Environmentalists Slam State Response to Paulsboro Oil Spill
The cleanup continued Friday, but environmentalists raised concerns about potential health risks and a lack of consequences for the refinery.
As Department of Environmental Protection officials continued to maintain the lack of major health risks, and PBF Energy revised down the initial spill size estimates, environmentalists on Friday slammed both the state and company’s response to more than six million gallons of crude oil that leaked into a containment area at the Paulsboro refinery Thursday.
“These are the kind of consequences you get when you cut inspections and let polluters off the hook for violations,” said Jeff Tittel, the New Jersey Sierra Club’s director. “What happened (Thursday) was directly caused by the Christie administration’s deregulation, weakening enforcement, rolling back standards and slashing fines.”
Tittel labeled the Paulsboro facility a repeat offender, and noted the DEP last year slashed a $2.3 million air pollution fine against PBF down to just $796,000. In the year since, the Paulsboro refinery has had a release of sulfur dioxide that forced the evacuation of Paulsboro High School, which stands less than a quarter of a mile from some of the refinery equipment, as well as this most recent spill.
That close proximity to the school, as well as the rest of the community, was something that also concerned Bill Wolfe, a former planner and policy analyst with the DEP, who accused the department of downplaying the risks from the spill.
“I think they have to be honest and say it’s premature to say there are no health risks,” Wolfe said.
Beyond that, Wolfe raised concerns over the DEP ceding a public information line to PBF, which had a prerecorded message with scant detail about the spill. While Wolfe said he expected as much from the oil company, the DEP not pushing for more disclosure on that public line disappointed him.
“You don’t expect state government to do that,” he said.
Wolfe also questioned whether the spill could affect drinking water supplies, given the containment areas around oil storage tanks are rarely, if ever, lined with any material to prevent soil contamination.
The DEP itself continued to monitor progress at the spill site, as workers used massive pumps to remove oil from a containment area around the leaky tank.
DEP Commissioner Bob Martin and acting Gov. Kim Guadagno paid a visit to Paulsboro Friday and got a briefing on what’s happening with the cleanup, which is slightly smaller than first reported.
“They’re very pleased with the response by the refinery,” DEP spokesman Lawrence Hajna said.
PBF officials revised the spill down to 150,000 barrels—or 6.3 million gallons, roughly $16.44 million worth at Friday’s prices—after initially saying it was 157,000 barrels.
The smell from the spill, which DEP officials maintained isn’t a health risk, continued spreading during the day, affecting several counties in South Jersey, and spreading southward, where it could be smelled all the way down into Maryland.
By morning, it was a concern in Havre de Grace, where county officials told Havre de Grace Patch there were numerous calls about a gas smell.
"Atmosphere conditions are just bringing everything down the Route 40 corridor," Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS spokesman Dave Williams said.
Later in the day Friday, the smell had reached as far south as Baltimore County, where police officials reassured the public there was no health hazard.
"What people are smelling is the fumes. They are attempting to control it, but the wind is blowing it toward us," Elise Armacost, a Baltimore County police spokeswoman, told Perry Hall Patch.
Hanja said the DEP couldn’t confirm the spill in Paulsboro was definitely the source of the odors in Maryland, but acknowledged the wind direction was pushing the smell southward.
The cleanup is still ongoing, Hanja said, but could be finished as soon as either some time this weekend or Monday, depending on conditions and whether a second pump is brought in to help clear out the containment area.