Hardship and Hope in Khetani Township

 By Becky W. Evans
Life in Khetani township

WINTERTON, South Africa– Long rows of rainbow-colored huts sit neatly on a golden field like crayons inside a Crayola box. The tiny, concrete structures shelter large Zulu families who live in poverty on the outskirts of Winterton, a rural farming town in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. The government-built township is home to more than 6,000 Zulu, the country’s largest ethnic group. Many residents here suffer from unemployment, hunger and diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

The Isibani Community Centre, a compound of cheerful, mustard-colored buildings located across the street from the township, is trying to improve health, education and self-sufficiency among residents. “Fortunately the lifestyle of the Zulu people is improving, but for many, daily living is an ongoing desperate struggle to simply survive,” says Isibani facility manager Sofi Ntshalintshali.

The non-profit center, staffed mostly with volunteers, offers a mix of programs from food and clothing distribution to HIV/AIDS awareness counseling to day care for children and adults with special needs. Trained caregivers make home visits to sick residents, delivering food and assessing health. Some of the food is grown in the center’s large, shaded garden. Vegetables and seedlings from the garden are sold to residents at affordable prices. The compound includes classrooms, offices, a church, a physical therapy room, a counseling center, a kitchen and bakery, and respite rooms for victims of sexual abuse.

I toured Isibani (meaning “Bring the Light” in Zulu) on a sunny Friday afternoon, a few hours after residents had picked up their weekly food bundles, which include maize donated by local farmers. The center was mostly deserted, though a handful of children were jumping rope on the rusty-red dirt. My camera distracted them, and they posed for a shot, squealing, “Shoot!” I obliged and they crowded around me to view the digital image, which returned a spill of giggles. (Enjoy the slideshow below.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

A Tale of Two Spills

By Becky W. Evans (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry speaks at a press conference in Robert, La.

I came to Louisiana to ask a question that likely no other reporter covering the BP oil spill is thinking about: “How does the response to the Gulf spill compare to that of the Bouchard 120 spill in Massachusetts’ Buzzards Bay?”

I got an answer Wednesday night after waiting two hours outside the locked gates of a Shell Oil training facility in Robert, La., a small, rural town about 130 miles from the coastline where oil from the leaking Deepwater Horizon well continues to wash ashore. The Coast Guard and BP have set up a command center at the site to direct spill response and cleanup activities.

Around 7 p.m., I joined a handful of print and TV journalists who entered the facility for a press conference in an air-conditioned trailer. After Coast Guard and BP officials briefed us on the “top kill” effort to plug the well, I pitched my question to Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator for the spill.

Landry served the same role during the Buzzards Bay oil spill of April 27, 2003. As much as 2,350 barrels of heavy fuel oil gushed into the bay after the B120 barge drifted out of the shipping lanes and tore its hull open on a rocky shoal. The spill killed hundreds of federally-protected birds, shut down thousands of acres of shellfish beds and polluted more than 90 miles of beaches and wetlands, which provide crucial habitat for juvenile fish, much like the wetlands of Louisiana.

But as Landry pointed out to me, it is hard to compare the response to the two spills given the difference in magnitude.

“I remember with the B120 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.”

The Deepwater Horizon well, which ruptured on April 20, is spilling 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, according to independent estimates by a government panel of experts. To date, the oil has polluted about 100 miles of Louisiana coastline. BP has spent more than $750 million on the spill response and the federal government has spent more than $100 million, which will be reimbursed by BP, Landry said.

Response and cleanup activities for the Buzzards Bay spill lasted about three months, though removal of residual oil from area beaches continued for several years. Bouchard spent at least $36 million on the cleanup.

More than 20,000 people are involved in the response to the continuous leak in the Gulf, Landry said. Among them are many of the same experts who responded to the Buzzards Bay oil spill.

“I’ve seen many people from the B120,” she said. “The world experts in how to handle marsh cleaning are here. We have all these same people here at our finger tips to put their heads together and bring the best resources we can to this fight.”

During my short trip to Louisiana, I ran into some responders who have worked on both spills. At Ft. Jackson, I found Dr. Erica Miller of Tri-State Bird Rescue scrubbing oil off the feathers, beaks and webbed feet of pelicans and gannets that had plunged into the Gulf oil slick (see “The Pelican State”).  Miller said the BP spill is different from the Bouchard spill due to the heat (90 degree days versus cool New England temperatures) and the number of birds rescued per day (a trickle spread over many weeks compared to hundreds over a matter of days.)

In Massachusetts, I am not alone in seeking connections between the two oil spills. When I flew home to Boston on Thursday, I checked email during my layover in Dallas, Texas. A press release from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office announced that it has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit to reverse a lower court ruling that prevents the state from enforcing key provisions of the Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act of 2004.

The act, which was passed in response to the Bouchard 120 spill, aims to make oil transportation safer in Buzzards Bay. The provisions in question include  1.) mandatory tug escorts to shadow all barges carrying 6,000 or more barrels of oil and 2.) increased manning requirements for vessels towing barges through the narrow bay (see “Much Ado About Tugs in Buzzards Bay”).

“The Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act includes common sense measures to prevent spills from occurring in the first place,” Attorney General Martha Coakley said in the release. “It is unfortunately ironic given the circumstances in the Gulf right now, that we are being forced to challenge the Coast Guard to protect our coast and coastal waters from oil spills.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Pelican State

By Becky W. Evans (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

An oiled brown pelican is cleaned by bird rescuers Tuesday in Venice, La.

NEW ORLEANS, La.– People here love their pelicans. So much, that some homeowners mark the entrance to their driveway with pelican statues.

Images of pelicans grace state license plates and bridge signs. There is even a cartoon pelican throwing away trash on the adopt-a-highway signs. After all, Louisiana is known as “the Pelican State,” and the state bird is the brown pelican.

The long-billed birds thrive along Louisiana’s coast, where there is plenty of fish to scoop up with their stretchy pouches. But now that much of the Gulf of Mexico is covered with toxic oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, many pelicans are in danger. The oil clings to their feathers in clumps, disrupting their function and making the birds susceptible to stress from air, water and sun.

“It’s like a hole in a wetsuit,” said Rebecca Dunne, senior coordinator with Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc. of Newark, Delaware.

Dunne is part of a team of bird rescue experts who are trying to scrub BP oil off brown pelicans and other birds, including gannets, cattle egrets, common terns and royal terns. The group operates out of a warehouse at Fort Jackson in Venice, La.

On Tuesday, bird rescuers cleaned a brown pelican, who had likely plunged directly into a patch of oiled water, Dunne said. The oil had stained the bird’s white head a reddish-brown color. Rescuers donned gloves, aprons, sleeves and eyeglasses before handling the pelican, an adult male. They first lathered his feathers with canola oil to loosen the BP oil. Then they plunged him into a tub containing a mixture of water and Dawn liquid soap. To keep the struggling pelican comfortable, the water temperature was set at 104-degrees Fahrenheit, the same as the bird’s body temperature, Dunne said. Using their gloved hands along with toothbrushes and Q-tips, the rescuers scrubbed the oil off the pelican’s squirming body, around its eyes, along its beak and inside its pouch. The effort took about a half hour. Next, the bird was hosed down to remove any soap that could also limit the function of his feathers. The pelican was then rubbed dry with a towel before being carried into a special room for blow drying.

When the birds are clean and dry, they are moved into plywood pens with small pools, where they recuperate from the stress of human handling. The birds stay in the recovery area for about 10 days before being released into the wild, said Jay Holcomb, director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, based in Fairfield, Calif. Pelicans and other large seabirds are being released as far away as Tampa Bay, Florida due to the wide expanse of the Deepwater spill, he said.

Over the last few weeks, oiled seabirds have been arriving at the center in small numbers, ranging from 1 to 4 birds per day, Holcomb said. He estimated that the survival rate was about 75 percent, with some birds dying from injuries unrelated to oil coating. BP will pay the full cost of bird rescue operations, said Holcomb, who could not offer an estimate of that cost. Dunne noted that the cleaning process is water intensive, often requiring up to 300 gallons of water per bird. The oiled water must be placed in barrels and disposed of properly, she said.

Dr. Erica Miller, a veterinarian who works for Tri-State Bird Rescue, said with most oil spills, bird rescuers  handle a large number of birds over a short period of time. Miller was posted in New Bedford, Massachusetts following the April 2003 Bouchard oil spill in Buzzards Bay. Working out of the city’s wastewater treatment plant, she and other bird rescuers removed oil from about 100 oiled birds, including loons, eiders, surf scoters and gulls.

“In the New Bedford spill, we had lots of birds right away,” she said. “Here they just trickle in.”

For Miller, rescuing birds that are injured during oil spills is both “fun and fascinating.” But she admits that part of her motivation is fueled by guilt related to her own, and society’s, consumption of oil and oil-related products.

“We did it to them,” she said. “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 from it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Following Lisa Jackson to Louisiana

By Becky W. Evans (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

EPA Chief Lisa Jackson speaks at a press conference Monday at Venice Marina in Venice, LA.

A day after EPA chief Lisa Jackson landed in Lousiana, I followed her to a small fishing port at the southern tip of the state, where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

The two-hour drive from New Orleans to the port of Venice brought mixed views of cattle ranches, oil refineries and egret-infested estuaries. My journey ended at the Venice Marina, the self-proclaimed “fishing capital of the world.”

After a boat tour of oil-soaked coastal marshes, Jackson joined me and fellow journalists at the marina for a short press conference in the sweltering afternoon heat.

Jackson described the tour as “heartbreaking.”

“I saw literally pools of oil staining those marshes,” she said, noting that the wind was favorable and blew the oil out to sea making it easier for cleanup crews to collect.

She said she wants BP to make major cuts, between 50 to 80 percent, in the use of toxic chemical sprays to break up surface oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill. The dispersants have unknown impacts on the sensitive marine environment. With deep-sea spraying underway, there is little need to attack oil floating on top of the Gulf with the same chemicals, she said.

“The use of dispersants means we are inevitably making environmental tradeoffs,” Jackson said. She announced that EPA is now searching for a less toxic dispersant after BP failed to provide an alternative to the Corexit dispersants used over the last 30 days. (Corexit was pre-approved by the EPA.)

After the press conference, I spoke with Capt. Mike Frenette, who once chartered fishing trips for tourists who wanted to reel in red fish, blue marlin and other saltwater species.

Since the oil spill, fishing bans have put a stop to his business and that of the other 50 or so charter boat captains who keep their boats tied up at the Venice Marina.

“Our business is shut down …we are not allowed to fish,” Capt. Frenette said. He and the other captains are on standby to earn some money assisting BP with the oil cleanup, but the work is limited. Frenette said he has only worked four days since the April 20 spill.

On my ride back to New Orleans, I passed a house with a red sign reading, “Damn BP.” Another sign thanked all those who are “helping with the oil spill.”

Here are some photos from the day:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spilling Off the Page

By BECKY W. EVANS (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

Oil spill headlines grace the front pages displayed outside the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C.– During my pilgrimage to the Newseum on Monday, I found it impossible to stop thinking about the ever-expanding oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico — and my delay in writing a post about the disaster  for ThreeBeats.

After all, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the perfect ThreeBeats story: an event that impacts the environment, commercial fisheries and immigrant communities (think Vietnamese and Cambodian shrimpers).

Outside the museum’s Pennsylvania Ave. entrance, I found a display of the latest front pages from newspapers around the country. Many of them bore grim headlines detailing BP’s failed attempt to cap the blown-out oil well, where an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil gushes daily into the Gulf. Inside the museum, a giant news ticker flashed Associated Press headlines updating the latest plans for testing the effectiveness of deep-sea chemical dispersants.

Determined to contribute to the Deepwater coverage, I took a break from my tour of the six-floor museum and phoned into a press briefing staged at the Unified Area Command center in Robert, Louisiana. The briefing featured representatives from BP, the Coast Guard and the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service, which are among the many agencies coordinating the oil spill response and cleanup. I was most interested in hearing from Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator. Earlier in her career, Landry oversaw the federal response to the 2003 Bouchard oil spill in Buzzards Bay, Mass., where up to 98,000 gallons of thick, fuel oil spilled from a Bouchard oil barge that drifted out of the shipping lanes and struck an underwater ledge.

For seven years, I have covered the progress of the Bouchard oil spill cleanup. I am wondering if Landry’s experience managing the response to the Buzzards Bay spill has influenced her approach to this much larger spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately Monday’s press briefing ended before I could pose this question to Landry, but I have since submitted my request to a Coast Guard petty officer working out of the command center in Robert, La.

Landry’s comments during the briefing reflected determination in tackling the oil spill at sea, and confidence in cleaning up any pollution that reaches land. “We’re ready for this should it come ashore,” she said.

Check out this slideshow of oil spill headlines from the Newseum display:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Salazar OKs Cape Wind for Nantucket Sound

By BECKY W. EVANS (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announces his approval of the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound.

BOSTON–  Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar gave approval today for construction of the first offshore wind farm to be built on the country’s outer continental shelf.

Salazar said the decision in favor of the Nantucket Sound project is “an important announcement for the nation,” because it paves the way for clean energy projects “up and down the Atlantic coast.”

“With this decision we are beginning a new direction in our nation’s energy future,” he said during a press conference in an overcrowded press room at the Massachusetts State House.

Salazar said the Cape Wind project will create 1,000 construction jobs and produce enough “clean power” to meet 75 percent of the electricity demand for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Island combined. He said the wind farm will produce the same amount of power as a medium-sized, coal-fired power plant and will offset 700,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, the equivalent of removing 175,000 cars from the road each year.

The approval of Cape Wind caps a 9-year permitting process for developer Jim Gordon’s controversial project, which has met fierce opposition from some residents of Cape Cod and the Islands, including the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Hyannisport and most recently, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe on Martha’s Vineyard and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe on Cape Cod. The tribes contend the wind farm will disrupt sun greeting ceremonies and could damage ancestral artifacts buried on the seafloor.

“The need to preserve the environmental resources and rich cultural heritage of Nantucket Sound must be weighed in the balance with the importance of developing new renewable energy sources and strengthening our nation’s energy security while battling climate change and creating jobs,” Salazar said.

“After careful consideration of all the concerns expressed during the lengthy review and consultation process and thorough analysis of the many factors involved, I find that the public benefits weigh in favor of approving the Cape Wind project,” he said.

The approval requires the developer to take some mitigation measures designed to reduce the project’s visual impacts and to preserve Nantucket Sound’s historic and cultural features, he said.

The agency accepted Cape Wind’s proposal to reduce the number of turbines from 170 to 130 and to reconfigure the siting of the turbines in order to reduce the visual impacts from Nantucket Island and the Kennedy Compound National Historic Landmark. Prior to construction, additional seabed surveys will be required to identify any submerged archaeological resources on the bottom of Nantucket Sound. The full mitigation requirements are outlined in the agency’s Record of Decision.

“Cape Wind is good for our environment and good for our energy needs,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said following the announcement. “Cape Wind is also good for Massachusetts.”

Patrick said moving forward with Cape Wind will allow the country to catch up with Europe’s advances in offshore wind development.

“If we get clean energy right the whole world will be our customer,” he said.

In the hallway outside the press room, reporters swarmed around Audra Parker, president and CEO of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, one of the project’s main opponents.

“This is a political decision and a slap in the face to Native Americans, the Cape and Islands community, and ratepayers who have not been told how the project will affect their electricity bills,” she said.

The project poses multiple threats to the environment, public safety, the economy and private religious rights, Parker said.

She said the final decision on the wind farm is “far from over,” since there are 10 parties who have filed lawsuits against Cape Wind. The project’s fate is now in the hands of the court, where it will be decided “on facts, not politics,” she said. “Ultimately Nantucket Sound needs to be off limits to Cape Wind.”

Extra! Extra! Native Journal Goes to Press

By BECKY W. EVANS (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

Copies of the Native Journal are sent down the chute.

RAPID CITY, S.D.– After working two days in the Crazy Horse Memorial newsroom, student journalists watched their Native Journal newspaper come to life Thursday night during a press run at the Rapid City Journal’s printing plant.

Earlier in the day, the students’ multimedia news stories about retired rodeo horses and the making of the newspaper were published online by the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute. The publications are the culmination of a week-long workshop for Native American high school students who want to pursue careers in journalism.

I joined a team of professional journalists from around the country who coached the students through the process of creating the Native Journal. Follow the links below to read two of my students’ articles and to watch a slideshow of the press run.

Following the Photo Guy, By Cheyenna Sherlock

Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation Gives Three Scholarships, By Kaylan Curley

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Storytelling through Sculpture

By BECKY W. EVANS (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota

CUSTER, South Dakota– Native American high school students are studying journalism this week under the watchful gaze of Crazy Horse, the young Lakota (Sioux) warrior who was stabbed in the back by a U.S. solider after the government broke an 1868 treaty granting the Sioux ownership of the Black Hills.

The 563-foot Crazy Horse Memorial mountain carving, which is still under construction, was designed by the late sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski. In 1939, Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear asked Boston-born Korczak, who had helped sculpt nearby Mount Rushmore, to carve a statue of Crazy Horse in his sacred Black Hills.

For 34 years, Korczak drilled and blasted the mountain, preparing the site for his massive Crazy Horse sculpture. Since his death in 1982, his widow Ruth and some of their 10 children have continued the project, which is financed through public donations.

“I’m a storyteller in stone,” Korczak says in a documentary that plays regularly at the Crazy Horse Memorial’s orientation center.

I’ve joined a group of journalists and educators who are teaching students here how to sculpt news stories using print, photography and multimedia journalism techniques. The workshop, sponsored by the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, aims to prepare Native American students for careers in journalism. Over the next two days, the high school juniors and seniors will produce a newspaper edition and online publication.

At the beginning of the workshop, keynote speaker Gerard Baker of the National Park Service challenged the students to become a generation of “new warriors” who use their storytelling skills to tell positive stories about their people.

Much Ado About Tug Escorts in Buzzards Bay

By BECKY W. EVANS (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

The view of Buzzards Bay from Round Hill Beach in Dartmouth.

BOSTON– In the two weeks since new oil spill prevention rules went into effect, Massachusetts has dispatched four tugboats to shadow oil barges traveling through Buzzards Bay. A fifth so-called “tug escort” is scheduled for today, said Edmund Coletta, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“There is no indication that any ships are transiting without calling us at this point,” he said.

Coletta said the tug escorts, which were designed to protect the sensitive bay from oil spill disasters such as the Bouchard 120 spill, will continue as scheduled despite a lawsuit that members of the oil transport industry filed Wednesday against Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and DEP Commissioner Laurie Burt.

“We have gotten a copy of the lawsuit … and are still reviewing it,” Coletta said.

In the civil lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that the state’s rules for tug escorts and state-licensed pilots, as described under the state’s 2009 Oil Spill Act, are “invalid” because they conflict with federal law. The five plaintiffs include American Waterways Operators, International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, Chamber of Shipping of America, International Chamber of Shipping, and International Group of P&I Clubs.

“The 2009 Oil Spill Act impermissibly seeks to establish an overlapping
and competing legal regime with its imposition of operating and manning requirements on foreign and domestic tank vessels operating in Massachusetts waters,” according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court.

American Waterways Operators and the U.S. government used the same legal argument in 2005 when they challenged parts of Massachusetts’ 2004 Oil Spill Act, separate from the 2009 law. After more than five years of courtroom battles, the case ended a week ago when  federal judge Douglas P. Woodlock issued a permanent injunction preventing Massachusetts from enforcing the tug escort and state-licensed pilot provisions of the 2004 law.

“In the final analysis, the law of preemption … leaves the last word under Federal law regarding the formulation of regulations to control vessel
traffic, to enhance vessel safety and to decrease environmental
hazards in Buzzards Bay to the Coast Guard,” Woodlock wrote in his decision.

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office “is still reviewing the ruling and exploring all of our options, including whether to appeal the decision,” said spokeswoman Jill Butterworth.  She said an appeal would have to be filed within 60 days of the judgment.

The ruling has no impact on the state’s current rules for tug escorts and state-licensed pilots, Coletta said.

While the lawsuit pertaining to the 2004 act was being fought in court, Massachusetts legislators set to work crafting a new law that would provide the same protections for Buzzards Bay. The resulting law, known as “An Act Preventing Oil Spills in Buzzards Bay,” was signed by Gov. Patrick on Sept. 24, 2009.

The 2009 law differs from the 2004 act in that the provision and cost of tug escorts and state-licensed pilots falls to the state, rather than the oil transport companies. The system is designed to be voluntary, rather than mandatory. Companies are encouraged to give the state 24-hour notice that they will be sending a barge through Buzzards Bay. If they do not give notice, they will face triple the fines in the event of an oil spill.

The new rules have taken effect in recent weeks. On March 1, the DEP began dispatching state-licensed pilots, who have knowledge of the narrow bay, to operate tugs towing double-hulled oil barges. On March 29, the state began sending tug escorts to shadow double-hulled barges carrying 6,000 barrels or more of oil.

Tug escorts aim to provide a quick response in the event of an emergency. If a tug was nearby when the Bouchard 120 barge drifted out of the Buzzards Bay shipping lanes on April 27, 2003, it could have kept the barge from running aground and spilling up to 100,000 gallons of oil, said Mark Rasmussen, director of the Coalition for Buzzards Bay, an advocacy group.

On April 1, the state increased the Oil Spill Trust Fund’s per-barrel oil fee from 2 cents to 5 cents. The fee is charged to companies who offload oil in Massachusetts. The fund will pay for the $5,000 tug escorts and the state-licensed pilots, the cost of which Coletta did not know. McAllister Towing of Narragansett Bay won the tug escort contract through a competitive bid process. State pilots are assigned by a district pilot commissioner.

Rasmussen was not surprised when the new rules were met with a lawsuit brought by the oil transportation industry.

“Unfortunately, it seems to be general operating procedure for American Waterways Operators to challenge anything individual states do to try to protect their waters,” he said.

But Rasmussen, whose organization joined the state as a co-defendant in the 2004 Oil Spill Act lawsuit, doesn’t think oil transporters will win their case this time.

“All this law does is say, ‘Call ahead and tell us your coming,'” he said. “I think they will have a very hard case trying to convince a judge that that’s an unreasonable request by the state of Massachusetts, for an industry that poses so much risk to our coast.”

Rasmussen added that it is telling that the U.S. government has not joined the industry as a plaintiff as it did in the first lawsuit.

“This time it is the industry by themselves,” he said.

The Coalition for Buzzards Bay will consider in the coming weeks whether it will join the lawsuit as a co-defendant, Rasmussen said.

Court documents show that the case has been assigned to the same judge who issued the ruling in the first lawsuit.

Subscribe to ThreeBeats to receive email notifications about new posts. It’s easy, just type your email address in the subscription box found in the righthand sidebar. You will receive a confirmation email from no-reply@wordpress.com

Jury Decides Bouchard Owes Damages

This story was also published on the front pages of Saturday’s The Cape Cod Times and The Standard Times. For a list of damages, see the chart at the end of this post.

By BECKY W. EVANS (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

Justice Raymond J. Brassard reads the eight verdict slips.

PLYMOUTH, Mass.— In a precedent-setting environmental case, jurors agreed Friday that Bouchard must pay eight Mattapoisett property owners varying amounts in damages for oil that polluted their beaches for months or years following the April 27, 2003 Buzzards Bay oil spill.

After 10 hours of deliberations, the 13-member jury rendered eight verdicts, one for each of the eight plaintiffs in the case. The trial was part of a broader class-action lawsuit involving 1,100 Mattapoisett property owners.

The awarded damages, which range from $1,575 to $22,650 per property, will be doubled in accordance with state law, said Judge Raymond J. Brassard. In addition, the plaintiffs will receive 12 percent annual interest going back to the filing date of the lawsuit in September 2004.

After the trial, plaintiffs’ lawyer Martin E. Levin of Stern, Shapiro, Weissberg & Garin LLP said the case was “definitely” precedent setting.

“This is the first environmental class action to be certified and go forward in Massachusetts,” he said, noting that by “certified” he meant the court had approved of pursuing the claims on a class action basis.

Levin said he was “happy” with the verdicts, even though the damages were smaller than those calculated by the plaintiffs’ real estate appraiser who testified during the 10-day trial at Plymouth County Superior Court. The appraiser’s estimates ranged from about $5,000 to $60,000 per property.

Defense lawyer Ronald W. Zdrojeski of Robinson & Cole LLP said the verdicts were “much closer to our end of the spectrum.” During his closing statements, Zdrojeski had suggested that jurors consider awarding damages in the range of $200 to $3,000 per property.

Zdrojeski said he plans to visit his client and “consider our options.” The defense disagrees with some of the legal rulings in the case, he said.

Levin said he hopes Bouchard will take “full responsibility for the damages it caused and step forward to compensate the rest of the class.”

Lawyers from both sides must agree on how to proceed with the more than 1,000 plaintiffs who remain in the lawsuit.

“We now have some good benchmarks that I hope will be of help to all of you as you determine how best to resolve your cases,” Judge Brassard said.

Potential options include a “series of trials over a series of years” or “some form of negotiation among you,” Brassard said.

Jurors met in the courtroom at 9 a.m. Friday to begin their third day of deliberations. By 9:40 a.m., they had decided on eight verdicts involving 11 Mattapoisett properties, some with the same owners.

In addition to determining damages, the jury was asked to decide the length of time plaintiffs’ beaches were polluted with Bouchard oil. During the trial, the defense argued that most of the beaches were clean by Memorial Day of 2003, just a month after the spill. The plaintiffs’ real estate appraiser said the pollution lingered for 1.1 to 6 years, depending on the property.

For nine of the 11 properties, the jury found that beaches were polluted until the fall of 2003. Francis and Natalie Haggerty’s property at 126 Brandt Island Road near Leisure Shores beach was considered polluted until October 2007. W. Bradford Chase’s property at 15 Seamarsh Way was considered polluted until September 2009.

Haggerty and his wife, who attended all but one day of the trial, were awarded $11,880 in damages, considerably less than the plaintiffs’ request for $50,800.

“We’re glad the jury stood up for the residents of Mattapoisett against the Bouchard oil company,” Haggerty said.

Kim DeLeo, who is the class representative, was not among the eight plaintiffs involved in the trial.

“This gives us a starting point in moving forward with the rest of the class-action lawsuit,” she said. “I think the jury awarded us a fair amount.”

Levin said the eight plaintiffs in the trial were selected at random. They represented beaches with four different levels of oil pollution, ranging from “very lightly” oiled to “heavily” oiled, he said.

A second class-action lawsuit against Bouchard is pending in federal court. The lawsuit was filed by property owners outside of Mattapoisett who are seeking damages from the oil spill.

On April 27, 2003, the Bouchard No. 120 struck an underwater reef in Buzzards Bay after drifting outside a marked channel. The punctured barge, which was on its way to a Cape Cod power plant, leaked up to 98,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil. The oil polluted more than 90 miles of coastline, killed 450 federally-protected birds and temporarily shut down about 180,000 acres of shellfish beds.

Both Bouchard and the mate of the Tug Evening Tide, which was pulling the barge, pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act and killing 450 birds. Bouchard paid the federal government $9 million in criminal fines, while mate Franklin Robert Hill served six months in federal prison. Bouchard spent $36 million in cleanup activities as required under federal oil pollution law.

Awarded Damages (prior to being doubled, without interest):

Verdict 1:

$3,180, 14 Harbor Rd., Harbor Beach (Armen and Pauline Barooshian)

$3,210, 15 North Rd., Harbor Beach (Armen and Pauline Barooshian)

$1,575, 18 Centre Dr., Harbor Beach (Armen and Pauline Barooshian)

All three properties polluted until Sept. ’03.

Verdict 2:

$2,820, 37 Silver Shell Ave., Crescent Beach (Ronald and Daniele Bick)

Polluted until Nov. ’03

Verdict 3:

$22,650, 15 Seamarsh Way (W. Bradford Chase)

Polluted until Sept. ’09.

Verdict 4:

$2,070, 6 Avenue A, Pease’s Point (Margaret Churchill)

Polluted until Sept. ’03.

Verdict 5:

$13,800, 16 Water St. (Anne Downey)

Polluted until Sept. ’03.

Verdict 6:

$1,845, 19 Noyes Ave., Shell Beach (Thomas and Georgia Glick)

$2,910, 21 Noyes Ave., Shell Beach (Thomas and Georgia Glick)

Both properties polluted until Sept ’03.

Verdict 7:

$11,880, 126 Brandt Island Rd., Leisure Shores (Francis and Natalie Haggerty)

Polluted until October ’07.

Verdict 8:

$1,823, 11 Highland Ave., Brandt Beach (John and Maureen Mullen)

Polluted until October ’03.