The U.S. Coast Guard has a detailed plan to address a major oil spill in the Delaware Bay.

Why the concern? Nearly 1 million barrels or 42 million gallons of crude oil pass by Cape May every day en route to refineries near Philadelphia. The Delaware Bay is the No. 1 destination for crude oil cargo ships in the United States.

The massive British Petroleum oil spill is an unqualified ecological and financial catastrophe for Gulf Coast shore communities.

Likewise, if a cargo ships spilled oil in the Delaware Bay, “it would be totally disastrous,” said Joanna Burger. She is a professor of cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers University.

She is spending the week in Cape May County to study red knots, endangered shorebirds that are migrating through southern New Jersey on their way to their arctic breeding grounds.

“First of all it depends upon the timing. The immediate and really horrible effects would be if it happened from the first of May to the end of June. If there were a spill earlier than that the oil would still be on the beaches.”

A late-spring oil spill would threaten populations of red knots already in danger of extinction, along with thousands of other shorebirds that converge on the Delaware Bay to feed on horseshoe crab eggs.

“Their feathers would get oiled. They would preen their feathers and ingest a lot of the oil,” she said.

Unlike hard surfaces that are comparatively easier to clean, marshes sop up oil, which persists in the environment for a long time, Burger said.

“Many oil spills have been studied in salt marsh. The effects were still there 20 and 30 years later,” she said.

Far-reaching effects

Oil spills in the Delaware Bay could cause far-reaching financial and delivery problems due to an extended closing of the port. The port of Philadelphia is the world’s largest freshwater port and welcomes 3,000 cargo ships each year. More paper, fruit and meat enter the United States there than anywhere else, generating $19 billion in revenue.

And ship traffic here is expected to increase in the next decade.

When the Athos I spilled 265,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Delaware River in Camden in 2004, container ships from around the globe were lined up for days off Cape May like ducks on a pond waiting for clearance to go upriver.

The Coast Guard has a detailed plan to respond to a Delaware Bay spill, said Capt. Meredith L. Austin, commander of Sector Delaware Bay. The agency has three teams nationwide that respond to spills, including the Atlantic Strike Team based at Fort Dix in Burlington and Ocean counties.

About 20 members of that team went last month to assist with the Gulf Coast spill. Austin’s expertise is in addressing oil spills, and she joined them Tuesday.

“It’s horrible when these events happen, but we do get the benefit of experience,” she said. “We don’t have too many oil spills, thankfully. We can send people down, and they can see it firsthand, so if we had an event up here, they would know what to expect.”

A 1990 law passed after the devastating Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, requires cargo and container ships to designate someone as the ship owner’s representative. This person is responsible for making decisions for the company for accidents caused in American waters, she said.

The Coast Guard’s first priority is finding the source of the spill and containing it, she said. Simultaneously, they determine the extent of the spill and identify whatever sensitive environments, wildlife or historic properties the spill threatens.

“Before we get eyes on a scene, my focus is always on assuming a worst-case scenario before I know otherwise,” she said. “It’s always easier to call for resources and find out they’re not needed than to find you don’t have enough.”

The Coast Guard also supervises the cleanup, which is usually limited to a handful of options, she said. Many of these were employed already in the Gulf Coast spill, such as burning off large quantities of oil, booming and skimming it and using chemical dispersants.

Once the oil reaches the shore, the task becomes more difficult.

Anticipating problems

The company responsible for the spill is responsible for the cleanup. But the federal government will step in if the company is negligent or simply can’t afford to pay, she said.

Environmental agencies from New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania are partners in the response along with experts in various fields. The Haskins Shellfish Research Lab in Cumberland County’s Commercial Township serves on the Coast Guard committee that drafts revisions to the response plan.

Many things need to be considered. “What are the most sensitive areas? What are the sensitive species? How does that work year-round? What areas should we boom first? You can’t boom everything at once,” Austin said.

Eric Powell, director of the Haskins lab, said shellfish are resilient when it comes to oil pollution.

“Spills come in a variety of flavors from diesel fuel to heavy crude,” he said. “The worst-case scenario for oysters would be if the oil came in contact with the animals directly.”

Hydrocarbons usually pass through oysters quickly. Those that survive eventually could be harvested for human consumption, he said.

“As long as it’s not an unbelievably big event that would cause direct mortality, you’re talking about a temporary closure and not some sort of permanent closure,” he said.

“It’s a mistake to look at the Gulf and think about it in terms of the Delaware Bay,” he said. “You’re not talking about an immense quantity in the bay. There are many procedures to deal with it.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection this week appointed a team to monitor how the spill affects New Jersey, if at all.

The DEP said oil from the spill is not likely to reach New Jersey. But under one of the less likely scenarios, storms and unusual ocean currents could bring some oil in the form of floating tar balls to isolated beaches later this summer, the agency said.

“We want to gather the best scientific data available to help guide us,” DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said in a statement. “We have to be fully prepared to protect the interests and residents of this state.”

Martin said the DEP is getting daily briefings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. DEP scientists are working with Rutgers University and the Stevens Institute of Technology to map the potential flow of oil out of the gulf.

Martin said officials were very optimistic the oil would not reach New Jersey and would not affect fishing or the summer beach season.

Tourism concerns

Southern New Jersey’s No. 1 industry, tourism, can learn lessons from the Gulf Coast disaster, said Diane F. Wieland, director of tourism for Cape May County. She just returned from a trip to Florida, where she learned that some tourists are needlessly canceling vacations because of unfounded fears about fouled beaches in parts of the state still largely unaffected by the spill.

“It’s a wake-up call for us. If your economy depends on tourism, you need to have better communication to tell your visitors what is happening,” she said.

Without specifics, tourists will make uninformed decisions or rely on speculation and rumors, she said. Even if the news is bad, tourism operators have to be candid or else lose credibility, she said.

“At least then people are working off accurate information. You don’t want disgruntled people who spent a lot of money never coming back,” she said.

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