The morning after Sandy made landfall, the air smelled strongly of heating oil near Bay Drive and Toulon Avenue in West Atlantic City.
There was an oil sheen over parts of the floodwaters in the section of Egg Harbor Township near Lakes Bay. Where the water had receded, oil marked the pavement of Bay Drive with a rainbowlike glimmer.
Nearly three weeks later, there is still a hint of that oil odor.
While most area residents who have suffered flooding damage are focused on clearing debris, preventing mold growth and drying up, others are contending with oil spills from flooded heating oil tanks or fuel leaks from overturned boats.
More than 260 spills or discharges of toxic chemical occurred in New Jersey due to Sandy, according to The Press of Atlantic City’s review of all New Jersey reports made to the National Response Center between Oct. 29 and Nov. 14.
About 25 releases directly related to Sandy have been reported so far in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties, the reports show.
The Coast Guard, along with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection and local emergency management officials, has been working across the state to address the spills reported to the agencies and to the National Response Center, said Lt. Adrian Harris, who works in the Incident Management Division with the Coast Guard’s Sector Delaware Bay.
Coast Guard investigators conducted an inspection of the coast from Long Branch to Cape May, a job that lasted 12 days and involved responses to 33 spills in that area. Among the spills was waste oil from 13 42-gallon drums that were discharged into the Clam Creek Marina in Atlantic City, Harris said.
Reported discharges included overturned boats in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties leaking fuel. An aerial survey along the coast the day after Sandy made landfall found dozens of overturned boats on Long Beach Island, but no fuel spills have been reported from there.
The number of spills from the storm and its flooding is substantial, and those reported may be a fraction of those that occurred, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said. That lack of reporting likely is due to the priorities of protecting life and primary residences.
“Now, their priority is trying to figure out what’s left,” he said.
Among the reported discharges related to the storm were heavy metals from batteries in navigational markers in Absecon Inlet, Barnegat Inlet and Cold Spring Inlet in Cape May, according to the review of reports.
But not all spills have been reported, including the one in West Atlantic City. No report of that discharge was found.
Two days after the floodwaters in Atlantic City receded, the Atlantic City Housing Authority evacuated remaining residents at one of the buildings in Stanley Holmes Village because of a diesel spill. Those residents still can’t return because of flood damage.
The report filed Nov. 3 by the Housing Authority stated the diesel fuel that spilled and contaminated apartments with a heavy odor and fumes was from an unused underground tank. The report stated the Housing Authority did not know how much fuel was in the tank when the tank was flooded.
Nearby, on the 300 block of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a report also filed Nov. 3 stated the boiler room of an apartment complex was flooded and the heating oil in the tanks spilled and went into the street. In Gardner’s Basin, multiple drums of mineral oil or fuel oil were found in the water, likely having been washed off land from Sandy’s storm surge.
In Ocean City, three reports of oil sheens on Waterway Road, which leads to houses on Clubhouse Lagoon near the airport, were filed.
A 250-gallon heating oil tank was unearthed and deposited in the yard of a house on West Anchor Drive in the Mystic Islands section of Little Egg Harbor Township, another report stated. An unknown amount of home heating fuel was leaking onto the land.
DEP officials say it’s too soon to know the full extent of pollution released into the floodwaters. Sandy’s storm surge caused one of the largest spills in state history in Woodbridge Township, Middlesex County, after floodwaters dislodged at least one storage tank at the Motiva Oil Tank Facility, releasing nearly 380,000 gallons of low-sulfur diesel fuel. About 277,000 gallons escaped a containment area and spilled into the Arthur Kill, a tidal waterway separating Staten Island and New Jersey.
“It’s a matter of cleaning up with everything else,” Hajna said last week. “We’ve not heard of any widespread problems in the southern shore region.”
Many of the spills occurred in Bergen, Hudson, Monmouth, Middlesex, Morris and Union counties. Many of the reports were about toppled power-line transformers, which leaked mineral oil or even PCBs, which are suspected carcinogens that persist in the environment due to their stable chemical composition. Failures at multiple major wastewater treatment plants also caused raw or partially treated sewage to flow into waters north of Sandy Hook in Monmouth County.
In Bayonne, Hudson County, which is on the front line of the spill into Arthur Kill, there were numerous reports of oil or petroleum products saturating the soil, covering cars, lawns, streets and sidewalks.
Short-term acute exposure to oil or petro-chemicals can cause dizziness, headaches, respiratory issues and potentially neurological impairments, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Long-term exposure to petroleum products can cause cancer and reproductive issues and can affect internal organ function.
Federal law requires all chemical spills and releases into water to be reported to the response center, which is run through the Coast Guard. The center is the sole reporting point for any release or spill of toxic substances, including oil, gas or diesel fuel, into water. The DEP has a hot line — 877-WARNDEP — for state residents to call if they suspect their property has been contaminated.
The Coast Guard said the owner of the contamination source is responsible for the cleanup. Residents who suspect contamination can contact the DEP for advice and should contact a specialized contractor, Hajna said.
Harris, of the Coast Guard’s Incident Management Division, said investigators will determine whether the spill is related to Sandy and, if so, it’s unlikely there will be a penalty.
Hajna said cleaning up the spilled petroleum products and other chemicals released into the floodwaters will be part of the ongoing cleanup of the entire coast.
“We’ve been working on identifying issues, working in actual response and cleanup and helping people look at contractors,” Hajna said.
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