It was a wind like only January could send down, brutal and unforgiving. Zenone cursed under his breath and stumbled back inside the command post trailer, the wind slamming the door shut for him. It continued to beat against the trailers sides, rocking it inexorably, and he wondered if he and the command post might not end up in Kansas with Dorothy and Toto. In sharp contrast to the chaos, whipping white caps across the river, the snow clouds cast a calm, eerie light across the sky, beautiful and surreal like the color of Mars. By mid-afternoon, the increasing pain in his wrist told him the weather had all but arrived. With that ample warning, he had the foresight to shut down all beach cleanup operations for the day and radio in all seafaring vessels allowing them sufficient time to dock. So far, nine out of ten of the boats had radioed in, safely ensconced at various locations up and down the Delaware.
Zenone felt it his duty to stay put until the last boat was in and all personnel were present and accounted for, but what he really wanted was a beer. It had been a long day, eighteen hours if you counted the two hours he put in before he arrived at the command post. He knew if he drank a beer right now he’d be sleeping in the trailer, but he checked the small fridge anyway, hoping for a bit of a miracle. It was empty but for a pint of half-drunk chocolate milk and a jug of orange juice. He turned his nose up at the juice. The acid would rake his stomach and he didn’t need a full blown case of heartburn. He grabbed the chocolate milk, opened the carton and sniffed the contents, recoiling at the smell emanating from within.
He set the milk down on the desk and made a mental note to stop at a store on his way home, that is, if he didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. He was bone weary from lack of sleep and his stomach rumbled, adding to the mix. A cheesesteak would be good right now.
The wind howled and the trailer throbbed, driving all thoughts of food from Zenone’s head. He took a stool at the drafting table, ran his hands through his hair. Outside, snow started to fall. Zenone stared at the phone, willing it to ring. The silence crept into his inner ear, as pervasive as the oil on the Delaware, making its bunk up for the night. The storm would go a ways toward breaking up the oil, but there was still too much in the water. If it could have just waited until tomorrow when they had recovered more. Then Mother Nature could get to work. He scanned the computer generated simulation Lapsley had brought him. The Coast Guard had sent a helicopter up on an overflight mission to map the extent of contamination – an aerial view of the spill was immensely helpful in these circumstances – but it was only partially successful due to the weather. The heavy cloud cover made it hard to distinguish the slick, while the clouds’ shadows cast what looked like dark stains, easily mistaken for oil, upon the water. After ascertaining the imperfection of purely visual analysis, the overflight team notified Akanabi who sent up their environmental consultant. He snapped a bunch of photos with infrared light cameras which produced a much clearer picture of the spill, then fed the reconnaissance data into a computer. The program crunched the spill data, mixed in environmental conditions such as wind and weather, and simulated the spill’s course and dispersion rate. The conclusion was that the oil was heading toward the Delaware Bay where it would likely be contained and, as a result, wouldn’t reach the Atlantic Ocean. Duh. Although in open ocean waters computer modeling could be extremely helpful in determining the direction of a spill, in this case, the Delaware only went two ways and the odds were staggering that the oil would return to the Bay with the outgoing tide.
“I’d say they got ripped off,” Zenone said. He tossed the aerial map aside and rested his head on his closed fist.
Zenone’s guys had managed to sufficiently confine the oil just short of the Bay before having to abort the mission. At that time, and by some good will of the gods, only the Pennsylvania side of the shoreline had been affected. But the way the wind was bandying the oil about now, the shores on both sides of the Delaware and likely the Bay would be gummed up by morning.
He grabbed the shoreline cleanup manual off the desk and thumbed through the various clean up methods looking for something he might have missed: removal; steam cleaning; high-pressure washing; chemical and hydraulic dispersion. Chemical and hydraulic dispersion . The eight-foot waves would take care of the hydraulic part. He would have preferred a good surface washing, lying down some rip rap and hosing off the beaches. Then they could collect the oil off the rip rap and dispose of it properly. But now the waves were going to wash the oil back into the river where it would sink to the bottom. Chemical dispersants would break it up, but…
Zenone removed his hat and scratched his head, then ran his fingers through his hair. He hadn’t thought about chemical dispersants because the Delaware was a fresh water body and chemicals had a certain degree of toxicity. What if the dispersants could be placed before the storm came, an emulsifier that would break the oil down into smaller pieces and drive it into the water column where it would more easily biodegrade. That and the oncoming wind and large waves would break it up fast. But the chemicals . The heavy oils were less toxic; they tended to sit on the surface of things rather than penetrate them, but they were tough to remove – like picking up gravel with tweezers – and smothered the smaller organisms that lived on the shore. He flipped through the manual looking for guidance. The Coast Guard had some pre-approved areas where emulsifiers could be used – he wasn’t sure without looking where they were – but how the hell were they going to get the stuff in the river before the storm, especially now since he’d recalled all seafaring vessels. He could go out himself maybe…
“Oh my God, I’m losing it.” He closed the book and pushed it aside, wishing again that he had a beer. He checked the cell phone. No new calls. He grabbed the trailer phone and laid down on the small couch. Just until I get the call . He closed his eyes and because of his exhaustion, rapid eye movement began almost at the outset.
Zenone stood on the shore watching large waves crash against it and taking with them, back to the river, the blackness that covered the land. He smiled. The oil was dissipating. Once again, Mother Nature prevailed. The snow clouds cast an eerie orange light, enough for him to see. It was all going great until the waves started dropping things on the beach; a loud thump, followed by a scattering of black, rounded clumps of solid mass.
He walked over to investigate. A large, oiled bird lay on the ground, half-dead and shivering from hypothermia. Zenone touched the animal as it opened its eyes, blinking back the oil, trying to clear its vision. He felt his own eyes sting with tears. Zenone wiped the bird’s eyes with his fingers, then his hands, removing what oil he could, but the task was impossible, like removing water from a well with a slotted spoon. He was so engrossed, he didn’t notice the wall of water behind him. The wave crashed on the shoreline, knocking Zenone to the ground and taking the bird with it. He climbed to his feet and staggered down the beach. Another crashing wave, another thump , followed by another, and another. Zenone looked up to see birds lying everywhere, landing on the beach with each successive wave. He dropped to his knees and crawled to the nearest bird. A glob of oil was stuck in the bird’s esophagus. He reached in and tried to dislodge it. The bird fought him, flapping against both the intrusion and the lack of oxygen. It clamped down hard on Zenone’s fingers and he yelped in surprise and pain.
“Rise and shine,” Lapsley said, squeezing the fingers of Zenone’s hand. Zenone shrieked and Lapsley jumped back, almost dropping the pair of coffees he carried. He set the carrier down, removed his gloves and handed Zenone a cup of the steaming brew.
“What time is it?” Zenone croaked.
“Five forty-five. That would be a.m.,” Lapsley said. “You look like hell.” Lapsley noted the dark, foreboding circles under Zenone’s eyes, but said nothing more
“You’re no prince charming, yourself,” Zenone grumbled. He accepted the coffee and took a big swig. “Goddamn, that’s good.” He took another swig, walked to the table and pulled at the bag Lapsley brought, extracting a whole wheat bagel with cream cheese.
“Hungry?” Lapsley asked.
Zenone nodded and consumed half the bagel in a bite. “Never got dinner.”
Outside, the water looked choppy, but calmer than the night before.
“Chocolate mousse,” Lapsley said.
There was a loud bang at the door and Zenone jumped again spilling coffee on the table. “Damn,” he said and grabbed the bag for some napkins. He spoke through a mouth full of bagel. “Come.”
Hart entered carrying several cups of coffee and a box of donuts which he set on the table. Zenone smiled at the offering.
“If you bring food, you’re always welcome,” Zenone said, shoving bagel in his mouth. He nodded to a seat which Hart took.
“Lap and I were just talking about chocolate mousse.”
Hart raised an eyebrow. “All I brought were Munchkins.”
“And that’ll do.” Zenone routed through the box and popped one in his mouth. “You know, when oil becomes aerated, generally after the second or third day, it starts to look like chocolate mousse.”
“He’s head of engineering for Akanabi Oil. He probably knows that,” Lapsley said.
“You never know,” Zenone replied. “It’s a hell of a state. All whipped.”
“Like you before you got divorced.” Lapsley said. Zenone ignored the slur.
“In the summer, the oil turns into tarry clumps and ends up on the beach,” Hart said.
“Asphaltine,” Lapsley added. Hart nodded and Lapsley smiled. “Sorry. We’re used to dealing with the public.”
“Do you know if any of it has sunk yet?” Hart asked. “The Arabian crude is pretty heavy. It’s probably just a matter of time.”
“We’ll find out today,” Lapsley replied. “Once the water has a chance to settle.”
“I got a helicopter on standby equipped with sonar. If there are globules on the bottom, large or small, we can track it,” Hart said.
“Hey, remember that one spill?” Lapsley asked Zenone. “These big globs of oil were up and down the river like bouncy balls, back and forth with the tide.”
Zenone’s cell phone rang. The command post phone was also blinking. “Damn.”
“It came in around eleven,” Lapsley said, intuiting the source of Zenone’s concern.
“How do you know?”
“Because they called me when you didn’t answer your phone.”
Zenone nodded and sat down, visibly relieved.
“You don’t need me this morning, do you?” Lapsley asked.
“Whaddya got goin’ on?”
“We’re going to take a ride to Chesapeake to the wildlife sanctuary. Want to go?”
A shiver ran down Zenone’s spine and he stared off into space for a moment, looking at something Hart and Lapsley couldn’t see. “Nah. Go ahead.” He waived a hand to dismiss them.
“I’ll check in at Tinicum Marsh on my way back. I haven’t heard from anybody yet. Hopefully the booms held.”
Zenone drew a deep breath let it out slowly. “With a little luck….”
to be continued. . .
read how we got here, here