It can't happen here, but then it did.

You read about these things, oil spills, but it doesn't seem real until you experience it first hand.  Last week it became very real for the inhabitants of Cape Cod.  On Sunday evening, April 27, 2003, a Bouchard Company tugboat was towing barge No.120 up Buzzards Bay, en route from Philadelphia  through  the Cape Cod Canal and on to the Mirant Corporation's Canal Power Plant in Sandwich, Massachusetts.  Barge No. 120 contained 860,000 gallons of fuel oil.  It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and mild with only a light breeze. Milan LeDuc the captain of the Bouchard tug might be forgiven for relaxing a little.  After all, he was in known waters, with good visibility and no traffic to worry about.  Captain LeDuc was probably surprised to hear the radio call from the barge tenders informing him that there was an oil sheen trailing astern.  He was probably even more surprised over the course of the next day as the ruptured tanks on barge No. 120 leaked an estimated 15,000 gallons of oil into Buzzards Bay, creating an oil spill 13 miles long and two miles wide.

Oil spills are a depressingly common occurrence in almost all the world's oceans.  According to the Oil Spill Intelligence Report1, since 1960, oil spills larger than 10,000 gallons have occurred in more than 112 nations.  Over the period 1960 to 1995, Etkin2 provides the following sobering breakdown in the world's oil spill "hot spots:"

By Tuesday morning, the effects of the Buzzards Bay oil spill were already apparent in the form of a slick on the water that was visible from many Cape Cod beaches.  The carcass of an oil covered cormorant appeared on the front page of the Falmouth Enterprise newspaper under the headline, "Oil Spill in Buzzards Bay Reaches Silver Beach."  Number 6 fuel oil is a black industrial oil that is thick and heavy.  It becomes solid at 60 degrees (F) and has a foul smell.  The area affected by the spill developed a blue film that was dangerous to birds or other wildlife that came into contact with it.  The Coast Guard, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection arrived on the scene with a small army of personnel, boats and aircraft to supervise and monitor the cleanup.  Oil containment booms and skimmers were deployed at the entrances to harbors and marshes to prevent contamination of the estuaries. "The timing of the spill could not have happened at a worse time," according to Toby Lineweaver, executive director of the Penikese Island School,  "it's the nesting season for endangered shore birds.  It's really tragic."3

After the remainder of the fuel oil was transferred from barge No. 6, to another barge, attention began to focus on determining how and why the accident had occurred. Captain LeDuc was tested for drugs and alcohol and divers investigating the hull of the barge reported finding a twelve foot long tear in the vessel's single hull. LeDuc, 61, denied any wrongdoing and defended his record as a professional skipper, while declining to provide any details of the incident.4 

While oil spills from ships and barges don't account for the largest number of oil spills in the world, they do account for most of the largest oil spills.  They are less frequent than spills such as pipeline breaks, but usually result in large volumes of oil released into the environment.  In 1999 alone, about 32 million gallons of oil were spilled in a total of 257 accidents (land and sea). Of those spills, only eleven were from ships or barges, and the total amount spilled was 1.5 million gallons.5  These statistics vary significantly year to year because a single large incident like the Exxon Valdez can shape the entire oil spill picture for the year in which it occurs.  It is safe to say that tanker accidents have been the source of almost all of the largest oil spills. Of the 66 oil spills between 1960 and 1995 in which 10 million or more gallons were lost, 48 were tankers or barges.6 

Bouchard Transportation, the owner of barge 120 is no stranger to marine disasters.  In February, a Bouchard barge exploded while unloading gasoline on Staten Island, New York, killing two people and releasing tens of thousands of gallons of gasoline into the surrounding waters.  Prior to that, in March, a Bouchard vessel leaked over 2000 gallons of heating oil into New York's East River.  The captain was found guilty of being drunk at the time of the accident and Bouchard was fined $75,000 and held responsible for a $1,300,000 cleanup.  In 1993, a Bouchard barge accident in Tampa Bay, Florida released 300,000 gallons of gasoline into the water.  In 1996, a Bouchard barge ran aground in Boston Harbor, another spilled gasoline in the Hudson River and a third leaked diesel into Long Island Sound.  Bouchard barges were also responsible for two of the largest previous oil spills in Buzzards Bay: the 1974 spill off Red Brook Harbor contaminated 70% of the shellfish beds in the town of Bourne, and the same barge ran aground off Cleveland Ledge spilling over 100,000 gallons of No. 2 heating oil.7  

You might think that this abysmal safety record would force the closure of Bouchard, but the family owned company remains unfazed by the incident.  Bouchard is the East Coast's largest oil transporter and boasts of its long heritage of barging experience and the pride the family takes in the company.8 This is despite the fact that, according to the National Response Center, Bouchard has far more than its share of oil spills compared to other barge companies.  Since 1990, Bouchard has been responsible for 152 oil-related incidents, compared with 79 for the company with the second most.  The United States Coast Guard has yet to make a public statement regarding the cause of the accident, but a quick glance at a nautical chart shows that it occurred in the vicinity of a rock outcropping that might explain the gash in the barge's hull.  In any event, Bouchard's ability to shrug off oil spill incidents like this one may be coming to an end.  Yesterday, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney  called the spill ''inexcusable'' and said he will visit the site today. ''Perhaps the penalties aren't large enough for this kind of devastation,'' he further suggested.9

For the first day or so, we were all able to believe that the cleanup crews had done their jobs so well that the spill was contained and this whole incident would soon recede into memory.  I spent hours walking the beaches along with many other residents and there wasn't a sign of the problem except for a dull gray sheen on the horizon.  Close to shore, the white sand of Silver Beach radiated the warmth of the Spring sunshine and the turquoise waters sparkled invitingly.  The news of the spill was on everyone's lips and strangers on the beach easily struck up a conversation regarding what they'd seen and where they'd seen it.  In general, the consensus was that there just wasn't much to report.  It was out there, but it had missed us so far and the cleanup crews were working night and day to contain it.  Maybe we'd dodged a bullet after all.

This morning was cold and rainy.  The sky was the color of lead and there was a stale poisonous breeze blowing in off the bay.  I went for a walk on the beach, just to reassure myself but the minute I stepped on the sand I knew our period of grace was over.  I stepped on a pile of eel grass and as the weight of my foot pressed down, it oozed a thick black tar that I could smell without bending down.  

Near the water was a black lump and I instinctively walked toward it, somewhat dreading what I might find.  As I approached, it became clear that it was a sea bird, clumped and gritty with tar and oil.  As I came nearer, I slowed respectfully, as if not to scare the bird, even though I thought it was dead.  When I was close enough to touch the bird, I was startled to see it lift its regal head and fix me steadily with red eyes.  The bird gave me a look that I don't think I'll forget as long as I live.  It was a condemnation of me and all my kind.  The proud insolent stare of one who has been vanquished by those normally beneath contempt.  The Loon made a low sound almost like a growl and then he looked away, banishing me from his sight.  I believe the question the Loon wanted to ask me was this: "Why?" And for the life of me I don't have an answer.



1 Etkin (1997)
2Rowland (2002)
3 Reckford (2003)
4 Daley (2003)
5 DeCola (2003)
6 Etkin (2003)
7 Reckford (2003)
8 Gilman (2003)
9 Daley (2003)


Daley, B. 5/1/2003 The Boston Globe, MA: Globe Newspapers: 

DeCola, E. 2000. International Oil Spill Statistics: 2000, Arlington, MA: Cutter Information Corporation.

Etkin, D.S. 1997 Oil Spills From Vessels (1960-1995): An International Historical Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Cutter Information Corporation

Gilman, R. H. (Pub) 5/4/2003 The Boston Globe, Editorial: A residue of questions, MA: Globe Newspapers: 

Reckford, L. M. 2003 The Falmouth Enterprise, MA: Enterprise Newspapers

Rowland, H. (Ed) 2000 International Oil Spill Statistics 1999, NY: Aspen Law & Business


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