t think of all the misery, but all of the beauty that still remains”
Photos by Peter Pereira and Hank Seaman-courtesy of The Standard-Times,
The Associated Press, The National Audubon Society, and The U.S. Coast Guard