Oil Spill on the Arthur Kill

NJAS Opinion: Summer, 1990

The recent spill of a half-million gallons of No.2 oil from a leaky pipe at an Exxon facility on the Arthur Kill had direct impact on hundreds of birds in the Kill waters and will have harmful effects on marine organisms in the mud and wetlands of the Arthur Kill tributaries for some time, with consequent impact on birds and mammals higher up on the food chain. In the wake of the spill have come numerous recommendations, among them the affirmation of the Valdez principles in New Jersey law: improved detection procedures and monitoring of the maze of pipes in the area, adequate enforcement of existing laws, and compensation money which goes directly back into the natural resources of the area to improve water quality, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities. All of these NJAS heartily supports.

However, we remain very concerned about certain attitudes, reflected in media coverage of the spill and its aftermath, about the Arthur Kill and its tributaries. The most serious is the attitude that the Kill and, by extension, other urban waters (like Raritan Bay, the Hudson, and the Hackensack Meadowlands) are degraded, without natural resource value, and are merely sinks into which we deposit our by-products of consumption, or reservoirs for accidents waiting to happen. This view is defeatist and quickly becomes a disincentive to improve water quality, wildlife habitat, or recreational opportunities. Furthermore, it is not in accord with the facts.

The Arthur Kill and its tributaries do support a surprising array of wildlife despite the negative impacts on the water and wetlands. Two major heronries exist on islands on the New York side, and great egrets, snowy egrets, black-crowned night-herons, and glossy ibis from these rookeries feed on a variety of fish and other organisms on both sides of the Kill, Blue crabs, diamondbacked terrapins, and several species of shrimp frequent these waters as well, and so do five species of gulls in large numbers, depending on the season of the year. Bonaparte's gulls, for example, are found here in winter months and were among the birds found oiled following the spill. Mallard, black, and other dabbling ducks use the creeks and wetlands for feeding, and canvasbacks, scaup, red-breasted mergansers, and two species of cormorant dive for fish and other food in Kill waters. Migratory shorebirds find the mud flats here every year during spring and fall migrations, among others black-bellied plover, greater and lesser yellowlegs, least and semipalmated sandpipers, and short-billed dowitchers. Harbor seals are seen in the region in February. Among the fish species important to recreational use of these waters is striped bass. There is a significant resource here which needs to be protected and compensated for when there is environmental damage.

The other attitude that needs changing is the notion that spills won't happen. They do happen. We have seen spills in Prince William Sound, the Moroccan coast, Arthur Kill, and Huntington Beach, California, in just a year. The human error factor will never be canceled out of the spill prevention equation. But, without relaxing our efforts on spill prevention, we need to focus with equal vigor on spill response readiness. Response time is the critical factor in controlling environmental damage, and in the Arthur Kill that means two things have to be done quickly and simultaneously: contain the spill at the source, and in case that doesn't work, block off the creek entrances with booms, so that the damage doesn't extend to the shallows. But in order to do that effectively; the booms and other containment equipment need to be on hand in the Arthur Kill all the time, ready to be deployed. It isn't good enough to fly the equipment in from elsewhere. Since the Arthur Kill has a high density of industries and pipelines, it has to be a priority area for storage of containment equipment in anticipation of accidents. This thinking is analogous to auto safety; inspections, laws, and penalties do not prevent all accidents. First aid squads and ambulance details are continually refining their response times and techniques through rehearsals and drills. Similar preparation needs to enter into the Arthur Kill situation: all equipment must be on hand and in working order, and periodic drills must be required for deployment.

On a related matter, Exxon recently petitioned for a reclassification of the tidal portion of Morse's Creek from the current SE-3 classification to TW-4(a), for industrial uses. In comments to the New Jersey Division of Water Resources, NJAS strongly opposed this lowering of water quality standards in this tributary of the Arthur Kill, Lowering standards is not a good step in the direction of cleaner water, as mandated by the Clean Water Act. The thinking seems to be that, since these waters are already stressed, it doesn't matter if we lower the standard. We find this reasoning to be defective and circular. The key to maintaining a water body is the water quality of the tributaries flowing into it. Approval of the Exxon petition by Water Resources would set a bad precedent for lowering water quality standards in other parts of the Arthur Kill complex and in urban industrial waters generally.

Even if stressed, these waters are needed for fish resources, wildlife maintenance, and recreation. It is an injustice to people and to natural resources that there is a double standard for water quality maintenance, one for urban areas and one for everywhere else. Migratory fish and birds cannot change their migratory patterns out of deference to industrial practice. The only acceptable outcome is improvement of the natural resource in the Arthur Kill area.

Richard P. Kane
Director of Conservation