back to the sea


Pam Lazos

Chapter Forty-One

It was Frank Charlton, the manifold operator, who had first seen it and what he saw made his stomach tuck and roll like a Hollywood stunt man. The sun had poked a ray or two over the horizon, visible through the few breaks that existed in the rack of cumulo-stratus clouds now marching in formation across the sky. They were just getting ready to dock at the Akanabi refinery at Marcus Hook. Charlton had come out for a breath of crisp January air in the hopes it would rouse him, but caught of whiff of something thick and pungent instead. He stuck a head over the side of the ship, then ran to the stern with full knowledge of what was happening, but a need to see it first hand.

He peered down into the churning, black water below. The diffused light from the overcast sky laid a grey pallor over the water, but didn’t hide what Frank had feared. A thick trailing line of oil stretching from the stern of the Ryujin to as far south as the eye could see. He resisted the urge to vomit and, stumbling over himself, ran to the Captain’s quarters and knocked.

“Captain. Beg your pardon, sir, but we have a problem.”

The door flew open and there was Captain Reed, looking like he’d been up all night. His clothes, however, were freshly starched and pressed.

“What is it?”

“The Ryujin is leaking oil, sir. Off the stern.”

Reed’s eyes grew large. He pushed past Charlton and raced to the stern with Charlton on his heels. Sure enough, an unctuous trail of oil stretched from the stern to infinity.

“What in God’s name…?” Reed ran to the front of the ship, looking occasionally over the side as he ran, but saw nothing. He ran back to the stern and looked again, just to be sure. He rubbed his face with his hands.

“But last night…. Oh, my God. Where the hell did it come from?” Reed stopped and stared out over the black waters and the even blacker oil shimmering in the pale morning light.

“Radio the Coast Guard. No…I’ll do it,” Reed said.

Charlton nodded. “Shall I inform Pilot Anderson, sir?”

“Yes. I mean no. I’ll do that as well. Make sure the crew’s ready for landing. We’re here. We may as well dock. Get some divers down there and see what’s going on.” Reed shook his head at the river, as if she had something to do with it, raised his fist and slammed it hard on the railing. Charlton flinched, knowing that it had hurt; Reed’s face did not change.

“Go,” Reed said to Charlton without turning. Charlton scampered off to relay orders and spread the news. Reed gripped the railing with both hands and stared at the growing menace.


Reed went back to his cabin, pulled out the maritime safety manual and placed it on his desk. He didn’t need to look at it. He knew what it said. He’d read it a dozen or more times just in case, but had never needed to use it. In the event of a maritime spill from a vessel, the vessel officer was to notify the National Response Center which is staffed by the Coast Guard. NRC would adopt an incident as opposed to unified command system and the Coast Guard would assign an On-Scene Coordinator, or OSC, who would be charged with overall responsibility for the incident as well as notifying the Environmental Protection Agency, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the state and local fire hazmats, and the County Emergency Management Association. That, times three, he thought, because the spill occurred in a tristate area and certainly Delaware and New Jersey would want to have a say in what goes. Not to mention the various and sundry agencies with interest: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the PA Game Commission; the PA Boat Commission; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At least only one person would be in charge and that person, the OSC, would come from the Coast Guard.

Reed rubbed his forehead in contemplation and swallowed the thick feeling that was creeping into his throat. He too, originally came from the Coast Guard. That might help. Might . For the first time in his adult life, he felt like he might cry. In hours, the place would be crawling with personnel from dozens of agencies and he’d be in the center of it all. Damn that Anderson. For a moment he felt a stab of regret for his hasty actions the previous night and wished he wouldn’t have been so quick to intervene. Anderson was probably right. The small craft was playing chicken with them, and was not on a suicide mission. Still, the public and the media would want a scape goat and if Reed had anything to say about it, it wasn’t going to be him.

He stood, brushed the imaginary wrinkles from his heavily starched uniform and strode to the door, maritime safety regulations in hand. Time to radio the Coast Guard.


Within hours roughly three dozen personnel from various agencies were swarming the banks of the Delaware like bees to the hive, loading skimmers onto pollution control vessels; unloading trucks carrying oil containment booms; spill containment berms; sonic bonded sorbent pads; emulsifiers; trash bags; overpack drums and containers for waste disposal; Tyvek suits; black sturdy rubber gloves, yellow rubber boots and shoe coverings; safety glasses and goggles; disposable earplugs; and all manner of oil spill paraphernalia. A vacuum truck sat idly by, its engine running, waiting for its first big drink of the brown, oily stuff.

Federal On-Scene Coordinator and Marine Safety Officer, Frank Zenone stood in the center of the command post, a trailer set up along the banks of the Delaware, scratching his head in sheer bliss. Having banished the itch to another realm, he ran long spindly fingers through his hair, smoothing it back into place before replacing his hat. Zenone had been up long before he got the 5 a.m. call, responding to a small oil spill upriver at the New York/New Jersey border. It had turned out to be a false alarm. He’d arrived at Marcus Hook by boat which took him substantially longer than it would have by car. Although the sun had been up for more than a few hours, the day was as bleak as any night with a cloud cover that threatened to choke the light out of it. That coupled with a threatening wind chiming in from the north and Zenone knew it was going to be a long day. He looked out the window and sighed.

The weather complicated matters, adding its weight to a job the tide had already begun. When the oil spill occurred, the waters of the Delaware River were doing their damned best to get back to the sea, taking with them roughly 350,000 gallons of oil that had managed to escape from the confines of the Ryujin’s holding tanks. Stupid bastards. Hard to blame them for not catching the trail of oil with less then a flicker of moonlight. Still they should’ve been checking every half hour, Christ every ten minutes after scraping bottom like that. Maybe they’d have seen the oily sheen. Rotten luck. He rubbed his hands up and down his face to rouse himself. He could blame them, but he wouldn’t. That wasn’t his job. His job was to get this Goddamn mess under control before the tide and coming storms did more damage.

Zenone sat down at the drafting table and turned his attention to the SPCC Plan he had taken from the Captain of the Ryujin , a bound report, about an inch thick with a nice bond cover and spiral binding. The cover page read Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures Plan for the Ryujin dated January 2004. So, they’d either created the Plan or updated it just before sailing. Well, that was promising. He turned the page and was shocked at what he saw next: nothing. Now he could blame them. Bastards didn’t even have a plan in case of a spill. He chortled, disgusted, and looked out the window to where another two dozen workers disembarked from a large, converted school bus to join the clean up operation on the beach, a rudderless group. He huffed, rose, and walked out of the trailer, but a ringing phone drug him back.


“Yeah, Frank. It’s Lapsley. Charlton’s almost done.” Victor Lapsley, an OSC for the Environmental Protection Agency, had been the first responder on Site, almost an hour ahead of Zenone since he had come by car. As a result, Lapsley had been the Incident Commander on the scene for a brief stint, but was showing no signs of wanting his old job back.

“Who’s Charlton?”

“The manifold operator. I just talked to him. He’s almost finished pumping off the last of what was in the holding tanks.”

“Already? Jesus Christ.”

“What? I thought you’d take that as good news since the hull’s still leaking.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s good. But that operation takes the better part of the day. So if he’s almost done, we got more oil in the water than we originally thought.”

“Nah. Akanabi got the lead out,” Lapsley said and immediately chuckled to himself. “Hey, I think there’s a pun in there.”

Zenone rolled his eyes, a gesture Lapsley apparently could feel rather than hear through the phone because he cleared his throat and continued.

“Anyway, last I saw, Akanabi had the Ryujin docked and hooked up to every available hose. They wanted the stuff out as fast as possible.

“So how much is in the water?” Zenone asked.

“Well, I think our original estimates are right. About 350,000 gallons, give or take.”

“You talk to the Captain?” Zenone coughed. The winds were picking up and the smell of oil seemed much stronger now as it meandered through his olfactory system. He could feel it inching up his nostrils into his nasal cavity and twitched his nose to ease the sensation. It didn’t work. He sneezed. Oil vapors went flying.

“Bless you,” Lapsley said. “Yeah. Reed. Also to Akanabi’s Chief Engineer. Guy named Hart. Captain seemed a little jumpy.”

“What did he say?”

“Some story about a motor boat soon after they left the Bay and the river pilot overreacting. Pilot swung out of the channel. Wasn’t using his radar. I don’t know, somethin’s weird. I’m sure the Pilot will have another story.”

Zenone coughed. “Alright, whatever. When you’re done, come on down. I’m heading out now to give two dozen clean up workers my safety spiel.”

“See you in an hour.” Lapsley hung up.

Zenone held the phone, listening to the dial tone. Out of the channel, huh ? He put the phone in its cradle, sneezed again, and headed out to greet the clean up crew.


Half an hour later, after a quick synopsis of how to use the cleanup equipment followed by an even quicker recitation of the safety hazards associated with oil spill cleanups, including references to slips, trips, falls, poisonous snakes and poison ivy, Akanabi’s muckers, the untrained labor hired by the company to don Tyvek suits, rubber boots, safety goggles and gloves and do hand-to-hand combat with the enemy, were mired ankle-deep in a miasma of pure crude. They hung together in groups of two’s and three’s, working at the shore line, shoveling clumps of oil into buckets and bags and disposing of it into the dozens of overpack waste disposal drums standing by. The larger clumps were fairly easy to retrieve, but as they got down to the finer stuff it became more elusive, like trying to catch a minnow with your bare hands, and with the pre-formed plastic gloves, such minutia was impossible to be gathered. What couldn’t be bagged was raked into the gravelly sand to be dealt with later by Mother Nature herself either through erosion, weather or eventual degradation. Within half an hour, each of the muckers were covered, literally, from head to toe in oil. The Tyvek helped, keeping them from getting soaked through to the skin, as did the gloves and boots, but working as they were, surrounded by thick blobs of oil, and sometimes standing in ankle-deep water, the ubiquitous crude seeped into their eyes and ears and up their noses. And that was the worst part because you couldn’t get away from the smell, not even by holding your breath. Some of the more industrious muckers waded out into waist-deep water in pairs, stretching a five hundred foot sorbent boom across the surface and corralling the oil back to shore to a central location where the vacuum truck could suck it out with a hose. The boom was made of oleophilic, or oil loving material, a high quality polypropylene with great absorbent qualities and generally used for the last stages of a cleanup. The problem with using the absorbent booms for large doses of oil was that saturation ultimately rendered them ineffective. As a result, the muckers were going through booms like kids through candy, disposing of them after a single use, but keeping the vacuum truck busy.

The vacuum sucked up oil as well as water, but by some miracle of technology, the truck only disposed of the oil, allowing the water to settle out in the bottom of a holding tank and sending it back, sans its oily compounds, to the river where it belonged. Of course, you couldn’t get it all out. Oil was as persistent as it was pervasive and although over time the chemical compounds would break down and disperse, inevitably some portion of the oily substance would remain, infused into the water column, or in pockets on the beach, or on the underside of rocks, forever changing the face of that which it touched.

 to be continued. . .

to read what led to this state of affairs jump here

copyright 2012

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