Thursday, January 18, 2018

Recalling the North Cape Oil Spill: Could it happen again, sooner than we think?

by Topher Hamblett, advocacy director

Twenty-two years ago, on January 19, 1996, Rhode Islanders were shocked by the grounding of North Cape oil barge off of Moonstone Beach during a brutal nor’easter. It’s hull had ruptured, releasing 820,000 gallons of home heating oil into Rhode Island Sound and the Salt Ponds of the South Coast. The barge was being towed by the tugboat Scandia on a journey that never should have happened in the first place.

North Cape Oil Spill, January 18, 1996. Photo: E. Gundlach
The impact was devastating. An excerpt from Save The Bay’s Bay Bulletin in the Spring of 1996 tells the story:  “Millions of lobsters, surf clams, sea stars and other forms of marine life washed up dead and dying on the shores of Moonstone Beach. Hundreds of birds, including loons, sea ducks, gulls, and grebes were from the Rhode Island mainland and Block Island with only a few surviving. A 250-square-mile area surrounding the wrecked barge was closed to fishing and shellfishing, impacting the lives and jobs of many in the commercial fishing industry. Oil penetrated to a depth of three feet on the pristine Moonstone swimming beach, and estuarine ponds behind the barrier beach were polluted by saturated water.”

Images of dead marine life and oiled birds are seared into the memories of anyone who saw the reports on television or went to Moonstone Beach to see it for themselves or participate in the cleanup.

When news of disaster reached Save The Bay, we had to move fast (and remember, this was in the pre-internet age). Staff raced to the scene for up-to-the-minute information from the U.S. Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other responders, and to advocate for aggressive cleanup, damage assessments, and recovery plans. Volunteers had to be trained, on site, for bird rescue. 

At our small offices on Smith Street in Providence, it was all hands on deck. We set up a phone bank to manage the flood of calls from concerned citizens wanting to help with the rescue of marine life and cleanup of oiled shorelines. The response was overwhelming: more than 3,000 people called our offices, and we deployed and trained 1,200 volunteers to assist with federal and independent (our own) environmental damage assessments.  
The U.S. Coast Guard, which responded heroically to the North Cape disaster, designated Save The Bay as its official volunteer response organization for oil spill disasters – a role we play to this day.

In the aftermath of the North Cape incident, we worked with the Rhode Island General Assembly and Congressional delegation to strengthen laws to prevent such an event from happening again. Rhode Island Senator Charles Fogarty, U.S. Senator John Chafee, and Congressmen Jack Reed and Patrick Kennedy led the charge.

Today, on the 22nd anniversary of the North Cape disaster, the Trump Administration’s rush to open up the Atlantic coast to oil drilling should serve as a wake up call to take action, now, to stop it. Citizen response to the North Cape in 1996 was inspiring. You can help by:
  1. Signing our online petition opposing the President’s reckless plan and letting Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Bureau of Energy Management know that you oppose offshore oil drilling in New England waters.
  2. Joining us and making your voice heard! Show up – signs in hand – at the Bureau of Energy Management's Providence meeting about the proposal. NOTE: This meeting, and our protest, were to take place on Jan. 25; however, the government shutdown has led the BOEM to postpone the meeting. Therefore, we'll reschedule our protest accordingly. 
  3. Supporting the New England Coastal Protection Act. Let your State and U.S. senators and representatives know you support this legislation that would permanently prohibit oil and gas drilling off the coasts of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine.