Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Number of Oil Spills Rises Sharply in Past Three Years

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Number of Oil Spills Rises Sharply in Past Three Years

Article excerpt

Nearly 44 million gallons of petroleum products pass through the New York Harbor area every day in a network of tankers, barges, refineries and storage terminals, and hundreds of miles of surface and submerged pipeline.

There is also an average of one spill a day, from a few gallons to a huge accident like the rupturing of the Exxon pipeline that spewed 571,000 gallons of oil into the Arthur Kill between Staten Island and New Jersey last month.

And while the amount spilled is small relative to oil moved, the number of accidents has increased sharply in the past three years: from 257 in 1987 to 368 last year. The Coast Guard has already reported 110 spills this year - a record pace.

Why are there so many spills, and who is is watching to prevent them?

Overlapping federal, state and local jurisdictions are supposed to regulate the oil industry in and near the waterways of New York and New Jersey. But budget cuts, a shortage of inspectors and growing oil shipments have left the industry largely policing itself.

Oil tankers, refineries and storage areas must have plans to prevent and clean up spills, but government inspectors rarely check them.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, for example, has one engineer to approve the plans for 226 big oil operations. And no agency has a complete map of the miles of pipeline submerged in New York Harbor.

No one had inspected the pipeline in the Arthur Kill spill before it ruptured, threatening the delicate ecosystem of Pralls Island and killing at least 400 birds.

Exxon said its system to monitor leaks had been issuing false alarms for 12 years. Because the pipeline ran through New York and New Jersey, neither state had clear responsibility for it.

And because it carried less than 263,000 gallons of oil an hour, the federal Office of Pipeline Safety was not required to inspect it. The agency, part of the Department of Transportation, is now considering changing its regulations to include all pipelines.

Tougher regulations are necessary, environmentalists say. Though the harbor may seem to be uninhabitable, scientists point out, it is ringed with saltwater marshes and estuaries that serve as nurseries for 145 species of fish and shelter for 125 species of birds.

``These spills are a direct threat not to a dead sea, but to an extraordinarily vital ecosystem,'' said Andrew J. Willner, a researcher with the American Littoral Society, an environmental group based in Sandy Hook, N.J.

``Cumulatively, the smaller spills are more dangerous than the larger ones because they're not cleaned up.''

Oil industry officials say that public attention has been unfairly focused on the past year's large spills: in Prince William Sound in Alaska last March, off the coast of Rhode Island in June, in the Arthur Kill on Jan. …

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