A 3,000-gallon oil spill in the East River area of Queens last week has left local politicians wondering why they weren’t notified and environmentalists questioning the long-term effects.
The spill, which covered a six-mile stretch from Astoria to Whitestone, is in the clean-up stage now and Frank Bari, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard, said no damage to wildlife has been found. His agency is overseeing the cleanup.
Others are less optimistic about the damages. “We have learned over the years in dealing with oil spills that the damage is always worse than it appears,” said Marc Matsil, former director of the Natural Resources Group of the Parks Department.
The specific damages done to the microscopic forms of life that are at the bottom of the food chain are difficult to quantify, Matsil said. “Whenever you get oil spread out over a large area, there is some release of toxins during the breakdown of the oil.”
Before dawn last Thursday, a commercial barge had spilled the fuel into Bowery Bay during an off-loading operation at the docks of the Castle Oil company in Astoria.
The captain of the barge, after registering a .9 in an alcohol breathalyzer test, was arrested for intoxication by officers of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He was subsequently fired by the owner of the barge, Bouchard Transportation Company of Hicksville, Long Island.
From Bowery Bay, the oil had spread northeast, past Rikers Island and reached the Throgs Neck Bridge.
By last Friday the Coast Guard had already skimmed off most of the oil in the water, about 2,100 gallons. But clean-up crews are still removing the oil slick coating parts of the rocky shoreline. College Point, Whitestone and the southern Bronx are affected.
“We will have to use a high-pressure hot-water spray on the rocks,” Bari said.
Politicians that represent Western Queens did not find out about the event until days after and are angry that they were not notified earlier. “The fact that the public didn’t know about this spill is clearly a betrayal of the trust of this community,” said Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., a member of the Environmental Protection Committee.
Assemblyman Michael Gianaris said he first heard of the oil spill on Tuesday, five days after the event. He plans to call Castle Oil to find out why the company did not notify his office. “Clearly there should be some requirement of notice to the local community. This is dangerous stuff. It’s not a minor incident.”
The assemblyman will now ensure that the clean-up effort is thorough and expedient. “We will make sure that the damage is rectified as soon as possible, that clean-up crews are not cutting corners and that the soil and water are not contaminated,” he said.
Just 18 hours after the East River spill last week, Bouchard Transportation was involved in a second oil spill in Port Jefferson, Long Island. One of the company’s barges spilled about 4,000 gallons of oil into the water while off-loading there.
However, unlike Astoria, that dock had been surrounded by booms, which are barriers that float in the water. The booms successfully contained the oil spill to a small area.
Morton Bouchard, president of Bouchard Transportation, defended the company in earlier news accounts. “The management of the company is not happy about these incidents,” he said. “This is not the norm of the company, and it will not be tolerated by the citizens of the United States or the management of this company.”
He added that last year Bouchard Transportation had off-loaded 10 billion gallons of oil, of which no more than 1,000 gallons were spilled during four environmental mishaps. The barge company has been in business since 1918.
By Monday of this week, though, Bouchard had apparently put the spillage behind him. “The incident is over,” he said. “The barges are loading somewhere else right now.”
Bouchard Transportation will be paying for the clean-up effort being conducted by Miller Environmental and National Response Corp. The U.S. Coast Guard has been overseeing those companies’ efforts.