Monday, August 21, 2017

From Discovery to Recovery: Oil on the Bay

By Mike Jarbeau, Narragansett BayKeeper

As Narragansett Baykeeper, my primary responsibility is to serve as the “eyes and ears” for the Bay and provide an on-the-water presence. Being on the water serves many important functions, helping me identify pollution, monitor and document water quality and engage with all users of the Bay. On a recent Saturday morning, I left the Bay Center dock on Scout, our 23-foot center console vessel, to check out weekend activity on the water and visit the locations of some of our recent work on the Providence River.

Heading south, I could see a fleet of Beetle Cat sailboats departing Edgewood Yacht Club and the Seastreak ferry making its way from Providence to Newport, and I heard radio broadcasts of an upcoming speedboat race. Upon reaching Stillhouse Cove in Cranston, I was startled to notice Scout entering a large sheen. I looked around and saw evidence of oil in all directions. Among the sheen were streaks of thick, black oil. The scent of petroleum was unmistakable. I estimated the scene to encompass between 5,000-10,000 square feet. While the source wasn’t clear to me, it was obvious that a significant amount of oil had made its way into the Bay.

I made a report to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) after-hours emergency phone number and was quickly called back by the Oil & Hazardous Materials Specialist, David Dumsar. He indicated that he was interested in responding, but did not have access to a boat. I offered the use of Scout, and picked him up at the Bay Center shortly after, where we loaded the boat with response materials. Upon returning to the spill site, we attached several lengths of oil-absorbent boom to the stern of the boat in an attempt to collect as much oil as possible. After almost two hours, we couldn’t locate any more oil in the area. We collected the boom and returned to the Bay Center, having recovered a significant amount of oil, which wouldn’t have been possible without the rapid, willing assistance of DEM.

In this case, Save The Bay’s physical presence on the Bay directly resulted in the identification and cleanup of an oil spill that may have gone unnoticed otherwise. This was a great example of the value Save The Bay provides as an organization with one primary constituent – Narragansett Bay. While the small scale of the spill likely did not warrant the use of specialized equipment including oil-skimming boats, DEM should have the personnel and resources to respond to and assess all spills reported to them. We encourage our state leaders to step up and demonstrate a commitment to Narragansett Bay by properly resourcing DEM and other agencies with environmental responsibilities. This becomes increasingly important with proposed reductions in Federal support and resources.