30 years ago, an oil barge ran aground in the St. Lawrence River. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of thick crude oil coated the shoreline of northern New York state. The accident remains one of the largest inland oil spills in the United States. It’s a reminder that freighters haul millions of gallons of toxic liquids across the Great Lakes. And many people worry about another spill. The GLRC’s David Sommerstein talked to witnesses of the 1976 spill:
30 years ago, an oil barge ran aground in the St. Lawrence River. Hundreds
of thousands of gallons of thick crude oil coated the shoreline of northern New
York State. The accident remains one of the largest inland oil spills in the
United States. It’s a reminder that freighters haul millions of gallons of toxic
liquids across the Great Lakes. And many people worry about another spill.
The GLRC’s David Sommerstein talked to witnesses of the 1976 spill:
It was really foggy that morning. Bob Smith awoke to two sounds:
“You could hear the anchor chains going down, and next thing we know
there was a young Coast Guard guy knocking on the front door.”
The Coast Guard guy had driven up, asking around for a missing barge.
Smith remembered the anchor chains echoing across the water that woke
him up. He went outside to look.
(Sound of walking outside)
Thirty years later, Smith lives amidst cozy cottages on manicured lawns in
the heart of the touristy Thousand Islands.
“Just right about straight out there. See where that boat’s coming up there
That’s where a barge carrying oil from Venezuela had dropped anchor after
running aground. That morning Smith watched crude as thick as mud drift
out of sight downriver:
“If you’re born and raised here on the river, you don’t like to see anything go
in the river that doesn’t belong there.”
The Coast Guard placed booms in the water, but the oil quickly spilled over.
It carried 50 miles downstream. It oozed as far as 15 feet into the river’s
marshes. Tom Brown was the point man for New York’s Department of
Environmental Conservation. He says the spill couldn’t have come at a
worse time for wildlife:
“All the young fish, waterfowl, shorebirds, furbearers, were coming off the
nests and were being born.”
Thousands of birds and fish suffocated in black goo. As images of
devastation flashed on national TV, the spill killed the tourism season, too.
It was a summer with no swimming, no fishing, no dipping your feet in the
water at sunset. Really, it was a summer with no river.
(Sound of river at Chalk’s dock)
30 years later, everyone still remembers the acrid smell:
“When I woke up in the middle of the night and I could smell oil, I was
afraid I had an oil leak in my house.”
Dwayne Chalk’s family has owned a marina on the St. Lawrence for
generations. Chalk points to a black stripe of oil on his docks, still there
three decades later, and he’s still bitter:
“The Seaway has done this area, well, I shouldn’t say that, it hasn’t done any
good. To me it hasn’t.”
The St. Lawrence Seaway opened the ports of the Great Lakes to Atlantic
Ocean freighters carrying cargoes of steel, ore, and liquid chemicals. It
generates billions of dollars a year in commerce, but it’s also brought
pollution and invasive species.
Anthropologist John Omohundro studied the social effects of the 1976 oil
spill. He says it helped awaken environmentalism in the Great Lakes:
“The spill actually raised people’s consciousness that the river could be a
problem in a number of areas, not just oil.”
Groups like Save the River and Great Lakes United began lobbying for
cleaner water and safer navigation in the years after the spill:
“If a vessel carrying oil or oil products were in that same type of ship today,
it would not be allowed in.”
Albert Jacquez is the outgoing administrator for the US side of the St. Lawrence
Seaway. The 1976 barge had one hull and gushed oil when it hit the rocks.
Today’s barges are mostly double-hulled and use computerized navigation.
Jacquez says a lot has changed to prevent spills:
“The ships themselves are different, the regulations that they have to follow are
different, and the inspections are different. Now does that guarantee? Well,
there are no guarantees, period.”
So if there is a spill, the government requires response plans for every part of
the Great Lakes. Ralph Kring leads training simulations of those plans for
the Coast Guard in Buffalo. Still, he says the real thing is different:
“You really can’t control the weather and the currents and all that. It’s definitely going to be a
challenge, especially when you’re dealing with a real live incident where
everyone’s trying to move as fast as they can and also as efficient as they
Critics question the ability to get responders to remote areas in time. They
also worry about spills in icy conditions and chemical spills that oil booms
(Sound of river water)
Back on the St. Lawrence River, Dwayne Chalk says the oil spill of 1976
has taught him it’s not if, it’s when, the next big spill occurs:
“You think about it all the time. Everytime a ship comes up through here,
you think what’s going to happen if that ship hits something.”
Chalk and everyone else who relies on the Great Lakes hope they’ll never
have to find out.
For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.