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Oil spill hits MA hard

A Portuguese fishing community is silently bearing the brunt of an April 27 oil spill that shut down shell-fishing beds and affected at least 50 miles of shoreline around Buzzards Bay, Mass.

BY SUSAN KIM | FAIRHAVEN, Mass. | May 19, 2003

"We have been trying to get the word out to the Portuguese media."

—Peter Judge

A Portuguese fishing community is silently bearing the brunt of an April 27 oil spill that shut down shell-fishing beds and affected at least 50 miles of shoreline around Buzzards Bay, Mass.

A barge operated by Bouchard Transportation hit an obstacle in Buzzards Bay last month, creating a 12-foot rupture in the hull and spilling 14,700 gallons of oil. The state of Massachusetts closed shell-fishing shortly after the spill.

Response agencies are still working to clean up the oil, and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) is concerned that at least some people who fish for a living might not be aware that state aid is available to them.

"We have been trying to get the word out to the Portuguese media," explained MEMA spokesperson Peter Judge. MEMA has also been working with local chambers of commerce and fishing associations, he said.

Even though shellfish beds are now slowly reopening, Judge remained concerned about the long-term impact on fishermen. "From the day-to-day perspective, for the short-term, the biggest impact of the spill is on the fishermen. When, for example, can they get out and do their clamming? And, then, what will the market be? What will be the threat that people perceive or misperceive?"

MEMA is providing funds for fishermen who need to replace ruined docks, buoys and lines, among other things.

But Joann Hale, a responder with the United Church of Christ who specializes in technological disasters, said that, even if fishermen are well aware of the aid that's available, some of them might not come forward to get it.

"They might not come forward for a couple of reasons," Hale pointed out. "First, some may not file income taxes because sometimes fishing is a cash business. Second, there might be undocumented citizens who are afraid to come forward for help."

And the economic impact of the spill could reach beyond local fishermen, added Judge.

In the long-term, he said, tourism could take a dive, especially after potential vacationers saw footage of the cleanup on TV. "When you're seeing folks in moon suits cleaning oil off the rocks, you might rethink your interest in vacationing in this place," he said.

That means jobs that depend on tourism those in hotels, airports and restaurants could be eliminated.

Volunteer groups have been canvassing affected neighborhoods to distribute information packets to homes and businesses, according to MEMA.

With these concerns in mind, MEMA extended by one week operation of its disaster assistance and information center in Fairhaven, Mass. Now the center is open through May 24.

"The center continues to offer a central location where area residents can visit or call to receive answers to their questions and initiate the reimbursement and recovery process," said MEMA Director Stephen J. McGrail.

Bouchard Transportation officials said the cleanup was on schedule. State officials are conducting an ongoing investigation.

Last time this area saw an oil spill was 25 years ago, Judge said.

Of all areas for a spill to happen, this was one of the worst, since Buzzards Bay is surrounded by land on three sides.

Most Buzzards Bay residents realize oil tankers have to come through the bay, Judge said. "Oil is a huge supply of our winter fuel."

But residents do wish the tankers would be double-hulled, which would have offered protection from the April spill. Federal legislation mandates new oil tankers be double-hulled but the law "grandfathers" in so many existing ships that there are many single-hull tankers still operating.

Advocacy groups are pushing for changes in the legislation to make it stricter.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) cautioned untrained volunteers against helping out with oil spill cleanup, particularly immediately after a spill occurs.

"Everyone wants to help, but not everyone can," reported the USFW. "Untrained people can actually harm the natural resources they want to help and may even harm themselves while trying, through exposure to the oil and its toxic fumes."

In addition, crowds of people at a spill site can divert the attention of law enforcement personnel, adding to the drain on emergency resources and confusion at the site. Also, wildlife or anything oiled may present a serious human health risk and should only be handled by trained experts, said the USFW.

But community and church groups may be able to lend a hand with long-term cleanup, pointed out Judge and other officials.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is conducting a natural resource damage assessment. NOAA and other agencies will identify long-term restoration projects, and will work with the community to implement them, said NOAA spokesperson Lisa Pelstring.

"We enlist the community's help both in implementing restoration and in identifying restoration projects," she said.

Though specific restoration projects are still being determined for Buzzards Bay, in past restoration projects, volunteers have helped replant trees and wetlands, clean up habitats, and remove ruined fishing lines from islands where birds nest.

Tri State Bird Rescue and Research offers a four-hour training course for residents who want to help clean up after a spill.

Monetary donations to responding groups may also help speed the area's long-term rehabilitation, responders added.

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