Oil Spills Pollute Indefinitely and Invisibly, Study Says

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
November 22, 2002

The Prestige oil tanker, carrying 20 million gallons (76 million liters) of fuel oil, sank off the northern coast of Spain earlier this week, releasing at least 800,000 gallons (3 million liters) of oil into the waters of an extremely rich fishing region.

A report published earlier this month shows that in sensitive near-shore environments, the effects of an oil spill can be seen even decades later.

The findings come from a study of the aftermath of an accident that occurred in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, on a foggy morning in September 1969. A Boston-bound barge entering the Cape Cod Canal ran aground on rocks, spilling 175,000 gallons (700,000 liters) of diesel fuel into the bay.

The Prestige sank in waters that are more than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) deep, about 150 miles (241 kilometers) off shore. Still, so far, more than 150 miles (241 kilometers) of beaches and coves have been fouled.

Evidence from the Buzzards Bay disaster suggests the effects of oil spills could be indefinite. Thirty years after the Massachusetts catastrophe, significant oil residues remain in local salt marsh sediments, according to researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

"It is clear from this study that oil spills can have a long-term impact on a coastal environment," said Christopher Reddy, a marine chemist and lead author of the study.

"Even after all these years, concentrations of some compounds [in at least one Buzzards Bay site] are similar to those observed immediately after the spill, and reflect the persistent nature of...oil in coastal salt marsh sediments," he said.

The findings are reported in the November 15 edition of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Silent Fall

Parts of Buzzards Bay were heavily contaminated by the brown, viscous oil. Fish, worms, crabs, mollusks, and other animals perished in great numbers, along with oil-smothered marsh grasses. Residents of the nearby town West Falmouth, referred to the following months as the "silent fall," said Reddy, referring to the absence of the usually noisy grasshoppers, waterfowl, and other animals normally in the area.

The incident was not large by oil spill standards—the famed 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska unleashed close to 11 million gallons (40 million liters) of oil into the environment. However, the close proximity of the Woods Hole research center meant the West Falmouth site has been studied extensively.

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