Anchor, Not Ship Owner, Found At Fault in Delaware River Spill

January 23, 2006

The Coast Guard has concluded that a lost anchor in the Delaware River was the main cause of a November 2004 oil spill now ranked among the worst in the mid-Atlantic region.

Investigators have cleared the shipper and pilots of the Athos I of any blame, saying there was no evidence that navigational or hull-clearance rules were violated, the Coast Guard announced.

About 264,000 gallons of heavy crude oil spilled from the ship’s hull after it hit the anchor while approaching a refinery pier in Paulsboro, N.J. The spill left a streak of oil that stretched 45 miles and heavily oiled some shorelines, particularly in New Jersey and along the waterfront near Philadelphia International Airport.

The initial search for the spill’s cause turned up other sunken objects, including a large concrete block and metal pump casing. Coast Guard officials said the Athos hit all three, but they identified the anchor as the source of two holes that resulted in the spill.

Ownership of the 18,000-pound anchor remains unknown.

Maya van Rossum, director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a conservation group, said the ship’s owners bore some responsibility and that the timing of the arrival, during the lowest tide levels of the month, played a part in the spill.

“They chose to come up the river in a single-hulled tanker and they chose to come up the river lower on the tide than their predecessors,” van Rossum said. “Had they made more prudent choices, this catastrophe and the horrific damage it inflicted on our environment and communities could have been avoided.”

Coast Guard investigators were aware of the timing concerns, pointing out that none of the other ships that arrived in the river with hulls as deep as the Athos traveled at times of maximum shallow water. But the owners and pilots had taken the proper precautions, the Coast Guard said.

“Our investigator’s review of the vessel’s voyage management plan indicated that appropriate calculations were made to ensure adequate under keel clearance for the prevailing 40-foot channel depth,” said Capt. David Scott, Commander of Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay.

Formal cleanup and recovery efforts, which ended last month, cost more than $175 million and employed as many as 1,800 workers while still leaving most of the thick, heavy oil in the river.

Environmental damage studies are continuing.

Although federal law limits liability for oil spills to about $45 million, ship owner Tsakos Shipping & Trading paid out $124 million to cover claims.

Coast Guard officials have recommended a review of navigational guidelines for the river based on concerns about objects protruding from the riverbed.

“In addition, we’ve also recommended that legislation be adopted that requires immediate reporting to the Coast Guard of any objects that have been lost or discarded into a navigable channel or anchorage that can impede safe navigation,” Scott said.


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