A Few Drops from an Oil Spill Story

by Becky W. Evans

A decade ago, I had never heard of Buzzards Bay, a finger-shaped estuary in southern Massachusetts ringed with rocky beaches, salt marshes and winding tributaries that provide critical habitat for juvenile fish, bay scallops and a variety of bird species, including the endangered roseate tern. When a large oil spill threatened the sensitive bay exactly ten years ago today, I was here in Boston completing a master’s program in print journalism.

Today, as SouthCoast residents remember the environmental and recreational destruction wreaked by this spill of nearly 100,000 gallons of home-heating oil, I am once again far from the scene, completing assignments for another master’s degree program at Boston University.

But in the ten years between my schooling, I spent six years living beside Buzzards Bay, reporting on its oiled ecosystem, kayaking though its meandering inlets and even celebrating my wedding beside its shining waters.

On Sunday, April 27, 2003, the Bouchard 120 barge operated by Bouchard Transportation Co. entered Buzzards Bay on its way to the Mirant Canal Station power plant in Sandwich.  At approximately 4:10 p.m., the barge was negligently towed outside of the navigation channel and dragged over rocks that gouged a 12-foot hole in one of its starboard tanks providing an escape for the heavy fuel oil.

In the days after the spill, winds and tides pushed the oil ashore, where it washed up on more than 90 miles of shoreline encircling the bay. The black, sticky oil clung to bird feathers and beach rocks and fouled hundreds of thousands of acres of shellfish beds.

When I became The Standard-Times environment reporter in 2005, I inherited the Bouchard 120 beat. For years, I chronicled beach cleanups, oil spill response drills, class-action lawsuits, legislative battles and regulatory changes—all part of the spill’s toxic legacy.  When I left The Standard-Times in 2009, I was determined to write a book on the historic spill and its impact on what had become my beloved bay. The goal was to have it published in time for the spill’s tenth anniversary—today. Well, there is no book; only this blog post. But I do want to share a few “drops” from this oil spill story that I’ve continued to chronicle as a freelance writer.

Breakfast for Birds and Beach Crews

In May 2010, while reporting on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I visited a bird rescue center where veterinarians used toothbrushes and Dawn liquid soap to scrub oil from distressed pelicans. One of the veterinarians, Dr. Erica Miller of Tri-State Bird Rescue, said she had also responded to the Bouchard 120 spill, where she employed the same methods to save oiled seabirds, including loons, eiders, surf scoters and gulls. (Her team saved over 100 birds, but another 450 federally-protected birds died in the spill.)

Miller said the Bouchard 120 spill was the only time she has washed oiled horseshoe crabs. “It’s really difficult to remove the oil from all those gills on the underside,” she said. New Bedford’s chlorinated city water proved an added challenge since it was toxic to horseshoe crabs, though not birds. So Miller and her team took turns filling buckets with seawater that better maintained the “physiological balance” of the horseshoe crabs.

During her month-long stay in SouthCoast, Miller slept at a Holiday Inn Express with a complimentary, self-serve breakfast bar stocked with hardboiled eggs. She soon learned that seagulls had an appetite for this human breakfast food. With no kitchen stove to boil her own eggs, Miller relied on the breakfast bar.

“We kept sneaking them out and mixing them with the fish and they really liked it.”

While Miller was busy feeding eggs to oiled seagulls, Fairhaven resident Cathryn Brower was feeding beach clean-up crews hot coffee and day-old pastries from the local supermarket.

“It was such a freezing cold, windy, raw April and May … and these guys were freezing,” she said. “When they left, they sent me this beautiful big card. It said: ‘Thank-you, from all of us.’”

She said the workers, who wore protective suits, spent weeks “picking up pebbles” from Fairhaven’s oiled beaches, including the one deeded to her family home.

“I never swam on my beach ever again,” said Brower, who sold her house three years after the Bouchard 120 spill. “I just didn’t have the confidence.”

Now that I think of it, Brower baked me homemade blueberry muffins the morning I interviewed her years later at her New Bedford apartment. They were delicious, but I now realize that I never sent her a thank-you card. I hope this counts.

Chasing the local connection

What brought me to Louisiana was not so much the BP oil spill that began on April 20, 2010, but rather, the woman charged with managing its response: Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator. You may remember her from the daily press conferences where she joined BP executives to update the media about the latest “top kill” effort to plug the leaking Deep Water Horizon well. I wasn’t so interested in talking to Landry about the “top kill,” but rather, her role in managing the response to the Bouchard 120 oil spill, for which she was also the federal on-scene coordinator.

As soon as I arrived in Louisiana, the daily press briefings suddenly stopped, foiling my plan to find Landry. I knew there was no hope of getting her to return my calls when I, a blogger for ThreeBeats Media, was competing with hundreds of reporters from respected national and international media outlets. My only chance was a press conference at the command center in the rural town of Robert, La. about an hour’s drive from my hotel in New Orleans.

For the first two days, I found other stories to cover: the oiled pelicans and a speech by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. On the third and final day of my trip, I headed to the Garden District and ordered eggs and grits at a small cafe. As I read the Times-Picayune, I monitored my email for news of a press briefing at the command center. Within an hour, the announcement arrived in my inbox, and I drove my rental car out to the Shell Oil training facility that housed the command center.

I waited for hours outside the facility, talking to reporters from The New York Times and the local TV stations. During that time, I thought to scribble a note on the back of my business card in case I had the opportunity to hand it to Landry. During the press conference, I managed to get the floor. I identified myself as a Boston reporter and asked Landry to compare the management of the B.P. spill (172 million gallons) to the Bouchard 120 spill (100,000 gallons). There was a spark of recognition in her eyes before she answered me.

“I remember with the B-120 we had the risk of an endangered species, the roseate tern, and we sat there thinking we do not want to lose this species,” she said. “Well, now we have an ecosystem at risk, so the scale and scope of this is so much more significant.”

At the end of the press conference, Landry was quickly ushered away from the podium. But I did slip my business card into the hands of one of the Coast Guard public affairs officers. The next day when I returned to Boston, I received the following email:

Becky,

It was great to see you at the press conference yesterday and I apologize that the demand of this operation did not allow me any time to visit or shake your hand … I read your note and look forward to sitting down with you sometime to discuss the book you want to write about the 2003 oil spill.

Warm regards,

RADM Mary Landry

Meticulous Mitt Romney

A year after the Bouchard 120 oil spill, state legislators responded with the Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act (MOSPA), which introduced a series of protective measures including requirements for oil transport companies to hire tug escorts and state-licensed pilots to assist in navigating the shallow waters of Buzzards Bay. A year and a half later, the federal government challenged the constitutionality of these and other provisions of the state law.

One provision that escaped the federal suit was the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Trust Fund, which set a fee of up to 5 cents for each barrel of petroleum product. Oil transporters had to pay the fee when their products were received at a marine terminal within the Commonwealth. The fund’s proceeds have been used to purchase oil spill response equipment and training for state municipalities.

State Rep. William Strauss, a Democrat from Mattapoisett, was among the many SouthCoast legislators who helped draft MOSPA. Strauss said he was unsure at the time how Republican Governor Mitt Romney would receive their bill, particularly the fee for petroleum products. “I am happy to say he viewed the per barrel fee … favorably and agreed to it,” Strauss said. “When there was an important local issue, Romney was willing to make the [oil] industry pay.”

Strauss recalled the signing ceremony for MOSPA that took place in August 2004 along the Boston waterfront. “Why he signed the bill near Boston Harbor, I will never understand,” said Strauss, who thought a Buzzards Bay backdrop would have been more appropriate. He said Gov. Romney’s well-planned signing events were “amusing” when compared to those of previous governors who “had been pretty laid back.” The signing of MOSPA proved no exception.

“We got there and he wasn’t there yet but there was a desk and a chair where he was going to sit,” Strauss said. “His advance team had so much practice for presidential campaigns. His staffers had put pieces of masking tape in a semi-circle and written our names on them to show where we were supposed to stand. I switched the location of my tape with a rep that had not arrived yet so that I could stand where I wanted— closer to the center.”

At the Helm of a Tug Captain’s House

Arthur Fournier is everything you’d expect of a tugboat pilot who has spent five decades pushing and pulling barges through New England harbors at all hours of the night. The short man with a weather-beaten face and gravely voice revels in telling stories about his many misadventures at sea and on land, including the time he survived twelve gunshot wounds during a dispute over his towing business.

Fournier was a frequent source in my stories about tug escort provisions in Buzzards Bay. Most of our interaction took place over the phone, but two summers ago, I paid the 80-year-old, retired pilot a visit at his modest home, which sits appropriately on the northern edge of the Cape Cod Canal tucked in between the US Army Corps of Engineers field office and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he docks his fleet of tugs. Fournier was late for the appointment and when I called his cell phone, he told me he was about 20 minutes away in Fairhaven. “Just let yourself in,” he said. But I waited outside until he pulled his black SUV into the driveway and shuffled us into the house.

We sat in his office, which resembled a tug’s wheelhouse, complete with a blaring marine radio scanner and a wide view of the canal. A salty breeze blew in through the open living room slider as we discussed the economics and logistics of escorting oil barges up Buzzards Bay and through the canal.

My favorite memory of the visit is when we heard the blast of a tug whistle and Fournier raced onto the back deck and stared at a smoke-shrouded tug towing a barge up the canal from Buzzards Bay.

“Guess what tug that is!” he shouted. “I can smell it! It’s the Doris Moran. I love that class of boat. It’s the best in the business.”

I waited several minutes for confirmation and wasn’t surprised to see the words “Doris Moran” printed across the bow. My ears buzzed from the pulsing groan of its engine.

“God, I love that drone,” Fournier said.

A View from the Exxon Valdez Spill

With a doctorate in marine biology and a specialization in oil pollution, Riki Ott was well-placed when the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled at least 11 million gallons of black crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. She was living in Cordova and working as a fisherman when the oil spill—at the time the nation’s worst environmental disaster– devastated the Sound and Cordova’s fishing-based economy.

For 20 years, Ott used her scientific training and family-bred activism to force Exxon to compensate the losses suffered by her community, which included environmental destruction, sick clean-up workers and a broken economy and community spirit. As she explains in her book, “Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,” she found that healing and recovery would ultimately come from the people of Cordova working together, not from the corporation responsible for the mess.

I first met Ott in October 2011 when she stopped in Boston during a cross-country book tour. Ott delivered an impassioned lecture about oil spills and corporate personhood at Lasell College, where I teach media writing and communication courses. I approached Ott after her talk and asked her to sign my copy of her book. She took it in her hands and started beaming when she saw the dog-eared pages and underlined passages accented with stars and exclamation points. I explained that they were notes for a book I was writing about the Bouchard 120 oil spill in Buzzards Bay, which she said she had heard about. She signed the book:

To Becky

In solidarity

Riki Ott

A month later, I interviewed Ott by phone for an article I wrote but never published. Here are some of my favorite moments from our conversation about the Exxon-Valdez spill and her life as an environmental activist.

BE: Can you describe the visioning process that helped transform Cordova’s economy after the oil spill?

RO: Basically, Cordova became a case study in disaster trauma. What happened in Cordova was that we were naïve enough at the beginning to believe Exxon when it promised to make us whole. It didn’t dawn on us until four years after the Exxon Valdez oil disaster— when the economy completely collapsed because the fisheries collapsed— that nobody, except us, was going to help us.

Really what I’ve been doing in my tour around the country is sharing an exercise that we came up with after our economy collapsed. Basically we had to figure out how to diversify our economy. As long as we had to figure out how to diversify it, why couldn’t we bring in businesses that actually matched our values, human values. To do that, we had to figure out what it was that we liked about our community, what it was that we wanted to change, what action steps would be taken to make those changes, and how could we prioritize those action steps.

What came out of it was that our vision was to be a commercial fishing town. We wanted to diversify our economy in ways that were compatible with that vision. People came to realize of their own volition that strip mining and clear cutting and industrial tourism really weren’t compatible with that vision. Once people realized that, we then thought, “What is it that we can agree on?” We were able to start ecotourism and Copper River Wild, a massive marketing campaign for the only fishery on the West Coast. It was a huge success story.

BE: What role did your father, a student of Aldo Leopold, have in shaping your passions for community activism and environmental advocacy?

RO: My father’s role was huge and greatly underappreciated as a kid. I think as a kid your mom and dad are just your mom and dad, and you don’t really make heroes out of them until much, much later in life when you learn how hard it is to be a hero. With my dad, it was really role-modeling. We didn’t use the word environmentalist in our house.

When I was 13-years-old, the robins were dying. I would walk to school and literally birds would fall out of the sky at my feet. So I went home and called to my dad and said, “Why? Why are these birds falling out of trees, dying? What is going on?” He picked up one and put it in my hand and explained about the neurotoxin DDT. Then he gave me Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,”  and he explained that he was doing something about it. What he was doing was suing the state of Wisconsin to ban this toxic chemical.

It was a shoestring operation. I saw him going off to work in the morning and earning money and then making phone calls for his friends at night to raise money for this. We had this biologist that was working for Environmental Defense Fund stay at our house and an attorney. I would race home every day after school to see this trial unfolding on our dining room table, practicing the arguments and everything.  To me, that was a huge teaching of my father’s. Wisconsin banned DDT in 1971, and the nation followed suit in 1972, the year I went off to college to be a marine biologist.

When I flew over Prince William Sound in 1989 and saw this huge mess in my backyard, I literally had this flash back. I flashed all the way back to Wisconsin, and I saw how my life had kind of hip-hopped through all these generations to land me at this place, at this time, with this critical knowledge in marine toxicology that my new adopted home community would need. I could see it all, and I realized it was my turn to step up just like my dad stepped up.

In Conclusion

As I was sifting through paper and audio files from years of reporting on the spill, I was struck by something else Dr. Miller, the bird rescuer, said during our interview in Louisiana. I think her answer to my question, “Why do you do what you do?” is the best way to end this long tale of an oil spill:

“I think it’s because of guilt…most of the impact that we see to the wildlife is something that we, as a people, have done,” she said. “No, I didn’t cause the spill out here, but I drive a car. My home is heated by oil. I’ve got a propane gas stove…I’ve got a lot of plastics, I’m drinking water out of a plastic bottle right now. They’re all petroleum and they’re all things I want. I want to be able to drive somewhere; I want to be able to go in a plane somewhere…I kind of feel this obligation. I know we have the skills and knowledge and training and experience to rectify it, so I can’t just walk away.”

Maybe that’s why I can’t walk away from this story.

Looking out to the scene of the Bouchard 120 grounding from Gooseberry Neck in Westport (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Looking out to the scene of the Bouchard 120 grounding from Gooseberry Neck in Westport. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
The author kayaking on a Buzzards Bay tributary (Photo courtesy of Rob Mark)
The author kayaking on a Buzzards Bay tributary (Photo courtesy of Rob Mark)
The author and her husband celebrate their wedding beside Buzzards Bay. (Photo courtesy of JCrest Photography)
The author and her husband celebrate their wedding beside Buzzards Bay. (Photo courtesy of JCrest Photography)
Dr. Erica Miller (right) washes oil from a distressed pelican at a bird rescue center in Venice, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Dr. Erica Miller (right) washes oil from a distressed pelican at a bird rescue center in Venice, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Beach clean-up crews remove rocks that were oiled in the Bouchard 120 spill. (Photo courtesy of Cathryn Brower)
Beach clean-up crews remove rocks that were oiled in the Bouchard 120 spill. (Photo courtesy of Cathryn Brower)
A CNN reporter posing outside the Deep Horizon Response Unified Command Center in Robert, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
A CNN reporter posing outside the Deep Horizon Response Unified Command Center in Robert, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry and BP COO Doug Suttles at a press briefing in Robert, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry and BP COO Doug Suttles at a press briefing in Robert, Louisiana (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Retired tug pilot Arthur Fournier in his home office (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Retired tug pilot Arthur Fournier in his home office (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
The Doris Moran pulls a barge up the Cape Cod Canal. (Photography by Becky W. Evans)
The Doris Moran pulls a barge up the Cape Cod Canal. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Scientist and activist Riki Ott speaks to the Boston Occupy crow following a lecture at Lasell College. Photo by Becky W. Evans
Scientist and activist Riki Ott speaks to the Boston Occupy crowd following a lecture at Lasell College. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
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3 thoughts on “A Few Drops from an Oil Spill Story

  1. Hi, Becky! Excellent to see your enduring interest in the B-120! I was involved at the time of the B-120 spill for the Trustees’ side of the equation. Sadly, I no longer work for government but my passion for restoring the environment and protecting wildlife remains with me. Write your book! Hopefully you will reach others and convince them to be more aware! Ps. Yes, I recall too that RADM Landry was a memorably impressive woman in command!!
    Regards, Dale Young

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