A New York barge company and its affiliates have agreed to pay more than $6 million to compensate for a portion of the environmental harm they caused in a 2003 Buzzards Bay oil spill, the US Department of Justice and the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island announced today.
An unmanned barge, being towed by a tug to a Sandwich power plant, ruptured its hull after grounding on a shoal on the western approach to the Bay. An estimated 98,000 gallons of oil was released and winds and currents soon drove thick oil onto the popular Southeastern Massachusetts shoreline at the start of the tourism season. Hundreds of loons, sea ducks, and other birds were killed and more than 100 miles of shore in Massachusetts and Rhode Island suffered from tar balls, contamination, or were declared off limits during the clean-up.
The company, Bouchard Transportation Co. Inc., had previously agreed to pay a criminal fine of $10 million for negligently piloting the tug, but federal laws also require the public to be compensated for environmental damage from the spill, such as dead fish or birds, loss of nesting areas, or people's inability to go swimming, boating, and shellfishing.
"This settlement, while not a substitute for prevention, will help to restore those precious resources,'' Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement.
The money, which still has to be approved in US District Court, may go to restore salt marsh and herring runs or stabilize shoreline on Ram Island, a Massachusetts-owned wildlife sanctuary that is a critical nesting area for federally endangered roseate terns, federal officials said. A salt marsh on Ram Island suffered serious damage from the spill. The public will be consulted on how to spend the money, officials said.
While the money is going to compensate the public for injuries to piping plovers and recreational activities, it does not deal with the damage to terns, loons, and other birds. Government officials said they were still negotiating with Bouchard to come up with a cost for those damages.
Bouchard officials could not be reached for comment.
The lack of a full compensation package, however, perplexed some who have worked to restore Buzzards Bay after the spill.
“I expected the largest (dollar amount) will be around birds, so my first reaction is I wish we were seeing the whole story here. The biggest portion is still hidden,” said Mark Rasmussen, executive director of The Coalition for Buzzards Bay, an advocacy group.
He also said he was bewildered why damage assessment has taken so long. “How much more time do they need?" Rasmussen said. "What new information do they need to settle this?”
The settlement announced yesterday also does not include $1.6 million Bouchard will pay to federal and state governments to assess the damage.
"I intend to make sure that these funds are put to the highest and best use to restore the vital wildlife habitat, and important aquatic resources and recreational areas of Buzzards Bay,'' Ian Bowles, Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said in a statement.
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