50 YEARS AFTER THE SPILL
By Micah Fink
This is the story of a little oil spill that changed everything.
It all began nearly fifty years ago, on the foggy Tuesday evening on Sept 15, 1969, when a tugboat pulling a barge filled with light fuel oil, bound for a power plant on the Cape Code Canal, experienced a catastrophic series of mechanical problems.
First the radar failed, then the rudder stopped responding, and finally the tug’s towline broke, sending the Florida oil barge adrift until it ran aground on an underwater shoal near West Falmouth, Massachusetts. The rocks ripped into the hull, spewing nearly 175,000 gallons of Number 2 fuel oil into Buzzards Bay.
Just after midnight, John French, a local resident, called the Coast Guard after being awakened by the stench of oil wafting into his house from the bay.
By mid-morning strong winds had spread a thick coffee-colored oily mixture across miles of beaches and coastline, littering one of New England’s most popular tourist attractions with dead and dying marine creatures, including countless scallops, lobsters, and marine worms.
“Some folks called it ‘silent autumn,’ because there was so much death and destruction from the diesel fuel,” says Dr. Christopher Reddy, a senior scientist in the department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
While a fairly small spill by most standards, says Dr. Reddy, it triggered one of the longest running oil spill research projects ever conducted. The Florida spill also forever changing how we study marine oil spills as well as our understanding of oil’s long-term impact on sensitive ecosystems like salt marshes.
OIL IN THE MARSH
In the summer of 2018, Marine Defenders joined Dr. Reddy and Samuel McNichol, an undergraduate intern, on a research expedition to a salt marsh along the Wild Harbor River, a lovely oasis of green about a mile inland from Buzzards Bay, which is ground-zero for the study of the persistence of marine oil spills.
“The conventional wisdom by the industry at the time of the Florida spill was that the oil would only last two weeks,” explains Dr. Reddy, dressed in shorts and a blue tee-shirt as he searches out an area of the marsh that has come to be known as M-1 (marsh sample 1).
“Could the oil from the Florida spill still be here 50 years later?” he asks. “That is what we’ve come here today to find out.”
Dr. Reddy’s field kit includes a long plastic tube, which, after getting his bearings, he proceeded to pound into the marsh using a heavy mallet. When the tube is extracted, after a fair amount of digging and manual exertion, it contains a long plug of grass, roots and fibers cut from heart of the marsh.
“A sediment core is like a tape recorder, or a tree-ring,” he explains, which will reveal the marsh’s hidden history when analyzed back at his laboratory at Woods Hole.
Dr. Reddy is literally following in the foot-steps of a marine biologist named George Hampson, who was doing research at Woods Hole in 1969, when he received a phone call from a friend saying that fish and marine invertebrates had begun washing up dead along the shore line.
Curious, Hampson invited his colleague, Howard Sanders, a specialist in benthic, or bottom-dwelling, marine life, to try to figure out what was happening.
“A massive, immediate kill occurred offshore during the first few days after the accident,” Sanders later noted in a report to the Office of Naval Research in October 1970. “A wide range of fish, shell fish, worms, crabs, and other crustaceans and invertebrates [were affected]. Bottom living fishes and lobsters were killed and washed up on beaches. Trawls in 10 feet of water showed 95% of the animals dead and many still dying. The bottom sediments contained many dead clams, crustaceans and snails.”
Toxins in the oil from the Florida barge, they concluded after collecting samples in the bay and shorelines around West Falmouth, were ripping apart the local marine ecosystem.
And it wasn’t just marine life in the bay that was affected.
Hampson and Sanders also took samples along the Wild Harbor River, a small tidal estuary close to Woods Hole, where the wind and waves had pushed large amounts of oil upstream, inundating the salt marsh along its shores.
“In the most heavily polluted locations of the river almost no animals have survived," Sanders wrote about the impact of the spill along the Wild Harbor River. "The affected areas have not been repopulated nine months after the accident.”
“It was a strange autumn,” Sanders later recalled. “You could go down to the marsh and there wouldn’t even be [bugs.] No mosquitoes, no greenflies, no nothing. And no birds… Even the gulls left… because there wasn’t anything to eat. It was absolutely quiet.”
Further research showed that while the oil had seemingly disappeared from the water and beaches along the bay, a thick band of oil had been absorbed into the fabric of the salt mash, and would remained in the sediment at least a decade after the spill.
“What they learned was that when it comes to marine oil spills, it's not the size that matters -- it's location, location, location,” Dr. Reddy says. “They found that the oil that came up on the sandy beaches either went away very quickly or they could just come in with a bulldozer and take it away. But when the oil gets into a salt marsh, it sticks really hard because the roots and fibers of the grasses that make up the marsh act like a chemical sponge, absorbing and holding the hydrocarbons.”
These discoveries have shaped how spill responses take place around the world. “Today, when folks are sitting at an oil spill headquarters, and they only have so much boom, and so much time, they ask, what can we protect in the time that we have?"
"They protect the salt marshes," says Dr. Reddy. "Why do they protect salt marshes? Because of the first studies done here in Wild Harbor in 1969.”
Sanders and Hampson also drew in Max Blumer, a world class geochemist and petroleum specialist at Woods Hole. He agreed to carry out a detailed chemical analysis of their samples, which he compared with a sample of the fuel oil from the Florida barge. Using a gas chromatograph, a fairly new instrument at the time, Blumer was able to graph the chemical composition of each sample, producing what he called a biological “fingerprint” of the oil.
“Any patch of crude oil has fingerprints in its composition,” Blumer later explained, making it possible to trace any sample back to its source.
Comparing the field samples with the sample of oil from the Florida, Blumer found a clear match. “The samples from the marsh and offshore showed very clearly the profile of the spilled oil, which was to become so familiar to us,” he explained.
"Our work in this spill has differed from other studies of oil in the environment,” Dr. Blumer told a reporter from the New Yorker in 1973, “because we have been able to show the presence of the original fuel oil in every case where there has been biological damage.”
His high tech detective work would later prove its value when the owners of the barge tried to dispute that the Florida spill had caused any particular environmental impacts.
The team’s research was also able to prove that the damage to the ecosystem continued long after the oil seemed to have vanished. “When spilled oil can no longer be seen,” Sanders later wrote in a study for the EPA released in 1979, “it does not mean that the oil, at toxic levels, is not present. Oil can be lethal or have significant sublethal effects in very small concentrations, concentrations as low as several parts per billion.”
The EPA would later characterize the work carried out by Sanders, Blumer and Hampson as “probably the most rigorous and comprehensive investigation ever made of a single spill event.”
The team’s findings would also shape enforcement of the US Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which requires polluters to clean up and return any ecosystem to its pre-spill status.
“The lesson we learned from the Florida spill was that just because you can't see the oil doesn't necessarily mean that it's not continuing to provide an impact,” says Dr. Reddy. “It's not just out of sight, out of mind. Today, how the government determines damages after a spill, and how they may move forward to make things whole, all comes back to the research done in 1969.”
“Blumer was such a good scientist that he laid out the study of how oil behaves in the environment and created the road map that scientists use to study oil spills science to this day,” he says. “They did fantastic work.”
SUBLETHAL EFFECTS: IMPACT ON WILDLIFE
Biologist Howard Sanders also documented the sublethal effects of the Florida oil spill on wildlife living in the salt marshes of Wild Harbor in 1969. He found that fiddler crabs became slow and disoriented after being exposed to the oil, making them vulnerable to predators. He also observed that the layer of oil deposited in the salt marsh was causing the crabs to dig shallower borrows, resulting in many being swept away by the winter tides.
These results were later replicated in a study by Jennifer Culbertson, a graduate student at Boston University in 2007. Her research also showed that the crabs did not burrow as deeply in the areas still impacted by oil as they do in oil-free areas in Wild Harbor. She found fewer crabs in the oiled areas of the marsh, and those she did find moved more slowly than crabs living in an oil free environment, making it easier for predators to catch them, thus passing the toxins in the oil up the local food chain. Four decades later, Culbertson concluded, the Florida spill was still wreaking havoc on Wild Harbor’s salt marsh ecosystem.
FIFTY YEARS AFTER THE SPILL
Back at his laboratory at Woods Hole, Dr. Reddy balances the tube with core sample from the Wild River salt marsh on a round platform. With Sam’s help, he carefully exposes the marsh grasses and begins to cut a series of two-centimeter slices from the core using a serrated bread knife. Each slice is carefully wrapped in tin foil and labeled, and as they work their way down to the bottom of the core, the sharp smell of diesel oil filling the laboratory.
It’s not entirely surprising, says Dr. Reddy, who first struck oil when collecting samples from salt marsh nearly two decades ago. This discovery of oil, Dr. Reddy says, actually changed the focus of his work – and led him to spend the next two decades studying oil spills.
It all began in 2000, when Aubrey Hounshell, an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii called Dr Reddy asking to spend the summer studying oil spills at his lab at Woods Hole. “I told him I can’t call up Exxon and tell them to dump oil,” he recalls, but then chemist John Farrington, one of his mentors at Woods Hole, suggested updating Blumer’s research on the Florida oil spill’s impacts on the Wild River salt marsh.
“We went out to Wild River with Hampson,” Reddy recalls. “Sure enough we pushed this core in and we smelled oil. I was astonished. I was like, oh, this can't happen. And that one core, that one smell from the 1969 spill, set me on a trajectory of studying oil spills for the rest of my career. I've been involved in every major oil spill since then,” he adds, “and it all goes back to this 1969 oil spill.”
NATURE HITS A ROAD BLOCK
Why oil persists in the environment continues to fascinate Dr. Reddy.
“Diesel fuel contains thousands of chemical compounds and some components break down faster or are more palatable to microbes than others,” he explains. “I’m interested in which compounds in the oil are the toughest kids on the block. What makes their chemical personality last? Why are these compounds still there? That's what keeps me up at night.”
“It’s fascinating from a basic science perspective,” he says. “But from an applied science perspective, this work also allows us to communicate to the industry what types of compounds and what types of chemical personalities are ones that can persist for a long time in the environment.”
“What we're basically doing is monitoring how that oil at Wild Harbor has changed through time,” says Dr. Reddy, while he places a sample from the marsh core into the chamber of a high tech version of Max Blumer’s original gas chromatograph.
The results, when they appear on a computer screen, reveal a bell-curved shape curve showing the biological components of the oil from the salt marsh sample.
This is evidence that not only is the oil still presen, but that the oil hasn't broken down in the environment. The results show that the sample is remarkably similar to the oil samples that Max Blumer originally studied in 1969.
“Nature has hit a roadblock,” Dr. Reddy says.
This is important because many oil spill cleanup plans still rely on a tactic known in the industry as “natural attenuation,” which relies on naturally occurring microbes to clean up the spill by eating the hydrocarbons in the oil. It’s cheaper than physically cleaning up a spill, and favored by industry, but results like these suggest it’s a tactic that may not always work, depending on the location of the spill.
“Everyone thinks we can rely on microbes to eat this oil and make it go away,” says Dr Reddy. “But I think the microbes no longer find this oil palatable. It shows you just can’t assume that nature is going to clean up all your problems.”
“While nature certainly has helped the marsh heal a little," Dr. Reddy says, "this is a chronic problem where nature is incapable of healing itself."
“What we see from these results from Wild Harbor is that nature can get stymied and that even a relatively small release in the grand scheme of things can wreak havoc on an ecosystem. And if the conditions are right it can last for a long time.”
HOW MUCH OIL REMAINS?
Max Blumer and his colleagues estimated that four tons of oil remained in Wild Harbor eight months after the spill in May 1970.
Emily Peacock, a researcher at Woods Hole, spent two years carrying out a study exploring how much oil remained. She took core samples from 26 locations along the west and east side of the salt marsh. "Only a small amount of oil exists in a small area but at high concentrations," she wrote in September 2005 report, estimating that about 100 kilograms of oil remained in the marsh.
"Wild Harbor marsh continues to store petroleum residues 30 years after the Florida spill," she concluded. "The locations that were most heavily contaminated continued to have the most persistent residues."
Emily Peacock found "only 0.01% of the oil that was initially spilled persists," notes Dr. Reddy. "Yes, oil is there. Yes, it still affects the ecosystem, but its in a very very localized location."
"In the short term, it was catastrophic and the marsh hurt for a few years," he adds. "Now its is post-card pretty and thriving. You could argue it's a victory that the area recovered so well."
A Silent Fall: The Story of the West Falmouth Oil Spill by E. Graham Ward.
The West Falmouth Oil Spill: Persistence of the Pollution Eight Months After the Accident Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Sept 1970, unpublished technical report. By M. Blumer, J. Sass, G. Souza, H.L. Sanders, J.F. Grassle, and G. R. Hampson.
A Small Oil Spill at West Falmouth, US EPA Decision Series, Edited by Francine Sakin Jacoff, Text by Howard Sanders and others. 1979.
A Small Spill, The New Yorker, Nov 26, 1973. By William Wertenbaker
Oil in Our Coastal Back Yard. Oceanus Magazine, Oct 13, 2004. By Christopher M. Reddy
The West Falmouth Oil Spill: 100 Kg of Oil Found to Persist Decades Later, Environmental Forensics, Sept 2005. By Emily Peacock, Joseph Warren, Robert Nelson and Christopher M. Reddy.
Still Toxic After All These Years, Oceanus Magazine, April 23, 2007. By Christopher M. Reddy.