What in Tarnation? Oil Spill Pollutes Local Beaches

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Goodness, gracious, great balls of tar! Many shore walkers were surprised to leave with more than sand in their shoes late last week. A large amount of tar balls were discovered on area beaches, including Rockaway and Riis Park, possibly stemming from a fuel-oil leak from a ship.

Local resident, John Masini was walking his neighbor’s dog between Beach 136th and Beach 139th on Thursday, March 28, when he noticed the sand looked a bit darker than normal. As someone that works in the heating industry and has an oil burner license, it didn’t take long for him to realize what the sticky black balls all over the sand were. “I could smell that it was oil. I was leaning down and poked at it and realized it was all over the dog’s paws,” Masini said. He immediately called 311 to file a report, followed by a call to the Department of Environmental Protection, which said they were already aware of the issue and believed it stemmed from a leaking barge off of Staten Island.

“This sucks. I come down to the beach often and we get enough plastics and everything else coming on to the beach as is, so to find oil polluting it was disappointing,” Masini said. “But DEP said they were aware of it and were in the process of trying to contain the spill.”

By Friday, the problem had spread through Riis Park. Another local beach walker said she went for her regular stroll from Beach 148th to Riis Park, but when she tried to shake the sand off of her walking boots when she was done, she says she had to throw the pair of shoes away completely. “They were caked in oil. I couldn’t see the soles, they were just black,” she said. “There was no saving them.”

By the weekend, action was being taken to fix the issue. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation alerted the U.S. Coast Guard, which began assessing the water and nearby beaches to note the severity of the problem and try to determine a cause. It is believed the oil sheen on the water and tar balls on the beach are connected to a fuel-oil leak on Thursday, involving a barge called the Dublin Express in the Arthur Kill. The Dublin Express suffered a 15-inch hole in one of its fuel tanks prior to arriving to New York. The damaged tank has the capacity to carry approximately 300,000 gallons of fuel oil. The cause of the damage and the amount of fuel oil spilled have not been determined and remain under investigation.

Members of the Unified Command for Goethals Oil Spill began to assess the situation on the beach by Sunday afternoon. Members of the Unified Command Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT) teams located a 400-yard by two-feet band of tar balls at Jacob Riis Park. By early Monday morning, crews were deployed to clean up the mess. A total of 87 people along with 16 boats were working to address the issue on Monday. When The Rockaway Times went to survey the scene at Riis Park on Monday afternoon, the remaining tar was limited, as crews in yellow and orange suits were scanning the area, picking up the pieces and placing them in large black garbage bags.

According to various agencies, it is believed the problem will not continue to worsen. “Assessments conducted from the air and on the beaches revealed little to no oil observed. NOAA trajectories do not anticipate any product coming ashore further south. There have been no new reports of oil sheening in the water or tar balls,” a Coast Guard press release said on Monday evening.

“We’ve seen a lot of progress in the cleanup of the Arthur Kill Waterway, and we continue to work with our Unified Command partners to ensure a rapid and thorough cleanup of all impacted areas,” said Coast Guard Capt. Jason Tama, Federal On-Scene Coordinator. “Our priorities continue to be the safety of everyone involved including the public and responders, and environmental cleanup.”

When The Rockaway Times was on the scene on Monday, the beach walker that had to dispose of her shoes over the weekend, expressed concern over the impact of the oil on local wildlife, saying that she regularly sees seals and various birds during her walk though Riis Park. According to the Coast Guard, members of the Unified Command are assessing wildlife in the area and have captured three oiled birds, a duck and two ring-billed gulls in New Jersey.

As for Masini’s neighbor’s dog, he’s now oil-free after spending some time in a soap-filled bath, but a floor mat in his home did fall victim to oil-covered paws and needed to be thrown out.

If possible, the Coast Guard warns beach goers to avoid contact with any tar balls or oil on the beach or in the water. If anyone does come into contact with the tar balls and gets the oil on their skin or clothes, they should wash their hands with soap and warm water, and clothes immediately.

The official cause of the incident remains under investigation by U.S. Coast Guard.

Anyone who notices any other tar balls or oil sheen is asked to report their findings to the Coast Guard Sector New York Command Center at 718-354-4353 or the Community Assistance hotline at 866-601-5880. Reports can also be made to the DEC hotline: 800-457-7362.

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