Delaware’s Mystery Oil Spill Remains a Mystery

Mike Schuler
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October 29, 2020

A member of a contracted oil spill response organization cleans oily debris from Slaughter Beach in Delaware as part of the Broadkill 2020 oil spill response. U.S. Coast Guard Photo

The operation to clean-up balls of oil that have washed ashore in Delaware Bay has expanded to Maryland beaches as the investigation into the source of the substance continues.

As of Tuesday, clean-up crews had recovered more than 65 tons of oiled debris and sand from Delaware beaches. The cleanup now extends all the way from Bowers Beach, Delaware to Ocean City, Maryland, a distance of about 65 miles.

The mystery oil began washing ashore in patties on October 19. As of late Tuesday, cleanup crews had successfully recovered 65 tons of oily debris and sand from the impacted beaches along Delaware Bay shoreline and Atlantic Coast.

More than 100 personnel continue to pick up the coin to pancake-sized tar balls, while authorities strongly beachgoers to stay out of the water and avoid walking along the wrack line, where oily debris continues to be deposited by each high tide.

The Unified Command overseeing the response, which now includes the Maryland Department of the Environment along with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, has extended the cleanup from upper Delaware Bay to Ocean City.

“At this point in the response, we’re critically examining our resources, looking at the big picture and seeing where the greatest needs lie,” said Lt. Cmdr Fredrick Pugh, federal incident commander for the response. “We’ll continue to assess the situation, across all impacted coastlines through our on-the-ground experts and through the diligence of our local partners in the affected municipalities.”

The source of the tar balls is still a mystery and nothing has yet been ruled out. The Coast Guard has sent samples of the oil to be analyzed by its Marine Safety Laboratory for a “petroleum fingerprint” that might help determine the source of the spill. If a source is identified, the responsible party would be required to reimburse the federal government for the cleanup operation.

Meanwhile, the weathered oil patties continue to wash ashore. It is important to note, however, that officials did say this week that the oily material that continues to spread is all believed to be from the original amount discovered last week, and it continues to be spread and broken down in the waves and tide. Response officials do not believe there is an ongoing or undiscovered patch of oil out in the bay or ocean.

“We’re not sure how long oily debris will continue to wash up with the tide,” said DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin. “Unfortunately, oil can be very persistent in the marine environment, but our environmental professionals are persistent too. They’re out there, working up and down the coastline, getting it out of the sand as much as possible.”


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