Damage lives on from 1969 Cape oil spill

Traces from barge accident remain embedded in marsh

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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WEST FALMOUTH — Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist Chris Reddy rammed a plastic cylinder into the sticky mud of the Wild Harbor salt marsh and extracted 6 inches of muck.

“Smell this,’’ he said, taking a whiff. There, faint but unmistakable, was the stench of oil.

It’s been more than 40 years since the oil barge Florida ran aground on a foggy night in Buzzards Bay, spilling close to 200,000 gallons of fuel. Some of it is still there.

At the time of the 1969 spill, lobsters, clams, and fish died by the thousands, but most people thought the harm would be temporary, reflecting what was then the conventional wisdom.

Now, as the first tendrils of heavy oil from the leaking BP well begin to suffocate Louisiana marshes, Wild Harbor’s muck shows that damage can persist for decades in fragile marshes.

No two spills and no two coastlines are the same, but the long-studied Falmouth spill has helped scientists understand the vulnerability of marshland and prepare for oil disasters that coat wetlands, ooze down crab burrows, and kill the nurseries of numerous marine species.

Research here has also helped shape national standards for oil spill cleanups.

Today, Wild Harbor looks much like any other Cape Cod marsh, but the oil below the surface affects its resiliency. Fiddler crabs normally burrow deep down, funneling oxygen to the roots of marsh grass. Here, they stop digging when they reach the oil, turn sideways, and burrow back to the surface. They also act “drunk’’ from the oil they ingest, and predators can catch them more easily, research shows.

“This taught us oil doesn’t always go away,’’ said Reddy, clambering through the tiny marsh in the middle of an upscale community.

The enormous Gulf of Mexico leak is far different than the smaller West Falmouth spill. It involves crude oil, not lighter diesel, and the plumes reaching land consist of thick, viscous oil that does not easily penetrate the mud.

Unlike in Falmouth, the oil is not coming ashore quickly, giving time for it to be weathered by the sea and to lose some toxicity.

For these reasons and others, the impact along the Gulf shore is “expected to be more from the physical smothering on the surface, rather than the deep penetration and persistence of oil into the marsh soils,’’ said an e-mail from Jacqueline Michel, a geochemist at Research Planning Inc. in South Carolina who is aiding the Gulf spill cleanup.

Still, the Gulf spill is largely uncharted territory, and scientists say that its full effects on the shoreline, from beaches to wetlands, will not be known for weeks, months, or even years.

“It’s always hard to predict the extent of oiling, so prudence dictates that these areas get high priority,’’ said Reddy, who studies pollution from oil spills.

There was little thought of oil’s long-term impact on the evening of Sept. 16, 1969, when the oil barge Florida, bound for Boston, broke free of its tugboat and was pushed onto submerged rocks. The smell of oil quickly permeated the area.

Residents, including now retired Woods Hole scientist George Hampson, thought their home oil burners were leaking.

“But we realized pretty quickly not everyone’s burner was broken,’’ he said. “The smell of Number 2 fuel was all over North and West Falmouth.’’

State crews and the Coast Guard rushed to the scene, but winds were pushing the oil up Old Silver Beach and into Wild Harbor River. Dead fish and lobsters were washing up everywhere. Long worms that normally spend their lives buried were poking through the surface of the oil-slicked muck. Thousands of shellfish emerged from the ground with their necks extended as if gasping for breath. Hampson dubbed it the “silent autumn.’’

“You normally hear herring gulls, crickets . . . and there was nothing,’’ Hampson remembers. “It was totally silent.’’

Barge owners and oil industry experts told residents most of the oil would evaporate and the damage would soon be gone. Hampson, Woods Hole colleague Max Blumer, Falmouth shellfish warden George Souza, and others were not so sure and began cataloging species and tracking where the oil was and kept at it for years.

They were aided by a relatively new tool, gas chromatography, which allowed Blumer to fingerprint the oil’s components. For the first time, scientists were on an oil spill scene at the beginning, able to examine the oil’s compounds and track many of them over time, says Philip Gschwend, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Their work showed that not all oil evaporates and that especially in places like the isolated, protected marsh, it can stay for a long time.

Reddy picked up the cause in 2000. Along with graduate students, Reddy discovered that the remaining oil in the marsh was in virtually the same form as it was 30 years before.

And it proved able to still harm wildlife. In 2007, Jennifer Culbertson, now a research associate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, discovered that fiddler crabs were fundamentally changing their behavior in the oiled parts of the marsh.

It is hard to overestimate the crabs’ role in the Wild Harbor marsh. Without them, the marsh grass roots can grow weak and erode away. Culbertson points out that there are several species of fiddler crabs in the Gulf marshes that could be harmed by the oil now washing ashore.

The Wild Harbor spill not only helped set standards for cleanup, but Blumer gave congressional testimony on the long-term effects of oil on marine life. In 1989, Exxon officials contacted Hampson within days of the Exxon Valdez spill, seeking his advice about the possible impact on Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

The research in Wild Harbor continues. Reddy is uncertain about whether the oil will remain there indefinitely or is being eaten so slowly in the low-oxygen soil by microbes that scientists cannot detect it. And he wants to find out what other organisms are being affected.

“We still have a lot of questions,’’ Reddy said.

Beth Daley can be reached at

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