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Spill fine to help cleanup efforts for Mystic River

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / May 17, 2009
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Local advocates for the cleanup of the Mystic River watershed are welcoming the pending infusion of new resources for the effort through the recent sentencing of a firm in a pollution case.

US District Judge Patti B. Saris on April 30 sentenced ExxonMobil Pipeline to pay $6.1 million after the firm pleaded guilty to violating the criminal provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, in connection with a 2006 incident at its Everett oil terminal in which 15,000 gallons of low-sulfur diesel and kerosene spilled into the Mystic and Island End rivers. The firm is a wholly owned subsidiary of ExxonMobil.

Under the terms of the sentencing, based on a plea agreement the company reached with prosecutors last December, a good portion of that money could be spent on projects to clean up the 76-square-mile watershed.

"Overall, it's a positive outcome and a victory for the US attorney's office," said EkOngKar Singh Khalsa, executive director of the Mystic River Watershed Association, noting that it would mean "a significant amount of money" for the watershed.

ExxonMobil was sentenced to pay $179,364 in cleanup costs and a $359,018 fine, and to make two community payments totaling $5.6 million, according to the US attorney's office.

One of those payments is for $1 million to the Massachusetts Environmental Trust to support initiatives to clean up the Mystic River watershed. The other is for $4.6 million to the North American Wetlands Conservation Act fund for restoration projects in Massachusetts, with preference given to those in the Mystic River watershed.

Khalsa said environmental groups in the watershed, including the Chelsea Green Space and Recreation Committee, Woburn Residents' Environmental Network, and the Mystic River Watershed Association, had pressed to have the bulk of the community payments go to the Mystic River watershed.

He said those efforts resulted in a strengthening of the language in the agreement giving the watershed priority status in the use of the federal trust money, and the set-aside of funding to the state trust, which can fund a wider variety of projects.

The payment to the state trust will be used exclusively for water quality and wetlands projects in the Mystic River watershed, according to trust spokeswoman Catherine Williams.

"The Patrick administration is pleased these funds will be used to protect the Mystic River Watershed," Environment Undersecretary Philip Griffiths said in a statement. "With these funds the Commonwealth, specifically the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, will partner with local communities on water quality and wetland restoration projects so that these waters are preserved for future generations."

Khalsa noted that Saris made clear at the sentencing that she wants to see worthy projects within the Mystic River watershed - and especially projects in the vicinity where the oil release took place - receive funding from the payment to the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

Local environmental organizations have compiled a list of projects they hope will be considered for funding from the community payments. Among them are restoration of the former Hess petroleum storage site on Chelsea Creek and its dedication for public use. Khalsa said it is also hoped funding could be used to cover the local match for an already permitted US Army Corps restoration project for the Malden River.

The EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection, helped by local organizations, have been engaged in a four-year effort to identify and remove suspected sources of pollution in the watershed.

The oil spill occurred in the early morning hours of Jan. 9, 2006, when the tanker M/V Nara was docked at ExxonMobil's Everett terminal.

Due to a defective valve that did not close properly, low-sulfur diesel that was being pumped through a pipeline from the vessel flowed into another pipeline filled with kerosene. The resulting pressure ruptured a corroded coupling at the end of the kerosene line, causing a leakage of fuel into a containment pan and eventually into the Mystic River below, the US attorney's office said in a press release on the sentencing.

In all, about 2,500 gallons of kerosene and 12,700 gallons of diesel poured into the Mystic River, causing a blue-green sheen that spread into the Island End River and down to Boston Harbor.

The US attorney's office said that Exxon's failure to provide adequate resources and oversight to the maintenance and operation of the terminal was a direct cause of the spill. Specifically, it said the firm negligently failed to replace the defective valve on the line in which the diesel flowed, or the coupling on the other line.

Prosecutors also said the company negligently allowed the spill to continue after it should have been discovered, by not adequately monitoring the fuel transfer.

"We view this as a classic case to serve as a deterrent to future criminal conduct by large corporate entities that have not paid attention to being stewards of the environment," said Michael Hubbard, special agent in charge of the Criminal Investigation Division in the EPA's New England regional office.

In a statement after the plea agreement in December, ExxonMobil said it "takes its environmental responsibility very seriously" and would seek to prevent another similar spill.

"We very much regret that in January of 2006, we had a release of a petroleum product into the Island End River in the Boston area that resulted in a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act," the company said.