By Hoang-Nam Vu, Staff Writer for Save The Water™ | March 26, 2016
The Potomac River flows in two branches, originating in the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia. Uniting around Cumberland, Maryland, the river then empties into the Chesapeake Bay. With a 383 mile course, it serves as a boundary between Maryland and Virginia, and is the renowned river of Washington D.C. It is also noted for its beauty, and its route serves as a scenic and recreational area for surrounding citizens (The Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016). Because of its prominence in the region, it was of note that about a month ago, a thin layer of oil was found on the surface of a small section of the river. Reportedly, “the spill was caused by a transformer failure on January 24th. In the incident, 13,500 gallons of the product [a mineral oil substance] spilled (Murillo, 2016). The sheen was discovered in early February, when residents noticed a rainbow-colored film around the station. Since then, the Coast Guard has identified the substance as a fuel oil, and on February 10th, through sample analysis, it found that “the water contained moderately weathered intermediate petroleum oil” (Alexandria News, 2016).
Oil sheens occur in conjunction with oil spills. Sheens are rainbow-colored films that form on the surface of water when oil is discharged, and indicate contamination in the water. While oil sheens may sound benign, they can be as deleterious as oil spills themselves. Both, however, are infamous for their detrimental effects on the environment. “Spilled oil can harm living things because its chemical constituents are poisonous. This can affect organisms both from internal exposure to oil through ingestion or inhalation and from external exposure through skin and eye irritation. Oil can also smother some small species of fish or invertebrates and coat feathers and fur, reducing birds’ and mammals’ ability to maintain their body temperatures” (National Ocean Service, 2016). These organisms include animals like “sea otters and seabirds that are found on the sea surface or on shorelines if the oil comes ashore. During most oil spills, seabirds are harmed and killed in greater numbers than other kinds of creatures. Sea otters can easily be harmed by oil, since their ability to stay warm depends on their fur remaining clean. If oil remains on a beach for a while, other creatures, such as snails, clams, and terrestrial animals may suffer” (National Ocean Service, 2016). It is clear that oil spills, on a large or small-scale, can detract from the biodiversity and the general health of an ecosystem. The oil sheen in the Potomac River was no different. “The oil in the river affected birds in the area. Of all, 52 birds, mostly Canadian geese were found covered in the oil. So far, 21 birds have died from their injuries” (Murillo, 2016).
Many measures have been taken to remedy the situation, however. Dominion Power has accepted full responsibility for the spill, and will most likely have to pay for the damages. As of mid February, “Dominion said more than 95 percent of it has been recovered. The Coast Guard added that its job now is to make sure the source is secured. No additional areas of the rainbow-colored film has been seen in more than 24 hours, according to [Incident Commander Michael] Keane. The oil is continuing to evaporate, he adds. In terms of monetary cost, the exact cost of the cleanup and response hasn’t been calculated. The Coast Guard is dipping into its oil spill trust liability fund worth $250,000, but has yet to meet that mark” (Murillo, 2016).
Measures have also been taken to defend the wildlife affected by the sheen. The Coast Guard planned to use a deterring technique to keep birds from approaching the area. “‘The use of small pyrotechnics to deter birds from using particular areas during an oil response is a commonly employed technique utilized by wildlife biologists to minimize the negative impacts of oil to birds and other wildlife,’ said Peter McGowan, a wildlife biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Additionally, the Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research is continuing to rehabilitate impacted birds at their facility in Delaware” (U.S. Coast Guard, 2016).
Alexandria News. (2016, February 11). Additional Results From Investigation Of Potomac River Oil Sheen. Retrieved March 06, 2016, from https://www.alexandrianews.org/2016/02/initial-results-received-from-potomac-river-oil-spill/
Murillo, M. (2016, February 12). Dominion Power accepts responsibility for Potomac River oil sheen. Retrieved March 06, 2016, from http://wtop.com/alexandria/2016/02/dominion-power-accepts-responsibility-potomac-river-oil-sheen/slide/1/
National Ocean Service. (2016, March 4). How Oil Harms Animals and Plants in Marine Environments | response.restoration.noaa.gov. Retrieved March 06, 2016, from http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/oil-and-chemical-spills/oil-spills/how-oil-harms-animals-and-plants-marine-environments.html
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2016). Potomac River. Retrieved March 06, 2016, from http://www.britannica.com/place/Potomac-River
U.S. Coast Guard. (2016, February 10). Unified Command Continues Response to Potomac River Oil Sheen. Retrieved March 06, 2016, from http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/02/10/unified-command-continues-response-to-potomac-river-oil-sheen.html