More than four years after the oil tanker Athos 1 hit an anchor just off Paulsboro and spilled nearly 265,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware River, federal and state officials have released a draft document outlining nearly $25 million in restoration projects.
With the massive cleanup completed - at a cost of $177 million, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Britt Henderson said - the proposed restoration plan is the government's latest attempt to address the injuries to the river and devise ways to compensate for them.
The bulk of the money - about $18 million - would be spent to restore or create 240 acres of grasslands and wetlands at the Mad Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area in Salem County.
Other projects include removing three dams on Darby Creek to benefit shad and other migratory fish; creating 78 acres of oyster reef in the Delaware River; enhancing trails on Little Tinicum Island near Philadelphia International Airport; and restoring the shoreline of Lardner's Point, a former ferry terminal near the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection official Stan Sneath, who helped identify possible projects, called the plan "a major milestone" toward resolving the damages.
Mark N. Mauriello, New Jersey's acting DEP commissioner, agreed, calling the Athos 1 amount one of the state's largest natural-resource-damage settlements.
But Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, said the settlement did not go nearly far enough in restoring the river after the spill, which ranks among the four largest in the river's history.
The spill occurred on Nov. 26, 2004, as the Athos 1 was preparing to dock at the Citgo Petroleum Corp. refinery in Paulsboro. An anchor at the bottom of the river punctured the ship's hull, and 263,371 gallons of Venezuelan oil gushed out.
Tides and currents spread it quickly; in the end, more than 280 miles of shoreline - from the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge to the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge near Dover, Delaware - had been oiled.
A slick covered the river and gobs of black oil washed ashore. Nearly 12,000 birds, most of them swans and geese, were oiled and died.
Thousands of people - from spill experts to volunteer wildlife monitors - responded.
The liability limit for the ship's owner, Tsakos Group, was $45.5 million. An unidentified man who answered the phone yesterday at the company's headquarters in Greece said the office was closed for the day and no one was available to comment.
The rest of the cleanup and restoration money must come from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, financed by penalties and a tax on the oil industry.
The spill prompted federal legislation, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R., N.J.), providing incentives for shippers to use double-hulled tankers instead of those with a single hull, such as the Athos 1.
It also required that shippers notify the Coast Guard promptly when anchors or other large objects are lost, and restored a mechanism to replenish the spill fund.
One of the bill's cosponsors, U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews (D., N.J.), said yesterday he was confident that the fund now had adequate reserves to finance the proposed restoration plan. The 194-page document was produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, working with state and federal officials.
NOAA spokesman Ben Sherman said he could not rank the proposed restoration amount nationally because each project had differing variables, but he called it "significant."
Other large natural-resource settlements include $18 million for a spill of 828,000 gallons of oil after the North Cape barge ran aground off Rhode Island in 1996.
In 1989, the tanker Presidente Rivera ran aground near Marcus Hook and spilled 300,000 gallons of oil; the money for restoration then was $2.14 million.
Van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper and head of the nonprofit advocacy group the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the current plan stopped far short of full restoration. "It seems there's this great disparity," she said. "They were talking about 1,700 acres of wetlands damaged, yet talking about restoration to only 300 acres of wetlands. They talked about six tributaries being damaged, but they talk about work on only one."
She also criticized the plan to make up for lost recreational boating trips - 41,709, according to the assessment - by improving boat ramps.
The lost boat trips, van Rossum said, were "a result of the fouling of the river by the oil. The proper response is to enhance the boating experience, to remove pollution from the river. . . . Doing structural fixes to a few boat ramps is not comparable."
She acknowledged that $24.5 million was a sizable amount, but said: "The proper question isn't how much are we spending. The proper question is how much restoration are we doing for the ecosystems that were damaged by the Athos 1?"
A public comment period on the restoration proposals will be held until Feb. 20. Comments may be e-mailed to NOS.AthosComments@noaa .gov or faxed to 301-713-1229.
NOAA environmental scientist Krissy Rusello said that if the comments were favorable, the trustees would submit a claim to the spill fund. Work on some projects could begin this summer, she said.
Biologist Sherry Krest, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trustee who helped devise the proposal, praised the plan to excavate old dredge spoil from the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum.
Deposited there decades ago, "it doesn't provide much of anything, except an area for phragmites [invasive reeds] to grow," she said. Creating a series of channels and pools will open the area up to tidal flow and increase fish-nursery habitat.
Additional projects recommended by the plan are enhancing ponds and pastures at the Blackbird Reserve Wildlife Area in Delaware; improving the Stow Creek boat ramp in New Jersey; and installing a rock jetty at the Augustine boat ramp in Delaware to counter silt buildup nearby.
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